What's next for Apple?

13th Dec 2007 | 00:00

What's next for Apple?

New iPhones, ultra-portable Macs and more

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs walks on stage at Macworld Expo on Tuesday 15th January, he's going to have the weight of expectation bearing heavily down on his shoulders.

2007 was undoubtedly a monster year for Apple - it sold record numbers of Macs, millions more iPods and launched a brand new version of its Mac OS X operating system with Leopard. And then, of course, there was the iPhone - now widely seen as the gadget of the year, thanks to its unique multi-touch interface and combination of killer features. Anyone would be hard pressed to top that little lot, let alone a company that prizes itself on innovation. So what's next? We gaze into a crystal ball and try to make a few predictions

iPhone

There's no way that Jobs can appear at Macworld and not announce a new iPhone. An analyst at Goldman Sachs has suggested to investors that a new model is in the final design phase, says Apple Insider. It's expected to have a different design from the current iPhone and may include 3G integration.

Other rumours have pointed to a launch as early as May, which would make sense for the US, where the current iPhone will have been on sale for almost a year. We may wait longer for the European version - possibly as late as October or November next year.

We could also see a second iPhone launch around then, according to Goldman Sachs. That would make sense - Apple needs to keep the iPhone's momentum going if it's to hit its target of 10 million sales by the end of 2008.

If it's at all serious about staying in the mobile phone game, it'll also need to offer a more diverse range of models and at lower prices - just as it has done with the iPod.

Apple's obviously not in the game of "piling 'em high and selling 'em cheap", but it often demotes its flagship models to mid-range or entry-level status. That would enable it to put a new flagship iPhone with larger capacity (32GB), 3G and better Bluetooth integration at the top, a 16GB 3G iPhone in the middle; and the current 8GB 2.5G iPhone at entry level.

One of Macworld's highlights will undoubtedly be the official unveiling of the iPhone Software Developers Kit, alongside which we'll see a slew of announcements from partner developers who have already been working on iPhone apps. 'And they're shipping today," Jobs will undoubtedly say to much whooping from the Mac faithful. Gaming is also likely to arrive on the iPhone with this update - Apple is already said to be working very closely with Electronic Arts to bring its titles to the iPhone.

iPod

While Jobs may crow about the latest sales figures for the iPod at Macworld (particularly for the iPod touch) the current range of iPods is too new to get a revamp now. Tradition dictates that we'll have to wait until September to see new models, although that would be a shame - the iPod classic needs to seriously up its game if its to compete against Microsoft's fast rising Zune. Even the iPod touch needs a boost - 16GB of flash memory is already starting to look poor on a device that specialises in video.

MacBook / MacBook Pro

Apple last revamped its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops in July - ahead of the back to school buying frenzy in the US. That and the arrival of new 45-nanometre Penryn chips from Intel suggests that both will at least get a speed boost in January. However have also been some other tantalising suggestions.

The first of these is that Apple will launch a new ultra-thin sub-notebook with a solid-state flash memory drive, chiefly as a replacement for the late, lamented 12-inch PowerBook. Apple is already said to have placed orders for 13.3-inch LED displays - although these could be just being used to replace the displays in existing MacBooks.

Some are suggesting that Apple will even dispense with DVD drive in the new models, much as it did with the floppy in the original 1998 iMac. We certainly wouldn't put it past Jobs to do this - he was pretty dismissive of DVD burning at the launch of iLife '08 creativity suite last August, where he showcased a new version of iMovie that is much more tailored to YouTube and other movie uploading sites.

Next: iTablet, Apple TV and more

However we're not convinced that Apple will make this move yet. If anything it's more likely to include Blu-ray burners in its laptop drives and elsewhere - firstly it's a key member of the Blu-ray Disc Association, but is one of the few remaining members not to have supported its backing with a product; secondly Steve Jobs also sits on the board at Disney, and Disney is an enthusiastic supporter of Blu-ray; thirdly, including a Blu-ray drive would enable Apple to meet the needs of both its power users (who are likely to want Blu-ray burning for backups, as well as video mastering), while also including backwards compatibility with DVD and CD.

The latest rumours also suggest that Apple has now gone cold on the idea of solid-state notebook. At least for the time-being.

iTablet

Mac sites across the web are rife with speculation that Apple may launch a web tablet using multi-touch technology at Macworld. This is usually in train with the solid-state notebook idea, often suggesting that the two are in fact one. We remain unconvinced.

Apple has long been a critic of Microsoft's Tablet PC platform, and Tablet PCs are specialist products that appeal to specialist work-oriented audiences - think doctors, delivery drivers. That doesn't fit with Apple's own focus on consumer audiences - it now sees itself like Sony as a maker of consumer electronics by and large.

Some sceptics point out that multi-touch could actually be better used as part of a revamp for Apple's ageing Cinema Displays. Pro users could detach the display screen and use it as a pen-less graphics tablet (especially since Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard also supports multiple displays) or you could use it to access your Mac desktop remotely - a bit like Microsoft's aborted Mira home tablet platform. We still don't think that's a compelling enough use for multi-touch and again it will appeal to a strictly limited audience.

The other alternative is a home tablet that's a tad bigger than an iPhone, and aimed at couch-potato web surfers. This has some appeal - after all Nokia is attempting the same thing with its N800 platform. But why buy an iTablet when you can have a much more versatile MacBook instead? We'll take that as a no.

Mac Pro

Aside from a speed bump, we're not expecting any major changes to the Mac Pro - it's a solid, speedy workhorse for graphics and movie pros as well as high-end Mac gamers (yes there are a few!). The current case design, though - flexible as it is - dates back to June 2006, which suggests makeover at least. However Apple normally reserves Mac Pro announcements for its World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC).

Apple iMac

We're not expecting any major changes here either. Like the MacBook and MacBook Pro, the iMac will probably adopt the new 45nm Intel Penryn chips - especially since the iMac is essentially a laptop on leg(s). The current design was only introduced in August 2006, so won't be due for a revamp until April at the earliest.

Apple TV

It's hard to believe that it's nearly a year since Apple properly introduced the Apple TV. If you believe Forrester Research it has been an unmitigated disaster, over-shadowed by the iPhone, and possibly the worst-selling piece of Apple hardware since the G4 Cube and Flower Power iMac.

Several Mac sites are pointing to Macworld as the place to revive the Apple TV's fortunes, and we also believe that will be the case. First Jobs may announce several new deals with Hollywood movies studios, including 20th Century Fox, and Apple may even offe movie rentals - there are already hints in iTunes if you're prepared to dig around in code. That would certainly make sense in the UK where the current crop of movies and TV shows on offer on iTunes are both a) lamentable and b) ridiculously over-priced.

If Apple wants the Apple TV to be the 'DVD player for the 21st century' it first claimed, it also needs to open the device up to more video codecs - it currently only supports H.264 and MPEG-4. It's also about time that Apple turned it into a proper home entertainment device and included a PAL TV tuner, PVR functionality and a built-in Blu-ray drive.

Apple also needs to support a wider range of connectivity options - you're currently stuck with a choice of HDMI or component video - and only 720-lines of high-def resolution.

Of course bundling all these options will add significantly to the current £269 price tag the top model sells for now - but when did that ever both Apple or its customers? £499 would seem a sensible price for all that functionality. How about it Steve?

What would you like to see Apple introduce at Macworld? Please let us know.

Apple iPod Gaming Mobile phones Mobile computing Portable audio Portable video TV
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