Macworld Expo Predictions

Predictions and advance commentary for tomorrow’s Macworld keynote, some based on consensus rumors, some based on no more than wishful thinking on the part of yours truly. This is all conjecture and tea-leaf-reading (well, mostly), so, please, no wagering.

I keep two questions in mind when evaluating Apple product ideas:

  1. Would people run out to stand in line to buy this immediately?
  2. If not, is there a long-term strategic reason for Apple to start selling this now?

If the answer to both questions is “no”, then Apple isn’t going to do it. The iPhone is a perfect example of a #1; the Apple TV is a #2.

New Sub-Notebook MacBook: Yes

Apple hasn’t had a small notebook in its line-up since the 12-inch PowerBook G4, which I still see in wide use. If you’re using a portable as a portable, smaller size and lighter weight make a tremendous difference. The demand for a good notebook smaller and lighter than standard MacBooks is strong; I think it’s a sure thing that Apple is set to announce one. (Of course, I said so before last year’s Macworld, too.)

I say the consensus rumors are right: super-thin, no built-in optical drive, widescreen 12-inch display. It will use a hard drive, not flash memory, for storage. (Look no further than the iPod Classic to see how hard drives don’t keep a device from being super-thin).

Rumors are already running strong that it’ll be called MacBook Air. (I like it, not sure though if Nike would.)

Newton-y Tablet Thing: No

I am nearly convinced that this product exists, at least as a project in development. My hunch is that AppleInsider has it spot-on: it’s in development, but not yet ready to launch, and, perhaps, never will if Apple can’t get it right. (Recall Steve Jobs’s statement to Walter Mossberg that he’s as proud of some of the products Apple decided not to ship as he is of the ones they did.) Like the iPhone, it runs “OS X” but not Mac OS X, does not run Mac apps, and will not be called a “Mac”.

The big problem with a “tablet” computer of any sort is that 15 years of industry history indicate that people do not want to buy tablet computers. But the iPhone, arguably, is a tablet computer — a sub-tablet, if you will. The key mistake with failed efforts like Microsoft’s Tablet PC (and even Apple’s own Newton) was that these devices attempt to do too much. It’s seen as a feature that Tablet PCs run the full version of Windows. But why force software UI’s designed for traditional hardware form factors upon a totally different device? A successful tablet-like device from Apple, I think, would clearly be designed as a secondary computing device — a satellite attached and synched to a Mac or PC (probably, of course, through iTunes).

There’s still the “what would I use it for?” factor. It seems to me it would need to be something more than just an iPod Touch with a larger screen — if that’s all it is, then what’s the point of buying one instead of a smaller, pocketable, iPod Touch or iPhone? I simply lack the cleverness to imagine what that hook might be — but I can’t imagine Apple releasing such a product without an obvious “Oh I gotta buy that” hook.

Anyway: I do think something like this is in the works, but I don’t think it’s coming out now. I’d love to be wrong.

Ubiquitous Wireless Networking for MacBooks: Please

After using my iPhone for a few months, it started feeling weird that my PowerBook doesn’t have ubiquitous wireless networking: Wi-Fi when available, and seamless, instant switchover to something else when it isn’t. Just what that “something else” is, I don’t know. EVDO? WiMax? A Bluetooth connection to share an iPhone’s EDGE connection? I don’t care. But I’d pay for it.

Ubiquitous networking is certainly the most intriguing thing about Amazon’s Kindle. It just feels crippled that I can’t get a network connection — even a slow one — once I’m outside the range of Wi-Fi.

Wireless Time Machine Backups: Yes

Time Machine is very cool; the first backup that qualifies as “you don’t have to do anything, it just works”. But currently it only works using a storage device connected via USB or FireWire. Tethered backups are irritating with notebooks — and MacBooks are the fastest-growing segment of Apple’s Mac hardware sales. The problem is that when you want to use your portable away from your desk, it’s a pain to disconnect mounted USB and FireWire drives. You can’t just pull the plugs — you’ve got to unmount them in the Finder first. And, once you do so, to get Time Machine backups running again, you’ve got to re-tether your storage drive.

Leopard developer seeds all supported network backups to USB drives connected to an AirPort base station. The feature was also demoed at WWDC. It was removed (or, better said, disabled) very late in Leopard’s development, supposedly because of a security problem that was discovered, but I expect the feature to return, perhaps in 10.5.2. It’s a terrific idea, perfect for multi-Mac homes and small offices.

