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The Steve Jobs Show

A look at the speculation running up to next week’s Macworld Expo – where CEO Steve Jobs usually has a few surprises up his sleeve.

Did Apple Computer invent “buzz” marketing? The point is debatable, but there’s no arguing that since the famous “1984” Superbowl ad teaser that led to the surprise unveiling of the first Macintosh personal computer, Apple – and its once-and-current CEO Steve Jobs – have made shrewd use of secrecy, hints, and rumors. Combined with Jobs’ undeniable flair for showmanship, this philosophy makes the annual Macworld Expo keynote speeches the focus of frenzied speculation and fantasizing.

But does this approach work? Well…we’re talking about it, and the expo is still a week away.

Jobs will lift the curtain on Apple’s latest products and initiatives at the expo next week in San Francisco. Of course only he knows what’s coming in the speech. One certainty, however, is that over the next year, Apple will make a major platform transition, from the IBM- and Freescale-made Power PC processors to CPUs made by Intel, a company once seen by the Mac faithful as an enemy (i.e., Microsoft) sympathizer.

It won’t be the first such move Apple has made, though; years ago the company switched to the IBM Power PC from Motorola’s 68000-series CPUs, a change that required software developers to retool their products. In addition, Apple’s leap from Mac OS 9 to the Unix-based Mac OS X required redevelopment of all software for the Mac – a process that took major companies such as Microsoft and Adobe years.

Then there’s the radical change caused by the introduction of the wildly popular iPod in 2001, which has thrust the company into the consumer product and entertainment world. Chairman Jobs once said he had a vision of Apple becoming the Sony of the computer world. Some have taken this to mean he couldn’t wait to get out of the computer business and into content – witness his other company, Pixar.

Of course Apple representatives are mute about the content of their leader’s speech – leaving the field wide open to rumor and hearsay. Here we present a few of the most credible speculations circulating and try to deconstruct what they mean.

Apple Goes Intel

Jobs first announced the switch to Intel chips last June, at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference. He set no concrete deadlines, stating only that Intel-based Macs would emerge by June 2006, with the entire product line going all-Intel by 2007. But many Apple analysts and news sites covering Apple rumors have noted signs that the first Intel-based Mac could appear much sooner, with a possible announcement next week.

The consensus among professional analysts and other Apple watchers seems to be that the first Mac product with an Intel transplant will be a notebook computer, perhaps an iBook or a PowerBook, or both.

Tim Bajarin, president of Campbell, CA-based Creative Strategies, comes at this judgment deductively: “There’s no question that Apple has to refresh its laptop products.” Despite a late-2005 minor bump to the iBooks and PowerBooks, he notes, Apple’s notebooks have been stagnating in performance overall, even as Windows-based notebooks have grown faster and more feature-filled.

Others have gathered clues from Intel’s product roadmap. The chip maker is due to ship its newest processor, code-named Yonah, in the first quarter of 2006. The company says Yonah will enable a leap in performance and power efficiency for notebook computers. And performance per watt is exactly what Jobs pointed to when he explained the decision to move to Intel last June.

Given glowing (but anonymous) reports from programmers who have access to early developer-only, Intel-based Macs, it seems a strong bet that new Intel-based Mac notebooks will leapfrog the performance of existing models. And some observers hope for Intel-based Mac notebooks to be cheaper than existing models, depending on their specs. Throw in years of pent-up demand for high-performance Mac laptops – more than a few people who have long dreamt of a PowerBook G5 – and it means that Intel-based Macs could become the new, sexy king of the hill.

The rumor site AppleInsider.com recently reported that “reliable sources” told the site Apple plans to be one of the first or even the first company to produce laptops based on Yonah. Another Apple rumor site, ThinkSecret.com, however, notes that NEC and Dell have already announced plans for Yonah-based notebooks, with Dell hoping for a February launch.

One potential roadblock in an early Apple launch could be the availability of software. Although Jobs revealed at the developer conference in June that Apple has long had an Intel-based version of the Mac OS X operating system running in back rooms, existing software wouldn’t “just work” with the new setup. A similar problem slowed acceptance of Mac OS X – many users refused to upgrade until their mission-critical software was available in a native version, even though they could run old applications in Mac OS X’s “classic” mode, which emulated the old operating system, albeit with a performance hit.

Bare Bones Software, the developer of the professional text and HTML editor BBEdit, has said the move to software that will run natively on Intel-based Macs has been less difficult for them than the move from OS 9 to Mac OS X. But other companies are facing more significant hurdles. Microsoft, for example, will have to not only port over the 30 million lines of code in Microsoft Office, but also adopt a new development environment (a program used by software writers to assemble other programs) before it can even start. Adobe is in a similar bind.

The lack of native versions of professional software, where performance is critical, could slow adoption of Intel-based Power Macs (the Power Mac line of desktops is targeted at pro users, while iMacs are aimed at consumers). But message boards and some rumor sites are looking toward other Intel offerings, such as the 64-bit Merom and Conroe processors, due out later this year, as potential bases for pro Apple desktops.

Media Mac and New Content Deals

Another persistent rumor is that Apple will release some kind of media-center Mac model, perhaps with TiVo-like personal video recorder capabilities, a built-in iPod dock, or streaming iTunes features. Unlike existing Macs, this model would hook into a home stereo or TV, much like a Windows Media Center PC does.

Last fall, Apple refreshed its all-in-one iMac line and debuted Front Row, a piece of software that hijacks the usual Mac UI and replaces it with a simple interface – easily visible on a TV screen from the couch – allowing for presentation of photo slideshows, home movies, music, purchased TV show downloads, and movie trailers. The last item is the most interesting: if Front Row can stream movie trailers from Apple’s website, why not whole movies?

Jobs has famously said he doesn’t like TV. Yet he can’t be too upset over the fact that customers had downloaded three million videos (largely music videos and TV shows) from the iTunes Music Store by early December – before all the recipients of video iPods over the holiday got online. The movie industry, like the music industry before it, has been fighting online distribution; so maybe Chairman Jobs will be the one to put it in place.

Even without a big movie deal or a media Mac, though, it’s a no-brainer to expect more TV shows and other video content available on iTunes. We expect to see more iPod gazers with white earbuds – and now with eyes glued to tiny screens.

A New iPod?

Saturday Night Live recently produced a sketch in which their version of Steve Jobs announced a new iPod, and a minute later said it was obsolete and replaced it – with a model that was obsolete in another minute.

The iPod Shuffle, Bajarin notes, has been a terrifically popular product – but it’s out of stock now. He expects a new Shuffle model to be announced soon, probably at next week’s expo. “Here’s a product that’s extremely successful, and they kill it,” Bajarin said. The strategy may not be as insane as it sounds. He notes that the iPod mini was similarly popular, and Apple nixed it in favor of the iPod nano, which has been a major hit.

It’s possible that analyzing such rumors and speculations simply plays into Apple’s master plan – and saves the company marketing dollars by driving anticipation. But it’s reasonable to ask how long that master plan can go on succeeding. Jobs’ habit of control, secrecy, and surprise puts him at risk of painting himself into a corner, by creating expectations that even Apple may not be able to meet – at least not every year.

Daniel Drew Turner is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco.

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