In the Mac rumorsphere, there are some memes that, like stubborn stains, refuse to fade away. One such errant idea is that of a tablet computer from Apple. Over the past decade, it seems almost every commentator has at some point anticipated such a device, and yet, to date it has not materialised, and it's unlike that it ever will.
Steve Jobs has always seemed pretty smug about sitting out of the whole pen-based computing thing. On his return to Apple in 1997, killing the Newton (a stylus-based device) was one of his first executive decisions. And there seemed to be a degree of schadenfreude about his analysis of Bill Gate's failed Tablet PC concept. (Gates famously predicted that by 2006, the tablet "will be the most popular form of PC sold in America").
So, the rumor community, reluctantly giving up on the cherished notion of a Mac tablet, have moved on to speculating about the possibility of an enormous iPod touch instead. Apparently it's obvious that we want our electronics bigger, rather than smaller. We tire of being able to hold an iPod in one hand and sling it in our pockets, and would prefer something much larger and heavier, with a lower resolution screen, so that we can play iPod touch games on a device that they were not designed to run on, and are not really suited for.
Apple is, in all probability, working on a next generation iPod touch with different dimensions and weight - but they're doubtless thinking about how not make it thinner and lighter, not bigger and heavier!
In the current rumor recession, the blogosphere has become ravenous over mere morsels. The iPhone 3G rumor is barely worth commenting on, beyond observing that various iPhone accessory manufacturers seem to be having some fun. Of more interest is 9to5Mac's take on the possibility of a home server from Apple. This is something that MacPredictions anticipated way back in March - here it is again, for your delectation.
Last year's update to Apple TV may not have been an aesthetic improvement (certainly not from a user interface perspective), but it did go some way to addressing functional shortcomings with the original product. Nonetheless, it didn't deliver the cut-through that Apple was clearly hoping for in 2008, and continual references to it as a "hobby" indicate an ambivalence on the company's part, presumably due to disappointing sales.
So what is going wrong, and what should Apple do about it? On one level, it appears that this is a area in which Apple is well positioned to clean up. With the world's most "popular" DRM system, most successful digital music and video store, and expertise in both software and hardware design, who could be better positioned to define this emerging space? But there are lingering problems with Apple's offering which probably account for the product's ongoing inertia:
People don't want too many boxes under their TV, and Apple TV is just another box
There's functional crossover with boxes they already have (e.g. Cable On Demand, XBox 360 Netflix)
Apple TV doesn't have presence in (the right) stores when people are choosing PVRs
Apple is not a recognised brand in this space
Cable/Satellite services offer free boxes, or deals on boxes
TV products must accommodate regional variation, Apple's marketing is global
The Apple-esque styling of Apple TV is an acquired taste (tiny remote, anonymous box)
There is one obvious solution to all of the above problems, but it would somewhat go against the grain for Apple: license the platform to 3rd party developers. This would allow everything from the Nintendo Wii to the latest DVD recorders from Toshiba and Samsung, to integrate with iTunes, delivering both the reach and the range that is essential to create a mass-market for a product that Apple seems to struggle to achieve alone.
It would be difficult medicine for Apple to swallow. Every bit as sour as the humble pie that Microsoft guzzled when they moved in the diametrically opposite direction, by abandoning their "Plays for Sure" licensing strategy for music players in favour of the vertically integrated Zune.
Occasional MacPredictions correspondent Doug Best anticipates something similar. In a recent e-mail he says "Apple is investigating the possibility of releasing the Apple TV OS as a separate box purchase. In other words, take an old iMac or Mini that's just laying around, install the Apple TV OS on it, and boom, you have an Apple TV. Sell it for $79 and it probably has more profit margin than the Apple TV itself. And then those users are buying iTunes content."
Perhaps the product that Doug is alluding to is in fact Snow Leopard, where the Front Row product may finally be merged with Apple TV. In which case, upgrading to Snow Leopard would effectively enable you to convert an old Mac Mini into an Apple TV - especially if it includes an option in System Preference to boot straight into Apple TV mode.
Not sure whether Doug's ideas are based on a source, of if it's just informed speculation, but it's not such a large step on from selling the OS retail, to selling it wholesale (albeit, a gigantic cultural leap for Apple, who are currently pursuing Psystar in court for distributing OS X on non-Apple-branded hardware).
