What will Apple Computer Inc. look like by the end of 2003?
The picture should come a lot clearer in the next couple of months, as Apple moves simultaneously on several fronts that encompass its home turf as well as new swaths of territory.
Addressing the former first, Apples grand unified plan for the next Mac chapter seems to be progressing apace. As I wrote back in October, mid-2003 will mark the next major crossroads for the Mac as a software and hardware platform. I believe that crucial moment will arrive slightly earlier than I predicted, at Junes Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Apple said it was pushing this traditional gathering of Mac developers back five weeks to give it extra time to prepare a beta version of Panther, the first major rev to Mac OS X since the Mac OS X 10.2 “Jaguar” release, which shipped in August 2002. Like many other observers, I believe that Apple will also use WWDC—and the launch of the 64 bit-complete Panther—as the official coming-out party for new Macs based on IBMs 64-bit PowerPC 970.
Behind the scenes, Im told, Apple is discussing how Panther will present new challenges to Windows XP in terms of interface features and (potentially) performance. At the same time, some hardware wonks at Apple have been privately predicting that new boxes shown at WWDC will close chronic performance gaps compared with Wintel boxes.
Ill miss the bells and whistles of a Steve Jobs keynote at The Trade Show Formerly Known As Macworld Expo/New York, but for 2003, WWDCs opening day is clearly the premier event of Apples summer season—and a turning point for the Mac platform.
The coming months should also mark new inroads for Apple as a multimedia developer and a promoter of pervasive media devices.
At this months National Association of Broadcasters gathering in Las Vegas, the company showed fruits of its recent buying spree, in which it picked up a formidable list of third-party multimedia developers and technologies. The new video wares due this summer include Final Cut Pro 4, DVD Studio Pro 2 and Shake 3; on the audio front, sources also predict an upgrade to Logic. These professional packages should underscore Apples commitment to ensure Mac OS Xs grip on multimedia authoring, and judging from past precedent, innovations launched here should find their way into the iLife suite of consumer media utilities that Apple refreshed at Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco.
Meanwhile, on the hardware side: I got ahead of myself when I suggested that Apple might introduce a mini-tablet in San Francisco, but recent reports from my friends at DigiTimes and elsewhere bolster my belief that a multimedia-savvy, tablet-style device is fast approaching delivery.
More immediately, Apple is apparently on the verge of releasing a next-generation, dockable iPod MP3 player that should coincide with the long-rumored debut of an Apple-branded music service. Following on the heels of .Mac, Apples enhanced, fee-based online service, the music service will apparently allow subscribers to preview and download songs from the major labels.
This effort is a cornerstone of Apples rapidly expanding effort to define itself as an integral part of the multibillion-dollar music industry—and reportedly led directly to the much-reported discussions between Apple and Vivendi Universal about the former purchasing the latters Universal recording label for a rumored $6 billion.
While I wouldnt bet on this deal coming to pass—Vivendi is reportedly approaching a variety of potential buyers, including Microsoft—Apples apparent willingness to consider putting all its egg money into this basket speaks volumes about the companys ambitions. (Apple on Wednesday said it “never made any offer to invest in or acquire a major music company,” a statement that creates a Humvee-size loophole for future offers.)
For the past 25 years, Apple has based its corporate identity on maintaining a viable slice of the PC pie. Its latest Windows-rattling moves, and its efforts to extend the Mac paradigm to new devices, should help further that quarter-century tradition. By contrast, the Universal deal (or any comparable move to embrace content as well as technology) would radically change the Apple equation.
Steve Jobs has on more than one occasion cited Sony as a role model for the current Apple regime; as Apples reach extends to consumer electronics and digital content, Jobs words seem more like a blueprint than a metaphor.
Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.