Behind the Macworld Expo Veil

Matthew Rothenberg shares his prognostications about what Apple CEO Steve Jobs has up his turtleneck for Monday's Macworld Expo/San Francisco keynote speech.

A confession: When it comes to larger-than-life, highly animated characters, "Jimmy Neutron" and Chuck E. Cheese each claimed more winter-vacation brain cycles chez Rothenberg than did Steven P. Jobs.

Nevertheless, I did manage to have my well-worn Carnac the Magnificent turban cleaned and blocked, and Ive spent some quality time shaking the Mac grapevine like a shiny string of jingle bells. In keeping with post-holiday tradition, then, here are my prognostications about what Apples mercurial CEO has up his turtleneck for Mondays Macworld Expo/San Francisco keynote speech.

Expectations for the show have been running extraordinarily high, even by the ebullient standards of the Mac community.

Meanwhile, Apple seems unusually confident that it can deliver. The company was uncharacteristically blunt about quashing rumors of major hardware innovations at Septembers Apple Expo in Paris and Seybold Seminars/San Francisco; this time around, Apples home page encourages Mac optimists to believe the hype, even if it doesnt fill in the blanks.

Before I offer up my own guesses, Ill provide my standard caveat: These predictions are for topical use only, and swallowing them whole could result in serious disorientation come Monday afternoon.

Lets meet back here next week and compare notes on how I did. In the meantime, I welcome your best guesses about whats next for the Mac.

New desktop Macs

Ive covered this territory in recent columns, but its important enough to bear revisiting: I agree with most Mac handicappers that this show will revolve around dramatic improvements to Apples desktop hardware for consumers and professionals.

Probably the biggest crowd pleaser in this category would be a flat-panel redesign of Apples venerable iMac, the all-in-one consumer system that launched the companys renaissance under Jobs. Assorted leaks and buzzes strongly suggest that Taiwanese manufacturers are ready to start rolling out the eagerly awaited 15-inch systems, and common sense would dictate that Apples three-and-a-half-year-old flagship is overdue for a major overhaul.

After I endorsed its debut at Expo, some readers questioned the wisdom of releasing the iMac Mach II in January. Specifically, they noted that such a move would put a new consumer system into the channel just after holiday shopping has subsided and long before the education buying season warms up. Its a cogent point, and Im open to the idea that--manufacturing rumors notwithstanding--the new system wont surface until Macworld Expo/Tokyo or later. Nevertheless, recent signs that the economy is emerging from its funk could mean Apple has a prime opportunity to steal a march on the PC competition and capitalize on rising consumer confidence.)

Even more significant technologically, Apples professional-strength Power Mac line may finally leapfrog the 1GHz mark with new towers that pack a radically faster system bus (in the neighborhood of 400MHz) as well as PowerPC G4 processors topping off somewhere between 1.2GHz and 1.6GHz. (The rumor mill is also grinding on reports of a dual-processor system that includes a pair of 1GHz chips.) Even as Intel and AMD have pushed the clock speeds of their chips into the 2GHz range, the Mac has managed to maintain much of its multimedia cachet by dint of the G4s vector-crunching power. Now Apple and Motorola seem poised to face the "megahertz myth" on its own terms with Mac systems that (jaded eyewitnesses insist) will wow speed freaks on both sides of the platform divide.

New software

Mac OS X continues to gain momentum, and while sources say the new OS isnt due for a significant feature boost until late spring, Jobs keynote gathering should offer plenty of new reasons for users to make the switch.

The most notable demonstration on my to-do list doesnt come from Apple at all, but from the company that remains the most significant developer of Mac graphics software. To wit, Im betting that Adobe will finally take the wraps off the Carbonized version of Photoshop 7 and will ship the hugely popular image-editing package by early spring.

Despite Jobs 25-year-old vision of hardware and software vertically integrated under the Apple umbrella, third-party software is still essential to the adoption of Apple technologies, and myriad Mac veterans have held back on adopting Mac OS X until their key apps make the switch. Now that Microsoft has Carbonized its Office suite, Photoshop is the biggest piece missing from the puzzle, and its Carbonized rebirth at Expo--along with other important packages such as Version 6.0 of Adobes GoLive Web-authoring tool and Version 7.0 of Norton Utilities--will start 2002 with an Aqua-tinted splash.

Also on my Expo checklist are some Apple software announcements, including new additions to the companys iTools suite of newbie-friendly Web-based services, a Carbonized upgrade to its AppleWorks productivity suite and perhaps a long-rumored consumer photo editor bundled with Mac OS X. (Adobe has already ceded the low ground of the Mac image-editing market, and Apple has barely bothered denying that it considers simple image-manipulation capabilities to be a logical extension of the basic Mac OS X package.)

New retail moves

I expect that Jobs will use his time in the limelight to set the stage for the next act in Apples effort to break into brick-and-mortar retailing.

The company hit the initial target Jobs set in spring 2001, opening 25 glitzy outlets nationwide by year-end. But whats next for the initiative, which has been sorely challenged by the lousy economy and continues to be an Apple loss leader?

The company clearly plans to expand the chain: Just looking around my immediate environment, I can testify that a huge new outlet is taking shape in Manhattans SoHo district, and even our upscale neighborhood shopping complex (New Jerseys Short Hills mall) has an Apple store under construction.

Will Apples homegrown retail outlets reach 50 stores, foreign shores or profitability in 2002? Im assuming Apples CEO will provide at least a few specifics at Mondays event.

Door No. 4

This is where things get especially interesting, albeit far more speculative.

Sources close to the company maintain that in the hinterlands of Apples Cupertino campus, top-secret teams are creating products that diverge from the four-square product matrix of consumer and professional desktop and laptop Macs.

According to these informed observers, the recently introduced iPod MP3 player was the first modest step toward a new assortment of Apple-branded portable devices that leverage extant Mac technologies in new ways.

These technologies include AirPort, the forward-looking wireless networking product first introduced alongside the consumer iBook portable in July 1999, and InkWell, an as-yet-unannounced handwriting-recognition technology adapted from software for Apples Newton PDA. (Historical note: I first reported on InkWell in July 2000, and I can testify that the softwares capabilities were already mature, stable and impressive way back then.)

In addition, Apple product managers are reportedly being encouraged to regard the iPod as a tabula rasa for smaller-footprint versions of their software.

While I personally believe that next weeks pyrotechnics will focus on blowing out current desktop Macs, I wont rule out the possibility that Apple is ready to reveal the next steps of its handheld-computing road map.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is best practices editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline magazine.