With the downgrading of next month's MacWorld from a Stevenote to a Philnote, MacPredictions doesn't expect any major announcements, beyond a launch date for Snow Leopard, and some incremental updates for iMac, Mac Pro, Cinema Displays and Mac Mini. Nonetheless, the new year will inevitably usher in a major new product announcement at some point.
Apple have accounted for their non-attendance at future trade shows by observing that the Apple Store provides them with a more effective way of interacting with consumers all year round. This is doubtless true, but as much as we all love our local Apple Store, its hardly a substitute for keynotes to launch products.
On that point, it's worth remembering that Apple's own Worldwide Developer Conference is still in the calendar, and remains likely to be graced by the obligatory Stevenote. Then, there's the annual media event to launch the new batch of iPods in the fall. And lets also not forget that Apple has been known to host other ad-hoc special events when they have a new product to launch to the media.
In fact, it's probably a blessing that Apple is moving away from the annual MacWorld keynote format. After all, whilst they've had their moments, (2007's launch of the iPhone being a particular highlight), they do have a tendency to turn into two-hour snooze-a-thons, when announcements are thin on the ground, and Steve makes up the time by jamming with his old pal John Mayer.
Ironically, we may be in for more events, not less, in 2009 - they'll just take the form of shorter, more focused media events, when Apple has something to say. And despite the recession, Apple is likely to have plenty to talk about in 2009. Last time the economy slowed, after the dotcom collapse, Apple famously innovated their way out of the recession. The result was their prescient digital lifestyle strategy from which we got such innovations as iMovie, iTunes, iPhoto and iPod. Apple's investment in R&D is now at an all-time high - who knows what they'll deliver this time. Plenty to speculate on in this blog in the coming weeks...
With Apple's recent de-emphasis of MacWorld, we may expect the announcements that Phil Schiller has to make to be reasonably low-key. The consensus view seems to favor a demonstration of Snow Leopard, with an earlier than expected release. The release date of 10.6 is, however, unlikely to coincide with MacWorld itself. Based upon previous OS X launches, it's more likely that it will be announced and demoed at MacWorld, but not launched until March.
Some have argued that Apple is rushing 10.6 to market before Windows 7 is released. But this also seems unlikely, for two reasons. Firstly, Apple was always planning to release 10.6 by Summer 2009, which means it was going to be out before Windows 7 anyway. And secondly, 10.6 is not a normal Mac OS X release - since it's focused almost exclusively on stability and performance improvements, rather than marketable new features.
In fact, given the focus of 10.6, it's likely that it will be a free release for users of 10.5. After all, with new features limited to arcane things like Exchange support, Grand Central and all-Cocoa apps, to charge consumers for the update would look a lot like charging to fix bugs in the existing product.
Instead, we can expect a relatively low-key Snow Leopard announcement - which perhaps goes some way to explaining the choice of Schiller rather than Jobs to headline MacWorld.
There's plenty more in the pipeline of course. The new Mac Mini will be an evolution, rather than revolution, and recent revelations indicate that it is likely to be launched at MacWorld. The new unibody 17" Macbook Pro (pictured above), will almost certainly be released at some point in 2009. But is unlikely to be ready for MacWorld, instead being quietly added to the Apple website in May. I'm basing this prediction on the rollout of the previous revision to Apple's notebook enclosures. In that instance, it was the 15" model that was released last, trailing the launch of the 12" and 17" models by around 10 months.
Finally, there have been plenty of rumors doing the rounds about a smaller, non-3G iPhone. However, given the importance of 3G in the iPhone proposition, it seems unlikely that they'll release a non-3G version at this stage. A smaller form factor is more likely, although the size of the user interface elements in a multi-touch environment is a significant physical limitation on just how far Apple can miniaturize. The screen can't go much smaller without requiring the introduction of a variant of the iPhone UI, and it's very unlikely that Apple would consider this. Also, Apple is unlikely to update the iPhone until the current model has been out for a year, (since it would risk alienating existing iPhone 3G users). Which means the next model will probably be released at WWDC in the Summer. Best guess is that the new iPhone will have a slimmer, metal, iPod touch style enclosure and a better camera with video support, in 16GB and 32GB flavors.
