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Steve or no Steve, Apple could spring a Macworld surprise or two

Does Apple have any cool new products to debut at the Macworld keynote tomorrow? Or did the withdrawal of CEO Steve Jobs and his rock star persona mean Apple's gee-whiz cupboard is bare this year?

Since Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, his media-friendly presentations at the annual San Francisco Macworld show have provided a stage, both literally and figuratively, for Jobs to dangle his latest gadgets in front of millions of consumers.

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It's no accident Jobs chose to introduce the iPhone in his 2007 keynote and the wafer-thin MacBook Air at last year's show.

Though tomorrow's keynote won't be the same without Jobs' charisma, his replacement – Apple Vice President for Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller – will have to talk for 90 minutes about something.

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Despite having such legendary shoes to fill, Schiller benefits from the greatly lowered expectations for this year's event. Analysts who follow Apple expect almost no announcements of any significance.

The Apple faithful are cautiously optimistic. As always, wild rumors have circulated on Apple-oriented Web sites for the past several weeks.

Schiller's keynote doesn't figure to be dull; he's often appeared in Jobs' presentations as a comical sidekick. If he has anything even remotely compelling to show the Macworld audience, he'll be fine.

What might Schiller have in store? With bowed head in deference to the final Macworld keynote (Apple also announced last month 2009 is the last year it will participate in the event), I hereby offer some thoughts and prognostications:

iWork/iLife/ in the cloud Of all the rumors, I think this one has the best chance of turning up tomorrow. In this scenario, some or all of Apple's iLife apps (iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto) and iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) would have Web-versions available via MobileMe, Apple's $99-a-year suite of Web-based services.

One assumes the MobileMe "cloud" versions if these apps would function much like Google Apps do. The idea makes a lot of sense, and would help justify MobileMe's price, which otherwise is far too high for what it offers.

Quad-core Macs Many Mac news Web sites were certain that a batch of refreshed iMacs would appear in November, but they didn't. Apple could announce a high-end 24-inch iMac with a quad-core processor, and perhaps slight price cuts on other models.

Actually, a 17-inch MacBook Pro with a quad-core processor is more likely. Intel started selling a Core 2 Quad Mobile processor just last week, and you can bet Apple had a heads up on that.

While quad-core Macs may or may not show up in Schiller's keynote, I expect to see a few this year. The reason: the upcoming version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, will make more efficient use of multiple processor cores to boost speed. Snow Leopard should pop on dual core machines, but it should scream on quad cores.

Snow Leopard Speaking of the next version of the Mac operating system, when will it arrive? Some think Apple will use Macworld to announce an early release date, such as March or April. Odds are Schiller will hardly mention it. My guess is that Snow Leopard won't show until Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (probably in June) or later.

Mac netbook/tablet This tantalizing rumor comes in two flavors. Some say Apple is working on a 12-inch netbook Mac, which I consider unlikely. Apple historically has shunned the low end of the PC market.

But in October Jobs called netbooks a "nascent" market and said Apple had a lot of "pretty interesting" ideas if it decided to jump in. If Apple goes after this segment, it will be with a dramatically different take on the concept.

The second rumor suggests just such a device: a touch-screen Mac (a MacTouch?) with a 7- or 9-inch screen, essentially a giant iPod Touch but capable of running the full Mac OS X. I don't see Apple springing this on us this week, even if it has it in the works, but maybe later this year. It could be Apple's answer to tablet PCs and netbooks in one swoop.

iPhone Like the Mac netbook rumors, a persistent "iPhone Nano" rumor has percolated on the Web since the summer. I don't see the attraction of an iPhone Nano now or ever. Who wants a smaller screen, even for $100 less?

A cheaper iPhone 3G might help increase sales, but Apple doesn't like to squeeze its profit margins. So a cheaper iPhone depends on either Apple reducing its manufacturing costs or AT&T increasing its subsidy. I don't see a cheaper iPhone coming out of Macworld, though we might see a $50 price drop -- at most -- by June.

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