The expectations game

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So I was sitting at home Sunday, enjoying the last restful day I’ll have for the next little while and reading the funny papers, when I came across this little bit of wire copy previewing the just-about-to-start Macworld Expo. The article did the usual bit of stage-setting—talking about the possibility of an Apple-made phone that won’t be named the iPhone and the existence of a multimedia-streaming set-top box that won’t be called iTV—before delving into the meat of the piece.

Expectations for Macworld [Expo] are so lofty that a failure to launch an earth-shattering product this week could dent Apple’s already volatile stock price, investors say.

And concluding with:

Apple needs a hit next week to keep employees focused on products, not scandal. But hype over iPhone and iTV has become so deafening on blogs and Web sites that disappointment may result, said Mike Gartenberg, research director of New York-based JupiterResearch.

Let me see if I’m able to wrap my fragile, eggshell mind around this conceit: Steve Jobs theoretically strides on stage Tuesday, introduces a set-top box that delivers smooth streaming of video and audio from your Mac to your TV and then throws in a mobile phone with the size and simplicity of an iPod on top of that…and people will be howling with disappointment? Apple’s stock price will plummet? Newspapers and periodicals will gleefully break out the “Apple: What Went Wrong” cover designs they’ve had on ice since the late ’90s? All this because Apple unveils a digital media convergence device and a cell phone on the same day?

Doesn’t this strike anyone else as just the least bit nutty?

I guess, in a sense, Apple has become a victim of its own keynote success. The company’s patented mix of secrecy and showmanship certainly ratchets up the interest level in any of Steve Jobs’ public pronouncements. But it also creates this unnatural expectation that each keynote has to do outdo the last. Yeah, yeah… the iPod mini one year… the Mac mini and iPod shuffle the next… Intel-based hardware soon after that— but what have you done for me lately, Steve ol’ buddy?

Add to that the fact that we live in an era where no analysis can be instant enough. Steve Jobs won’t even be able to make it off the stage before someone, somewhere will make some sort of sweeping declaration about whether whatever gets announced is a dismal failure or not after having barely clasped eyes on the thing. There’s nothing wrong with first impressions—I’ve managed to turn mine into a mildly beloved recurring feature. We just need to take them with the proper dosage of salt.

So if I had to make an Expo wish, it wouldn’t necessarily be for some flashy new gizmo or for the flying cars that we’ve all been promised; rather, I would like some form of measured sanity to prevail. I’ve given up all hope that Wall Street will ever conduct itself like the building isn’t on fire when it comes to Apple, but surely, the rest of us can keep things in the proper perspective. I think a product not named iTV and another one not named iPhone would be a pretty nice haul for one morning; I can’t be the only one out there who feels this way.

Ah, but what do I think Apple will announce. That, my friends, is the subject of even less mildly beloved recurring feature—my annual sure-to-be-discredited-within-hours Macworld Expo predictions. Just like the running of the bulls kicks off the festival of San Fermín, it’s just not a Macworld Expo until I’ve gone out on the shakiest of limbs to say what Steve Jobs and his minions have cooked up for Tuesday. After all, both rituals involve pain and humiliation, though in this instance, it’s largely my own.

On to our regularly scheduled inaccuracies:

• The product not named iPhone: Actually, I expect this will be an iPod with some sort of phone capabilities built in. And, as such, it will carry an iPod-esque name—in the grand tradition of iPod photo, let’s call it iPod phone.

• The product not named iTV: Apple’s already told us most of what we need to know about its set-top box —except what sort of wireless standard it will use, what it’s called, and when it will ship. I’ll say 802.11n, AppleTV (I’d guess MacTV, but the product’s going to be cross-platform), and the end of January.

• Leopard: I expect Apple will show off another feature or two for OS X 10.5—please don’t ask me to guess which one—and let us know when to expect it. Over on the Tech Night Owl Live, where you can listen to me try and croak out several coherent sentences in succession with varying degrees of success, I said June, so I might as well repeat that prediction here and have the comfort of being consistent if not correct.

• New versions of iLife and iWork. OK, so this is a product announcement pretty much dictated by the calendar. So let’s make it a little more exciting. Apart from some new features in iLife, there won’t be any new additions like iWeb last year; that won’t stop Steve Jobs from spending five minutes of his keynote showing off various iDVD themes. iWork, however, will get a new application—a spreadsheet app to go along with Keynote and Pages. The name, you say? Uh… Tables. Why not?

• On-stage appearances by key developers. Specifically, Adobe and Microsoft, whom Steve Jobs will quiz about the Intel-native status of their applications. If their answers displease them, he’ll order them to fight to the death for his amusement.

• A new external design for at least one hardware offering. I’ll say the iMac, though it could very well be the MacBook Pro. The point here, is that Apple spent 2006 getting people used to the idea of using Intel-based hardware by keeping the designs consistent with the most recent PowerPC models. Now that people realize an Intel chip inside a Mac isn’t such a strange thing after all, Apple can freshen up the cases for its hardware just a little bit. It’s been two-plus years for the flat-panel iMac look, so that strikes me as a likely candidate.

So there you go—six predictions that are nearly certain to be woefully off the mark. And when they are, I’ll leave the task of writing the inevitable “Worst. Keynote. Ever.” postmortem to someone else.

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