Benjamin Franklin once told a tale of an old man riding a donkey, with his young son walking by his side in the muddy road. When passers-by criticized the old man for making his son walk in the dirt, he invited his son to join him on the donkey's back. But a new group of passers-by criticized this arrangement too, arguing that it was unfair on the donkey to make him bare such weight. So the old man dismounted, to walk alongside the young man on the donkey. But further criticism followed from yet another group, who criticized the young man for monopolizing the donkey at the old man's expense. Exasperated, the old man and young man responded by both walking, leading the donkey with no rider. But this arrangement also incurred the criticism of passers by, who argued that it was ridiculous for both men to walk in the dirt, when one of them could ride.
Whilst everyone is familiar with the phrase "you can't please them all," Franklin was making a different point. Sometimes you can't please any of them, and it's fruitless to try.
Steve Jobs finds himself in just such a predicament. As the press hounded Apple this year for information on Jobs' health status, the company responded by saying this was a personal matter. Fair enough, one might say. What could be more personal than someone's medical records? But this response didn't seem to satisfy a juvenile contingent within the media, who sought to whip up a controversy on a slow news day.
Jobs' charismatic and visionary leadership has played no small part in Apple's remarkable turnaround. And it is obviously for this reason that commentators are so antsy about his health. They have criticized the company for being too exposed to one single employee. In an attempt to rectify this perception of over-dependance, Jobs has, on more than one occasion, contrived to share the stage with other executives. But this seemingly reasonable step has only resulted in further hounding about Jobs' health. "He's not up to doing an entire keynote by himself?"
Franklin adds a characteristically wry and unexpected twist to the end of his tale. The two men, despairing of how they might please all passers-by, ultimately decided to abandon their donkey, and proceed on foot. Only to receive criticism from passers-by for embarking on such a grueling journey without adequate transport.
In a similar fashion, this week, Apple abruptly announced that it was pulling out of future MacWorld Expos, and Jobs would not be delivering a keynote this year. If they imagined that this might settle the journalists' rumblings, they were certainly wrong. Like Franklin's passers-by, they'll moan whatever the company does. They just like moaning.
Steve Jobs is a remarkable public speaker. His vision, passion and energy are infectious. His charisma is magnetic. There can be no better way to launch the company's products than with a keynote from the guy that supplies Apple with its vision. Who knows what tomorrow brings? Why worry? For today, let the guy do what he does best, and, like Franklin, pay no heed to the idle criticism of passers-by.
I've been obsessing about all things Apple for almost two decades, but I've only started writing about it recently. Conversely, since the meteoric rise of the company, many who have been writing about other things for many years have only recently weighed in on Apple... And it shows.
Two books recently caught my eye in this regard, and I'm happy to offer a hand in getting the facts straight. Firstly, digital marketing Guru Seth Godin's new tome, "Tribes," which gushingly describes how we may all become leaders. One of Godin's favorite leaders turns out to be Steve Jobs, whom he returns to over and over again to illustrate almost every conceivable facet of leadership.
Of course, I agree with Godin, as far as adulation of our dear leader goes, but then, tragically, inaccuracy strikes, and pedantic Apple fans like myself are forced to object. Godin claims: "Steve Jobs was wrong about the Apple III, wrong about the NeXT computer, wrong about the Newton. Insanely wrong. You know the rest." Well, for the record, Jobs didn't invent the Newton. In fact, one of his first executive decisions upon his return to the company was to kill the struggling PDA division. If we were to be charitable, we might assume that Godin means that Jobs was wrong to scrap the Newton - but how does he know this? If that's what he means, it's a pretty weak argument. And in fact, there are plenty of better examples of Apple getting it wrong that Godin could have chosen: the G4 Cube, anyone?
The second text that caught my eye was from the (otherwise brilliant) Lawrence Lessig, who oddly argues in his new book "Remix" that the Apache web server is subject to "fierce competition from proprietary server companies such as Microsoft and Apple." Apple? Really? Last time I heard, Apple was using Apache as it's web server solution for Mac OS X. Besides which, (sadly) few would seriously consider Mac OS X as a platform for web hosting.
Know any more high profile writers who could benefit from some Apple fact-checking? Let MacPredictions know.