What’s Up, Apple?

Now that I’ve traded in my dirty old Windows box for a shiny matte silver Macbook Pro, I’ve become one of those sycophantic Apple cultists dredging the rumors sites for every drop of hardware and software news I can swallow.
With MacWorld 2008 coming up in two weeks and Uncle Steve giving one of his patent-pending “One more thing” keynote speeches to kick off the event, I’ve come up with the following list of potential product updates, upgrades and introductions for Apple.

Macbook Pro super portable notebook
Chances of appearance: 90%
Almost every site and prognosticator by now has dredged up some evidence that Apple is going to introduce a small, lightweight, high-end notebook that will likely not include an optical disc reader to save space, and include a smallish LED-backlit LCD screen. No one’s said anything about the keyboard, far as I know, which remains the one hindrance as far as I’m concerned about any smaller than small notebook. Chicklet keys are no one’s friend, and the removal or “reimagining” of the digital 10-key spread has been historically problematic.
In addition to ejecting the CD/DVD reader/writer, it’s been suggested that the internal memory will be entirely Flash-based rather than using the usual hard drive, helping to further reduce weight in addition to making battery life last for a North American transcontinental flight. While I find the idea very agreeable and sexy, I tend to doubt that it’s practical from an expense-to-development ratio to rely solely on Flash memory while alternative laptops can offer huge hard drives with little extra overhead.
Redesigned Macbooks and/or Macbook Pros
Chances of appearance: 80%
Credence has been added to this possibility based on MacRumor’s recent revelation that this is exactly what’s coming. Adding fuel to the fire, the current MacBook Pro design is now almost exactly two years old (having been introduced at MacWorld 2006) with little having been done to keep it fresh and new other than processor upgrades and the addition of LED-backlit screens on the 15″ version earlier this year.
The current MacBook is slightly younger, birthed in May 2006, and still incredibly popular. Still, the plastic shell of the iMac was recently jetisoned in favor of a curved aluminum casing ala the Cinema Displays (now almost three years old!) so why not make the whole family line adhere to the same ‘ecologically friendly’ designs?
Mac Mini replacement, AKA the Mac nano
Chances of appearance: 70%
This rumor has been hanging around for months, with some sites suggesting that a pre-Christmas introduction was likely. The Mac Mini is one of my favorite computers. I hooked mine up to my 42″ HDTV and added in a big-ass external hard drive from LaCie in matching dimensions and design and it sits under the AirPort (old version, non-Gigabit) and holds my entire iTunes library. I recently downloaded Handbreak and am in the slow, laborious process of ripping several of the 300+ DVDs I have so that I can use the Mac Mini as my digital entertainment server of choice.
The redesigned Mac nano is said to be somewhat different in appearance to the current Mini, though with everything in the Apple line turning into aluminum-clad rounded edges like the Mini, I can’t see it altering too much. I imagine it becoming much slimmer, and if I had my druthers I’d make it little more than an engine for the uses I’m already putting my Mini to, with much improved video capabilities and a heavy-duty processor and ditch the hard drive in the central unit in favor of stacking hard drive units to store as much digital entertainment as one might want or need.
In effect, ditch the AppleTV, make the Mac nano an HDMI-capable digital living room server with modular add-ons to increase memory as needed.
AppleTV update
Chances of appearance: 50%
I think most people who expect an AppleTV update are wishful thinking. There’s virtually no evidence to support that Apple has any interest in improving this still-born, unlamented piece of awkward hardware, and Steve himself hasn’t been exactly overflowing in his excitement over the slim little box.
On the other hand, the set-top box market has been “set to explode” for years, now, with everyone predicting that getting control of your TV and what you show on it is the Holy Grail of every consumer electronics company out there, including Sony, Microsoft, Samsung, Philips and Motorola.
I think it unlikely that we’ll see anything new and exciting in the form of an AppleTV, unless the company realigns this product and the Mini into an amalgam of digital server and small computer and retires the Mini name in favor of TV.
And there’s another reason to believe that the AppleTV is far from deadsville…
iTunes 8.0 HD
Chances of appearance: 70%
This is just my own blue-sky prediction, based on a couple of reports earlier this year that Apple is prepping a major iTunes upgrade to support movie rentals via the iTunes Store and the availability of high definition versions (probably 720p) of those films, particularly from Disney/Pixar and Fox.
