Mac Tablet: Ready for Expo?

By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2003-01-05

Mac Tablet: Ready for Expo?

This weeks Macworld Expo/San Francisco marks the first major trade show of the new year, on my social calendar, at least. Ive made my share of resolutions for 2003 (mostly involving pastry dough and caffeine), but I fear my habit of speculating about Apple Computers next move is just too deeply ingrained to kick.

Im not alone in my vice. Apples secrecy about pending announcements is matched only by the interest they provoke among Mac watchers; a half-sober assessment of the prevailing buzz is always entertaining—and frequently revealing. Experience has taught me caution when holding forth publicly about Apples plans, but I find that where theres substantial consensus in the Mac community, a new product announcement is usually behind it.

Thats not to say the Mac telegraph is infallible or that Im always accurate in reading its signals. Consider the welter of Web-based reports building in advance of this Expo: The crazy rhythms they describe give this Mac prognosticator a prickling sense of vulnerability along his often-extended (and sometimes-lacerated) neck.

Mac aficionados have been treated to a variety of conflicting tales about Expo upgrades to existing Mac lines—the Power Mac G4, iMac, PowerBook, iBook and eMac— along with equally strenuous assertions that these tune-ups will trickle out over the next few months. The same goes for other incremental hardware upgrades, ranging from a rumored 19-inch addition to Apples LCD monitor line to a version of the companys iPod MP3 player outfitted with Bluetooth capabilities.

Based on my own clandestine conversations, Im inclined to agree with Think Secret and The main enhancements to current products will rest in Apples mix of software applications, retail prices for some formerly free offerings, and wireless options in the form of Bluetooth connectivity and an 802.11g upgrade for the companys AirPort gear.

The one prediction Ill make with total confidence takes no nerve at all: Apple will use this Macworld Expo to convince as many users as possible to buy new hardware with Mac OS X.

This may well be Steve Jobs last turn on the Macworld keynote stage, considering an ongoing impasse with the shows organizer that is ostensibly over the location of future Expos but actually has deeper roots in the generally tenuous state of trade-show economics.

Before Julys Macworld Expo/New York, its not at all unlikely that Apple will withdraw from future Expos in favor of rolling its own, more-focused media opportunities. This could be the last time Apples CEO (and quintessential pitchman) delivers a traditional trade-show keynote, and I expect hell wring every dollar he can out of the occasion.

iApps for sale

iApps for sale
Consider the companys expected revisions to its constellation of consumer-friendly, Mac OS X-native iApps, which Apple has generally been giving away in the interest of luring more customers to new Mac OS X-compliant hardware.

Last week, the company began priming the pump for the next software wave with the final release of iSync 1.0, its software for synchronizing Macs with a variety of other devices.

In addition, Apple is reportedly about to release new versions of its iDVD, iMovie and iPhoto applications—with a twist: The company will charge about $50 for a bundle of all three. (I have heard rumblings that light versions will remain gratis, at least for the time being.)

While charging for something theyd given away free proved the undoing of many a dot-com, Apple seems to be made of sterner stuff. Witness last summers announcement that Apples iTools suite of free Web services would morph into the for-pay .Mac: While the move raised the ire of many users who believed (not without reason) that Apple had promised them such niceties as free e-mail in perpetuity, the migration apparently attracted enough pilgrims to turn a onetime loss leader into a nice little revenue stream. And if the company continues to bundle iDVD, iMovie and iPhoto free with new Macs, it adds another incentive for customers to get with Apple marketings program of new hardware purchases every couple of years.

Speaking of Apples online efforts, Im at least half-convinced the company will also use this weeks show to take its long-awaited plunge into the realm of Web browsers with a new package based on Chimera. (Whether the world truly needs another Web browser is a question Ill leave open until that happy moment arrives.)

Heres where I strain my collar, at least by a button or two: Apple probably has something bigger in mind for Macworld Expo, and I think its entirely likely that it will come in a small package thats driven by a pen.

Time for Apples tablet?
My sources sketch the following picture: A device that superficially resembles a large iPod with an 8-inch diagonal screen, lacks a keyboard, packs USB and FireWire ports, and runs Mac OS X along with a variety of multimedia goodies. Im going to hazard a guess that this specimen also features wireless connectivity.

Ive opined before that Apple is preparing to apply its InkWell handwriting-recognition technologies and its lengthy experience with portable design to a new product that puts a distinctive spin on the pen-driven paradigm currently being touted by Microsoft and its Tablet PC partners.

A compelling, stylish device that puts Mac OS X in a new form factor, plays to Apples multimedia strengths, and borrows momentum from the iPods success would fit the bill nicely—and point the companys Mac OS X pitch in a dramatic new direction.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.

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