Polishing the Apple Predictions for 2004
The rumor mill is churning, with talk of new G5 desktop Macs, G5 PowerBooks, additions to the iPod family, and even that January perennial, the tablet Mac. Yes, it’s time for Macworld Expo and time for Mac fans to issue predictions on new products from Apple. I am among them. Over the past few months, I have quietly scratched out a list of things I expect to be unveiled or at least announced at Macworld and in the coming months.
Of course, if you’ve dragged your feet in getting around to reading this issue of ATPM, Steve has already performed his stand-up routine and those of us who were unable to make the pilgrimage to San Francisco are jamming apple.com and the retail stores trying to get a glimpse at the brand new whatevers. Being a laggard always makes it easier to ridicule and scoff at us bold visionaries.
Actually, people orbiting outside the Mac universe must think we’re all nuts. Have you ever heard of Gateway fans feverishly waiting for the announcement of a new laptop? Do HP users ever pinch pennies for a year to afford a trip to a Hewlett-Packard confab? Is there a Microsoft cruise (except through the legal system, I mean)? No, this January mania is a Mac thing, and we’re darn proud of its many traditions, including the right to guess what’s next from Apple.
What’s Probably Not Coming Soon
But even bold visionaries have to use at least a little common sense, so I try to keep the pure fantasy items (Apple-brand flying air cars) off my list of Macworld predictions. Likewise, I jettison stuff that would be cool to own but for which there does not appear to be an actual market (a reinvented Newton MessagePad, that tablet Mac, and an Apple cell phone, to name a few of the evergreens on the Apple rumor Web sites). Instead, my Macworld wish list emphasizes what I actually expect to see from Apple at Macworld and in the year that follows.
But before we get to it, a few words about those items that won’t be on the list. First of all, the Newton or any other PDA device. I owned a Newton and when Apple ditched the product line, I said it was a big mistake. Now, I think Apple was right. The company was ahead of its time in creating the PDA and then ahead of its time in getting rid of it. The most useful PDA features are increasingly handled by sophisticated cell phones and other multi-function devices such as iPods or by dedicated tools such as the Blackberry. Give me a phone that syncs with my Mac, and I’m set. For me, PDA reality is that I don’t want a device that lets me enter information with a tiny stylus or surf the Web at prehistoric speed. I want a device that lets me access the information I entered earlier using a more user-friendly interface. Sure, there are lots of people who have come to rely on their Palm handhelds, but I suspect there are many more who, like me, never quite got into the PDA groove.
On the other hand, there may be room for a modern version of one of Apple’s most intriguing failed products: the eMate. The eMate was a nifty clamshelled version of the MessagePad, which included a built-in keyboard. With today’s relatively speedy wireless networks and the many joys of OS X software, there might be a market for an updated eMate which would be, in effect, a mini PowerBook. But barring the introduction of a truly useful and powerful new product, forget the Apple PDA. The moment has passed.
Likewise, I don’t expect there will ever be an Apple cell phone. Why? Because other companies have figured out how to make good mobile phones and there isn’t much Apple could do to improve them except to apply some design and user interface know-how. That’s not enough to warrant diving into a new business. (Still, some of the phones would benefit greatly from better design. Who thought putting the dialing buttons in a circle was a good idea?)
And that brings us to the tablet Mac. As Microsoft is finding out, the general consumer market doesn’t really have much use for a tablet PC. They’re great things if you deliver packages for UPS, do inventory, or collect data door-to-door, but do you really want to answer your e-mail in longhand? And sure, it’s neat to hand draw a diagram and have it transformed into a high-quality graphic, but how often does anyone do that? For specific uses with specialized software, a tablet is great, but I don’t see them becoming mainstream consumer devices until voice and handwriting recognition is fast and flawless and a high-speed Internet link can be plucked from the ether at will. I wouldn’t be surprised if a future PowerBook offered a detachable monitor with built-in tablet features, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it never happens.
What May Be Coming Soon
Enough about what won’t happen. Let’s get on with the predictions for what will happen in Apple’s new year:
I expect there to be a G5 PowerBook very soon. Maybe not by Macworld but within a few months. IBM is reported to be ready with a new version of the G5 chip that will run faster and cooler—just what the PowerBook needs.Speaking of the G5 chip, watch for it in a new consumer Mac, which will replace the current iMac. The iMac line is running out of steam, and it’s time for something new in the consumer price range. I haven’t a clue what this new iMac will look like, but I suspect it will be modular; it makes sense to offer users the ability to choose and upgrade monitors as they please without having to buy the professional-level features of the behemoth, brushed-metal Terminator that is the current desktop G5.