The New York Times already reported that Apple has an agreement in place for 20th Century Fox to begin offering film rentals online, and they’ll need something to easily support that capability that ties in with Apple’s overall strategy for living room domination via Front Row, which is now standard on everything that has Leopard loaded onto it. Front Row is probably the most elegant and easy entertainment library management interface out there, and so far Apple has done very little to play up its superiority, probably because there’s virtually no competition. It’s also such a nacent field that most people (i.e. non-TiVo owners) will have a hard time getting the concept of managing their digital entertainment.
iTunes 7 was released in September 2006 and although it was a ‘major release’ it actually contained very little in upgraded capabilities, other than a new iPod manager interface and an album art-based browser. iTunes 8 needs to support high definition media to make way for the expected introduction of high-def movies for sale or rent. Microsoft already offers hi-def rentals via Xbox Live — you think Steve’s really going to sit still for that?
Apple Cinema Display update
Chances of appearance: 50%
As mentioned, the current designs are almost three years old, but what’s needed here isn’t a design refresh but a technology upgrade. The Cinema Displays were cutting edge at introduction and still look drop-dead sexy, but there are now a host of 30″ LCD competitors and every one of them boast better connectivity options and usually include flash memory readers, while Apple’s entries still have a single DVI connector and two each of FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 ports. Contrast that with Dell’s upcoming 30″ monster, the 3008WFP weighing in with two DVI ports, HDMI, component, S-video, composite, VGA and DisplayPort and a 3,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio.
There’s certainly room for improvement if Apple wants to recover its pole position in the high-end display race. On the other hand, maybe Apple doesn’t care about displays anymore. Witness that the current Apple Store online is hiding the link to their displays a couple of screens down, and doesn’t even feature a picture of the Cinema Displays on the store’s front page anymore.
P.S. Why not a 36″ display?
.Mac Improvements
Chances of appearance: 40%
Apple really thought they had something with .Mac, but so far so not-so-good. It should be an always-on, always-available synching mechanism that ties all your communications into a nice, tidy package so you can manage your GMail and Exchange and Yahoo Mail and POP and IMAP and notes and IMs and iCal all that other two-way stuff you’re trying to keep track of, but currently can’t. They need to simplify and expand its capabilities so that buying a Mac and getting .Mac means you can use Mac Mail and .Mac as a conduit for your digital communications, much like iTunes is poised to be a conduit for your digital entertainment. Last year they upped the available space for you to store stuff online to share with others. Now they need to make it transparent so you put in where your stuff is, and they help you manage it in one convenient and accessible place.
iPhone refresh
Chances of appearance: 30%
If there’s anything iPhone going to happen at MacWorld, it might be a bump in the memory to equal the high-end iPod touch’s available 16Gigs. A 3G iPhone isn’t in the cards until mid-2008, at the earliest, and the upcoming iPhone SDK is likely to give birth to lots of cool new features riding atop the device’s OS without need of a brand new iteration. It’s also enjoying a lot of success, so other than another surprise price drop or that memory increase, I think we’re all safe with our iPhone purchases without worry of looking like losers with last year’s technology.
The Mac Tablet/Macbook touch
Chances of appearance: 10%
I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a tablet-based Mac portable simply because there have been Windows-based tablets around for years and how many of you friends or colleagues is sporting one of these write-on twisty screen things? My guess is “not many” or “none.” Apple could surprise me with some all-new take on this kind of computer, but the market has so far issued a great big yawn in regards to the need and desire to have one, other than in narrow niches, so hoping for one from Infinite Loop is a bit loopy in itself.
Brand new WiFi-connected handheld computing device of uncertain design or purpose
Chances of appearance: 10%
There have been lots of rumors about Apple’s purchases of new Intel processors and little multitouch screens and other hints and suggestions that amount to the possibility of Apple entering into the arena of small handheld computers. My take is that this is where the iPhone is already headed and that we won’t see anything groundbreaking or new here.
Almost Inevitable
iPhone 1.1.3, OSX 10.5.2
One web site already has video of iPhone 1.1.3 software running, with new Google Maps capabilities and intro screen bookmarking. An OSX 10.5.2 release candidate is in the wild for testing with over 300 fixes. These are in the stream already so we should see them on or before MacWorld’s keynote.

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