As we count down the days until the launch of Apple Computer Inc.s freshly refurbished Worldwide Developers Conference, the level of Mac intrigue seems to have reached yet another high-water mark across old and new media.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of the companys user base, the appeal of its product design, its underdog status in the platform wars—and its own penchant for secrecy—Apples next moves have long inspired a level of interest out of all proportion with its market share. And on the eve of a rumored harmonic convergence between Mac OS X and 64-bit computing, the Mac grapevine has twisted into even more complex shapes—fueled, ironically, by an anti-rumor campaign thats been draconian even by Apples high standards.
Back before the Internet boom, when my old alma mater MacWEEK cornered the market on unsanctioned Apple dish in the era of Sculley, Spindler and Amelio, the picture was clearer. We were the main U.S. outlet for advance info on the company and platform; hence, the provenance of most reporting was clear, and accountability was easy to assign. Apple might not have welcomed all of our reporting, but we were a known quantity and a discrete force to be reckoned with.
Even then, we had to be careful about an “echo effect” when our own stories-in-progress were repeated back to us as confirmation. I remember placing a call one evening to Japan about reports Id heard of a new Apple laser printer based on a Fuji-Xerox engine, then hearing the same details the next morning from a source on the East Coast. I was excited to have received confirmation of the facts (as well as some speculation Id ventured about the new printers positioning)—until I gleaned that my second source had received his information from the Japanese contact Id phoned 12 hours earlier.
Now, thanks to the decentralizing force of the Web and Apples ever-more-strenuous efforts to turn back the tide of platform prognostication, that echo effect is often cacophonous. In addition to Apple CEO Steve Jobs stated intention to show off the next rev of Mac OS X (a k a Panther) at next weeks WWDC in San Francisco, most Mac-watchers believe the company will make some moves to shift the platform to IBMs 64-bit PowerPC 970 processor and away from its dependence on the Motorola PowerPC G4, a chip thats been slow to gain velocity compared with the clock speeds posted by Intel and AMD.
IBM has been up front about the glories of the PowerPC 970 since last October, and such additional advantages as significantly higher clock speeds and a blazing front-side bus are common knowledge; based on the published specs for the chip, this represents a giant leap for the PowerPC architecture. In a Mac, the chip would go a long, long way toward slaking the pent-up demand for radically higher performance. Up to now, however, IBM and Apple have been coy and stonily silent, respectively, about the likely intersection between the processor and the platform.
Meanwhile, like sequel-starved “Harry Potter” fans, established pubs like BusinessWeek (and eWEEK) have joined Apple-focused Web sites great and small in forecasting the precise content and arrival date of the Macs next chapter. Sealed boxes containing 970 Power Macs have already reached some dealers; new Power Macs wont reach users until the fall; Apple will steal a march by unveiling 970-based laptops at WWDC. The accounts are accompanied by putative specs, sketches and benchmarks, many of them contradictory.
While its chosen to ignore the mainstream press, Apple Legal has waded into the Mac Web with renewed ferocity, demanding that sites pull stories, images, forum postings and headlines directed at WWDC and the 64-Bit Question. (The company has even sent at least one letter insisting that a third-party site remove a link to a recent eWEEK story on the subject!)
The result, of course, has been to intensify the echo effect even further, as Mac fans interpret Apples legal warnings as a stamp of authenticity about the content to which theyre directed and posters find creative new ways to present the disputed information and avoid Apples legal radar.
I still harbor suspicions that Apples chronic high dudgeon is at least 10 percent stagecraft (considering how much attention this tug-of-war inevitably garners for the Mac); Jobs desire to control every aspect of the companys public persona also plays a clear role. And while I believe Apple is justifiably concerned about the effect of forward-looking speculation on current sales, Im convinced that anyone interested enough in the product to read Mac sites already understands the basic rhythms of Mac updates—and plans his or her purchases accordingly.
Mark my words: As long as Apple continues to create products that inspire a loyal and engaged following, the company will never decrease by a micron the volume of speculation about those products. At best, it will only compel the tea-leaf readers to sift a weaker brew—and add more murk to the inevitable churn of Mac prediction.
So where does all this leave me vis-a-vis handicapping next weeks WWDC announcements? To minimize the echo effect, Im going to steer clear of any of the interesting topics the Mac Web has suggested may play a subordinate role at the show: Version 1.0 of Apples Safari browser, a replacement for the 15-inch PowerBook, a new videoconferencing camera or other wild-card digital device. (MacRumors.com has done a yeomans job of compiling the crazy-quilt of WWDC rumors.)
As for the confluence of Mac OS X and the PowerPC 970, heres the scenario I believe is most likely based on a conservative reading of our own sources. (And as the guy who mused that Apple might use Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco to launch its multimedia tablet—wrong!—Ill be satisfied with an 80 percent hit rate.)
While I have heard some rumblings that an entry-level model may be available in limited quantities next week, I believe that the new Power Macs wont ship until late July or early August. I think that Mac developers will spend next week getting acquainted with the new Apple hardware and software, and Apple will spend the next month ramping up production of the 970 Power Macs.
Im betting that although Apple has dialed way back on its participation in Julys Macworld CreativePro (the show formerly known as Macworld Expo/New York), that expo will comprise the first public forum for shipping models across the new line.
And as we reported in a recent eWEEK story, that first wave of new Power Macs apparently wont ship with Mac OS X “Panther” at all, but with Smeagol, a version of the current Mac OS X 10.2 (a k a Jaguar) that has been optimized for the new processor. Early adopters will be able to take advantage of many of the architectural advantages of the new hardware, and they should be at the head of the line for a free upgrade to the new cat when it reaches the retail channel in mid-September.
Off to the root cellar; Ill check back after the WWDC tornado passes to discuss which Mac predictions weathered the storm.
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Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.