By John Gruber
Atoms: We are mostly sold out... but there is more!
As required by the FCC, all Mac-related web sites must publish pre-Macworld Expo predictions regarding what Apple may announce at the show. Remember: these are predictions based on little more than my own speculation and tea-leaf reading, so hold your applause until the end, and, please, no wagering.
[Updated with results, Tuesday 6 January.]
New 17-Inch MacBook Pro — Seems like a sure thing. The lack of new 17-inch hardware was a glaring omission from October’s new MacBook line-up. Expect something that looks pretty much exactly like a bigger version of the new 15-inch MacBook Pro. Last-minute rumors claim that the new 17-inch MacBook Pro will have a sealed (non-user-replaceable) battery. Sounds odd, and if true, will surely generate complaints that it’s a stupid move on Apple’s part, but given Apple’s recent penchant for sealed batteries, it wouldn’t surprise me.
New Mac Mini — Yes. The current Mac Mini lineup is unchanged since August 2007, almost a year and a half ago. Overdue for an update, to say the least. I don’t think there’s any great enthusiasm for the Mac Mini at Apple, but it’s a strong seller.
New 30-Inch Cinema Display — Yes. Much like with the 17-inch MacBook Pro, the existing 30-inch Cinema Display just looks old next to the new 24-inch model. As for a 20-inch model, I’m going to say no. 20-inch displays are the new 17-inch displays: too small.
Speed Bump iMac Revisions — I’m not sure where the rumors started about there being significant changes to the iMac, but I expect what we’ll actually see will look the same as the current iMacs but offer slightly faster processors, slightly bigger hard drives, etc. Speed bump revisions don’t make for good demos, so while I expect updated iMacs this week, I don’t expect them to be announced during the keynote itself.
Result: Wrong, but maybe kind of partial credit if I really stretch it, for saying they wouldn’t make the keynote.
iLife and iWork ’09 — Yes, nearly a sure thing. These suites are both profitable and popular, and the current ’08 suites were released in August 2007. They’re both due for updates, and they both make for good keynote demo material.
At the top of my personal wish list: improvements to iMovie and Pages. I see the logic behind Apple’s decision to scrap the old iMovie and start over from the ground up with iMovie ’08. But I find iMovie ’08 downright confusing. The difference between “events” and “projects” seems muddled, and it’s a clumsy tool when it comes to actually editing clips together to make a movie. As for Pages, I would love to see it gain additional professional-caliber typographic controls (including better support for OpenType fonts).
Result: Correct, and iMovie ’09 looks like it’s exactly what I was hoping for. The new “precision editor” addresses exactly the shortcoming I found most frustrating about with iMovie ’08.
Snow Leopard — I expect a demo, and maybe a loose release date (like, say, “first half of 2009”). As Apple emphasized when Snow Leopard was announced at WWDC last year, Snow Leopard is mainly about low-level under-the-hood improvements and optimizations to Mac OS X, not about new user-visible features. But the new Exchange integration for Mail and iCal is certainly demo-able.
What I expect is for Apple to make old features look new, by updating the system-wide appearance theme. I’ve made this prediction several times in the past and been wrong, but eventually I’ll be right: it’s time for the last vestiges of the original Mac OS X 10.0 “Aqua” theme to go. Scrollbars and push buttons, for example, remain largely unchanged since the Mac OS X public beta in 2000. My bet says iTunes-style scrollbars everywhere, darker window chrome, and a light-text-on-dark-background menu bar.
(The name I’ve heard for the new theme: Marble. Make of that what you will.)
Updated Apple TV — Yes. I expect new hardware, but probably nothing radically new other than increased storage space. But it’ll be in the keynote as a signal that Apple is serious about this market. There’s been a lot of supposedly expert speculation that Apple is going to abandon Apple TV because it’s not a hit. But while it’s not a hit, it’s not a failure, either, and, more importantly, there is no dominant player in this field, where by “this field” I mean that for consumer-level digital media management for the living room.
