Apple At Expo: Carpe Desktop

In general, I'm betting that the most significant Apple pyrotechnics at the Javits Center will involve desktop hardware.

While Mac enthusiasts generally relish their reputation for nonconformity, the semiannual Macworld Expo gatherings on either U.S. coast have imposed a time-tested rhythm on major Mac news.

Like kids popping open the paper shutters of an Advent calendar, Mac fans spend the days leading up to the next big show speculating about what tasty new treats Apple Computer may be about to spring.

Regular readers of this column know that my own susceptibility to this variety of Mac sweet tooth has resulted in a bewildering scatter of hits and misses when it comes time to Expo predictions.

Thanks to my association with the folks who do the real heavy lifting in this industry, Im sometimes able to nail Apples next moves despite the companys best efforts to keep them hidden - or to make an utter fool of myself if my Expo forecasts turn out to bear little or no resemblance to the products Steve Jobs actually unveils.

With that time-tested caveat in mind, Id like to field my best guesses for next weeks Macworld Expo/New York. Lets meet back here next week and compare notes on how they bore out.

In general, Im betting that the most significant pyrotechnics at the Javits Center will involve desktop hardware.

The current iterations of the professional PowerBook G4 and consumer iBook - both introduced within the past six months - wrought profound engineering and design changes on both sides of Apples portable line.

By comparison, enhancements to the newest Power Mac G4 and iMac systems were minor ones. While improvements in processor speeds, graphics acceleration and removable-storage options were all welcome, Apple hasnt shaken up its desktop hardware in quite some time. The one exception? The Power Mac G4 Cube, which Apple unveiled at last years New York Expo and retired in June after its innovative, compact stylings failed to carve out a third desktop niche between the G4 tower and G3 all-in-one.

Im predicting that a new crop of Power Mac G4 and iMac models at the coming show will adopt engineering lessons learned from the Cube while at the same time forging a far more successful connection with Apples core markets of graphics professionals and discerning consumers.

Power Mac G4

On the professional front, Im putting my money on a sleek new Power Mac G4 system that closely resembles the alleged spy photos that appeared this week on before being unceremoniously yanked under orders of Apples tireless legal department. What I saw on the site matches up nicely with what Ive heard is in the pipeline: a system - code-named Titan - that features a slimmed-down chassis, new drive bays and an improved speaker. While Id love to see Apple break the 1-gigahertz mark, Im going to wager that processor speeds of these new machines will be 733, 800 and 867 MHz. And while were on the subject of G4 Macs, Ive been closely following my friend Nick dePlumes speculation on Think Secret that Apple is on the verge of unveiling a full-blown server strategy that features rack-mounted, hot-swappable hardware with a plethora of PCI slots. Ive heard some of these server rumblings myself, and I think that the recent upgrade to Mac OS X Server adds fuel to reports that Apple is thinking seriously of its new OS as a server platform. Personally, Ill bet that Apple holds any such rollout for an event tailored more closely to a pro audience - possibly Septembers Seybold San Francisco 2001 convention and expo.

iMac Redux

Turning to the consumer side of the equation, Im going to stick my neck out about a quarter-inch and join the throng predicting that this show will finally see major changes to Apples three-year-old iMac line.

From what I hear, Apple isnt even purchasing the CRT displays that shaped the current all-in-one systems. Im voting with the hoi polloi that this summers model will bring the iMac up to speed with the flat-panel display technology deployed across the rest of Apples hardware lines. I believe that the new systems form will follow function with a radically altered profile.

While I bet that processor speeds will rise a bit - to a top speed of 700 MHz, at any rate - I assume that the new system wont make the leap from the PowerPC G3 to the G4. This distinction remains the primary differentiator between Apples professional and consumer systems.

Unless I miss my guess, all these new systems will come garnished with a complement of new peripherals, including a redesigned optical mouse and keyboard, new external speakers courtesy of Harman Kardon, and perhaps even a Webcam.

File under "Miscellaneous": Id be astounded if Jobs doesnt use his keynote presentation to initiate the next wave of grand openings of brick-and-mortar Apple stores and put his imprimatur on the companys third-quarter results, which Apple is slated to announce the day before Jobs Wednesday-morning appearance.

And what about Apples next software moves? Amid all the hardware hosannas, Im betting that while Apple will by no means keep silent about Mac OS X, it will remain relatively soft-spoken; I predict the first major revamp to the new OS - code-named Puma - wont be ready until sometime in August.

Meanwhile, Im confident that the latest upgrade to the classic Mac OS - Mac OS 9.2, a k a Moonlight - will slip under the Expo radar with the same stealth that Mac OS 9.1 evinced during its launch at Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco. Survey says that while Moonlight will ship pre-loaded on the new generation of desktop Macs, this penultimate version of the traditional OS wont see a general release.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is Managing Editor of Ziff Davis Internet.