Mac Tablet: Ready for Expo?

While wireless and software announcements are a given from Apple this week, Mac hardware updates will wait a month or two. But is that a multimedia slate behind Door No. 3?

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.