Have you seen the Dell commercials with the overgrown nerd who aces the neighborhood kids out of baby-sitting jobs, lawn mowing, and lemonade sales to raise money to buy an “overpriced” portable digital music player which we are all to understand is an iPod? Having no technology advantage to promote, Dell is trying to sell its music player to potential iPod buyers as a cheaper alternative. With iPods flying off the shelves, don’t expect any big price cuts of the current models. Instead, watch for Apple to cut the legs out from under Dell and other competitors by releasing a cheaper line of Pods with less hard disk capacity and fewer bells and whistles, but with access to the iTunes Music Store intact.
It’s been suggested around ATPM’s virtual water cooler and among some Mac watchers on the Web that these “mini-Pods” might feature hot new technology that would let users buy and download music without using a Mac or PC, but I don’t think so. Certainly, there are nifty extensions of the iPod interface in the works, but I don’t see them debuting in a mini-Pod. The purpose of a mini-Pod would be to establish a basic digital music player product line priced near the “magic number”—the price that’s too good to pass up. The iPod is a premium product with a big profit margin for Apple and that’s not likely to change. Watch for the current line of iPods to stay with the usual Apple pricing structure: a gradually falling or steady price paired with significant product improvements and enhancements; the price doesn’t go down much, but the value steadily improves.
An iBox? Just Plug it Into That Giant Apple Monitor!
At least as likely as mini-Pods, and perhaps an even better bet to join the Apple lineup, is what we might call the maxi-Pod, if the name were not uncomfortably close to that of a wholly unrelated product. But you get the idea—iPod technology in a component of your home entertainment system which is also wirelessly linked to your Mac. Imagine ordering from an Apple music and movie store via your Mac but downloading your purchase into a TiVo-like iPod component that can also record TV shows and burn CDs and DVDs.
The iPod was Apple’s foot in the door; it is now impossible to ignore the company’s potential in the broader market of consumer electronics. The iPod’s siblings and progeny will likely be just the first wave of an expansion into a market Apple had only dabbled in before the iPod.
It will not be a slam dunk. Already, Dell, HP and Gateway have moved aggressively into the consumer electronics marketplace, although none of them has a product as well-known or as well-regarded as the iPod. Since it’s not at all clear whether consumers will seriously entertain the notion of buying electronics from companies better known for computers, the success of the iPod could give Apple a valuable advantage, at least among the newcomers. But don’t expect the major players in consumer electronics to twiddle their thumbs as their turf is invaded.
I expect the second wave of Apple’s move into electronics will be big flat screen monitors for the living room, a natural extension of the line that shouldn’t require much retooling. There have been persistent rumors that Apple plans to offer a 30-inch monitor. If they turn out to be true, don’t be surprised if the new monitor comes with a TV tuner and a bunch more jacks on the back.
Whatever consumer electronics Apple comes up with, they must be innovative, stylish, and high performance. In other words, they must be the iPods of their categories—so good that consumers won’t hesitate to buy them even at premium prices. Apple has shown it can do very well selling up-market gear to people willing to pay for quality, but the company will be hammered on Wall Street if it leaps into the mass market and stumbles. Apple is held to a higher, often ridiculous, standard by timid market “analysts” who fear innovation and are usually clueless about what motivates Apple users and other seekers of quality. How many analysts predicted success for the iPod and Apple’s online music store?
Apple set the bar high with the iPod and its reward, other than fat profits of course, will be the need to repeat that success again and again elsewhere in consumer electronics. Luckily, the iPod’s success outside of the orbit of Mac users shows that consumers will flock to quality products even when they come from a company they thought they would never buy from.
Also in This Series
- Almost Just As I Predicted, Sort Of · September 2004
- Some Offers We Are Not Needing · June 2004
- Polishing the Apple Predictions for 2004 · January 2004
- Advertising and Apple · November 2003
- California Dreamin’ · October 2003
- Mac OS X’s Quiet Little Killer Application · August 2003
- Clone Wars · July 2003
- Apple Goes to Ex-streams · June 2003
- Complete Archive