I’m not going to say that Blu-ray is dead because it isn’t. But if DVD isn’t the last mainstream physical medium for home movie distribution, Blu-ray will be. The future, obviously and inevitably, is in downloads. I’m already there, and you, dear DF reader, probably are too, but for the mass market, downloadable movies for the living room remain in the future.
The iPhone was an instant hit, but the iPod wasn’t. Apple grew the iPod from a Mac-only peripheral into a cultural sensation slowly but steadily over three or four years. I think they have a similar long-term plan for Apple TV. And in large part Apple — along with every other hardware maker — is hobbled by the limitations of what content the movie studios will allow them to distribute. The iTunes Store’s movie library has grown significantly over the past year, but it’s still far smaller than what your neighborhood video store has to offer. And while iTunes has high definition movies available to rent, the only movies you can buy are in standard definition. That’s a studio-imposed limitation, and it’s one that works in Blu-ray’s favor, and against Apple TV’s. (Wishful thinking on my part: I’d love for Apple to announce some Boxee-like features built-in as standard Apple TV features. The TV networks seem more willing to play ball with digital distribution than the movie studios, so, maybe.)
There are rumors that Apple might release software that allows any Mac to serve as an Apple TV. I know nothing about such software, but if you think of it more as the unification of Front Row and Apple TV, it makes perfect sense. But I don’t expect Apple to abandon selling dedicated Apple TV hardware soon — even the cheapest Mac Mini costs a few hundred bucks more than an Apple TV.
Result: Wrong — no mention of Apple TV at all.
iPhone Nano — No. Frankly, I just don’t get these rumors. The only way this makes sense is if it’s a replacement for the iPhone 3G — i.e. a slightly smaller form factor for the existing iPhone 3G’s features. But why now, just six months after iPhone 3G debuted? The pattern seems to be for Apple to release new iPhone hardware every summer, much like how they’ve usually released new iPod hardware in the fall. (And why “nano” rather than “mini” for something that, according to the purported third-party case designs that the rumor is founded upon, is only a little bit smaller? With iPods, “nano” is used for models that are way smaller and thinner.)
iPhone Tethering — No, but I would love to be wrong. The longer I use my iPhone, the more frustrating it feels that my MacBook doesn’t have the same sort of nearly-ubiquitous network access. I’m one of the lucky few to have scored a copy of NetShare during its brief availability on the App Store, and there are other solutions for jailbroken iPhones, but I want Apple-style integration. I can’t see any way that this could happen without having to pay an extra monthly fee to AT&T, but if the price is even just semi-reasonable, I’d pay it in a heartbeat.
iPhone OS 3.0 Demo — My wildcard prediction, which, I will reiterate, is based on nothing more than my own speculation and wishful thinking. One thing I’m nearly certain of is that the next iPhone OS release will be 3.0, not 2.3, if for no other reason than that there have been no developer betas since the release of version 2.2. To my nose, that smells like a major release with significant new features is in the oven.
I fully expect iPhone OS 3.0 to be announced and demoed at least a few months before it is released. Third-party developers need time to adapt to any changes, add support for new features, and bang away on beta releases to shake out the bugs. But assuming there will be significant new features, Apple will want to unveil them at a high-profile event. If I had to wager, I’d bet on a special event around March, much like last year’s event to unveil the iPhone SDK. But if it’s going to be ready for developer betas sooner than later, it’d be a nice surprise to see Phil Schiller call Scott Forstall on stage to demo it now.
As for what might appear in iPhone OS 3.0, here’s my wish list. First, a new home screen app (a.k.a. SpringBoard), designed from the ground up for a system where users have a few dozen or more extra apps installed. Managing dozens of apps on the iPhone today is simply a pain in the ass. Second, maybe an answer to the question of where the background notification API is — you know, the one we were told at WWDC to expect a few months ago, but which we haven’t heard a word about since. And maybe — pretty please, Mr. Forstall, with sugar on top — copy and paste.