Imagining Apple’s new products

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Every time there’s an Apple event on the schedule, it happens. Someone who knows what I do for a living sidles up to me and says, “So, what’s Apple going to announce?”

When I tell them that Apple doesn’t give Macworld any advance looks at new products beyond the occasional Mac OS X preview, they don’t believe me. But it’s true. With the exception of the 15 minutes I held a prerelease iPhone last January, I first laid hands on a shipping iPhone at approximately 6:15 p.m. Pacific Time on iPhone day. Apple is successful at keeping secrets because it really keeps secrets.

So when I tell you that I’m about to try and predict some of what we’ll see at the Macworld Expo Keynote on Tuesday at 9 a.m. Pacific, I’m counting on your understanding that nobody from Apple has told me a darned thing. (If they did, I wouldn’t be here — I’d be hiding in secrecy, waiting to reveal what I know right after the Keynote ends.) In order to enter the Realm of Speculation you must be this tall. Got it?

The Subnotebook

I think it’s going to happen. As a longtime advocate of small Mac laptops — I chose to use an iBook before the 12-inch PowerBook G4 arrived on the scene, and after that product disappeared with the advent of the MacBook, I opted for the MacBook over the snazzier MacBook Pro — I’m excited about the possibility that Apple will be releasing a small, light laptop.

The current MacBook weighs five pounds, and is 12.78 inches wide, 8.92 inches deep, and 1.08 inches thick. My prediction for this new device: 11 inches wide (slightly more than the width of a full-size keyboard), 7.5 inches deep (slightly higher than the height of the MacBook display), and .6 inches thick. Even at slightly larger dimensions — say, 12 x 8 x .75 — that will make this the smallest Mac laptop by volume ever. As for weight, let’s say just under four pounds.

As for the tech specs, I’m going to guess at a set of features similar to a MacBook — which is no slouch, even though it’s the “consumer” laptop. So that means a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I’m going to guess it’ll be a 12- or 13-inch screen, and despite the size I’m inclined to go for a 13-inch model just because as a veteran of that 12-inch PowerBook G4, take it from me that the latest trends in Apple interface design make it awfully hard to work on a 12-inch screen.

I’m a believer in the rumor that Apple’s new tiny laptop won’t have a built-in optical drive. Not only has Apple shown a great deal of skepticism about the future of optical media, but it just makes sense to throw a DVD overboard if you’re trying to save space. I don’t watch DVDs on my laptop anymore, anyway — I watch movies on my iPhone or on my laptop using iTunes.

That brings us to storage. All the hot talk is about the Apple subnotebook using flash memory, but like my compatriot John Gruber, I’m having a hard time seeing it. The costs of flash memory, even for Apple, are huge. The iPhone doesn’t even have more than 8GB of storage space, and 8GB or 16GB of disk space doesn’t seem that practical to me.

I’m brought back to all the rumors and speculation about the Apple TV having flash-based storage or even no storage on board. Turned out that was all wrong — the Apple TV has a tiny laptop drive inside. Likewise, I think this Apple subnotebook is going to have a hard drive in it. Yes, it might be the same 1.8-inch drive size we see in the iPod classic line. Those are some tiny drives, and the 80GB iPod classic is a scant .41 inch thick.

Speaking of storage, let’s talk syncing. I am of the belief that, flash drive or tiny hard drive, what will make any small-storage laptop sing is smart syncing software. Apple’s learned a lot when it comes to syncing, since it has to sync data back and forth between Macs and PCs and iPods and iPhones. Toss in all the data that’s covered by .Mac syncing, too. And Leopard’s Back To My Mac feature.

So imagine a tiny laptop that automatically syncs — maybe even wirelessly — back to its “parent” Mac. Bookmarks, e-mail accounts, contacts, calendars, you name it. Even key files placed in a certain folder or matching a certain set of Spotlight criteria. Doesn’t sound unreasonable, does it? With some smart syncing software, a tiny Mac laptop doesn’t need to carry your entire life. It just needs to sync the relevant parts for when you’re on the go, then sync them back when you return home. That’s not a proposition that will work for hard-core road warriors, but it will work for people who take briefer sojourns with their laptops and prefer to work on desktop Macs when they’re stationary.

Finally, connections and ports. I can’t see how this laptop can’t have at least one USB port, though it would be a bold move to toss off all ports and force us to put our faith in Bluetooth. Likewise, you’d think an Ethernet port would be at hand, but the last time I checked Ethernet plugs were kind of big. I shiver at the idea of another proprietary adapter module, but that might be the only answer. As for video-out functionality, it’s got to be there. Laptops are for on-the-road presentations. But will it be mini-DVI, as on the MacBook, or something even tinier?

Don’t ask me to guess the price. The MacBook starts at $1,099 and the MacBook Pro at $1,999. I’d imagine this product would be somewhere in between. My hope would be $1,499. My fear is $1,799. But prices are hard to fathom, and go beyond the realm of the technical and into many financial realms to which I am not privy.

Finally, a word about the rumors about “Something is in the air,” a slogan found on an Apple banner at Moscone Center. Well, that could mean anything — which is why we were allowed to see that slogan before midday tomorrow. But it’s set off a load of speculation about a new Apple notebook having some sort of snazzy built-in wireless networking technology. Could this new notebook have a built-in long-range wireless technology, like Amazon’s Kindle? It’s an intriguing idea. I’m not sure what I think of it. It would be kind of cool, but I’m not sure it’s essential to imagining this theoretical product in action.

Everything Else

I think the subnotebook is going to be the banner product of this year’s Keynote, but I’m happy to predict other announcements as well. It sounds like the rumored iTunes movie rental deal is going to happen, and that’s exciting — especially assuming that those rentals will be playable both on iPods and, via a software update, Apple TV. Having rentals available gives the Apple TV relevance it currently doesn’t enjoy. I love mine, but I know the ways of HandBrake and VisualHub. Regular people don’t, and that’s the problem.

In terms of the iPhone, I’m going to guess that Apple’s going to announce a 16GB variation on the existing iPhone. The iPod touch comes in a 16GB version, and with the holiday season over, presumably it’s safer for Apple to move some of its flash memory over and give the iPhone product line some love. A 16GB iPhone (for a stepped-up price) would make Apple a lot of money, and make a lot of iPhone buyers happy.

I imagine that Apple will also announce some sort of iPhone software update, presumably with some nice (but modest) new features. And I’m expecting that Jobs will give us a taste of what’s to come with the promised February appearance of third-party development for the iPhone. My guess is that we might get a demonstration of a third-party iPhone program from a Special Partner, but it’s just as likely that Jobs will simply cite Apple’s intent to open the iPhone for third-party development and leave it at that.

Finally, let me deal with what’s usually the first part of the keynote: the financial stats. I expect Apple’s iPod sales from this holiday season to be superb, but when charted against the past two years it will be clear that the iPod’s gigantic growth is beginning to slow. Silly members of the chattering class will then write articles about how Apple’s iPod sales are dropping, when in reality they’re still rising, but at a slower rate. A volley of responses to those silly articles will follow.

I’d imagine that Jobs will also trumpet continued record Mac sales, probably with a factoid about how many switchers the company is bringing to its ranks. And finally, my guess is that Jobs will spill the beans on the latest iPhone sales figures, a number that will probably make people’s eyes pop.

Anyway, those are my speculations. What are yours?

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