But so why not sell a device as a dedicated product — a big 500 GB or larger hard drive (or array of them) with built-in AirPort networking. No need to attach it to a separate AirPort base station, no temptation to use the device for anything other than one purpose: backing up via Time Machine. Just plug it into a power outlet, run through a simple configuration tool a la AirPort Utility, and it’s ready. When it first appears on your network, your (Leopard-running) Mac could prompt to ask if you’d like to use it for Time Machine, the same way it prompts when you first plug in a new USB or FireWire drive.

iTunes Movie Rentals: Yes

This one seems like such a done deal that it barely qualifies as a rumor. It seems obvious: Unlike with music, there’s been a strong market for movie rentals for as long as there’s been a home video market. Most movies aren’t worth watching more than once. Reports (based on leaks from studio executives) indicate rentals will cost $3-5, and will expire after 24 hours. If true, presumably that means they’ll expire 24 hours after you beginning playing them, not 24 hours after downloading. It’d be nice if the terms were a bit more flexible than that. One of the best things about Netflix, and something which makes it far more appealing than traditional brick-and-mortar Blockbuster-style rentals, is that you can watch movies on your own terms.

A Netflix-style iTunes movie subscription service that lets you keep a certain number of unlocked movies open at the same time would be killer.

Apple TV 2.0: Yes

Jobs has called Apple TV a “hobby” for Apple. I think they have high hopes for it, but calling it a hobby is a practical way to buy time for it. What Apple did with the iPod was start as small and simple as they could — one device, in one configuration, only for the Mac, and all it did was play recorded audio — and then build the platform slowly from there. Things like Windows support, color screens, video playback, and expanding to a range of form factors all came incrementally.

I think that’s the plan with Apple TV. Start simple and humble, and build from there, year after year. One obvious improvement (albeit contingent upon another rumor) would be to allow us to buy (or rent) movies and TV shows directly from the iTunes Store, right from the Apple TV. If the iPhone can do it, the Apple TV should too.

I still think it’d be good business for Apple to sell their own HDTV sets with Apple TV built-in — more money for Apple, one fewer device spewing cables behind the display.

DRM-Free iTunes Plus Music From the Other Major Music Labels: No

I think Apple would love to have this, but it seems pretty clear that the major labels — other than EMI, of course — are convinced that it’s in their interest to withhold DRM-free music from Apple, in the hopes of helping Amazon gain market share.

I actually agree that it’s in the music labels’ interest for Amazon’s music store to succeed. I’m not sure, though, that withholding DRM-free music from Apple is spiting anyone other than iTunes customers. I suspect the vast majority — an overwhelming majority — of iTunes music purchases are made by people who have at best only a vague inkling of what “DRM” is. If there’s any actual logic to it, it’s PR — withholding DRM-free music from Apple makes it easier to paint Apple as a company bent on using iTunes as a competitive cudgel to lock customers in to iPod hardware. Only a hack reporter would buy into that line, given Steve Jobs’s unequivocal “Thoughts on Music” open letter last year.

One thing that would dispel any negative stories on the state of the iTunes empire, of course, would be the long-awaited debut of the Beatles catalog, exclusively at iTunes, perhaps with an on-stage visit from Paul McCartney.

New iPhone Hardware: No, With a Minor Exception

Apple announced the original iPhone a year ago, but they didn’t ship it until six months ago. They’re not going to announce new iPhones six months in advance again. (It was to their advantage last year to cause people to postpone phone purchases until the iPhone appeared; that’s not the case now that the iPhone is on the market.)

If anything, I don’t expect new iPhones to appear until next fall, at the yearly iPod/iTunes pre-holiday season special event, leaving the original iPhone on the market for over a year. Why revise hardware for a product that, by all accounts, is selling remarkably well as-is?

The only exception I could see would be a 16 GB iPhone that’s otherwise unchanged from the current 8 GB model.

iPhone SDK News: No

I can see the upcoming iPhone SDK getting a mention from Jobs on stage, a reminder that it’s coming and that’s it’s going to be great, but Macworld isn’t WWDC, and SDKs don’t make for splashy presentations. If I’m wrong, it’ll be because they have a demo queued up from a third-party developer with early access to the SDK. Actual third-party software (written against the actual official SDK) is demoable. Games, perhaps?

The apparently-leaked 1.1.3 firmware might make for a good demo, what with the jiggly icons and whatnot.

Cinema Displays With Better Resolution, Brighter Screens, and Built-In Cameras: Yes

If I keep predicting it, eventually I’ll be right.