WWDC 2007 Predictions

We are down to 12 hours until the Apple World-Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2007 begins and Steve Jobs gives the Keynote address. I wanted to commit to blog my thoughts about what might be coming tomorrow. This is all speculation. I have no inside information or magic crystal ball. I have not been really good about following the other blog sites this week to see what other people are saying.

Let me start by listing a few things we will not see tomorrow. I do not expect to see new laptops, at least not traditional laptops. The MacBook and MacBook Pro have both been updated recently, albeit minor updates. I think we are due for a new design for the MacBook Pro because the design has changed very little since the release of the titanium PowerBooks in 2001. Although WWDC would be a good place to release new laptops, they were just updated last week with new processor, bus, and screens.

I do not think we will see new iMacs. The iMac is targeted at the consumer user. If we see new iMacs it will probably be at a MacWorld. I think we will see the iMacs get thinner and take advantage of the new LED technology in the near future but certainly not this week.

What about the Mac Mini? The Mac Mini was last updated the same time as the iMac and is for a similar audience. I did hear some rumblings about the possibility of the Mini being discontinued. That would only make sense if there were something new to replace it at the same price point. The Mini is the perfect kiosk machine. The Mac Pro’s are too big and you can’t always use an iMac. Apple needs to have a product in the Mini space. If Apple backed off on the use of a single 2.5″ hard drive they could make the Mini less expensive and with a bigger hard drive at the same time. The form factor would have to change. I think that is highly unlikely. Apple has three products with the same footprint (Airport Extreme, AppleTV, and Mac Mini). Apple clearly likes the form factor. I do not see the motivation in changing this product. I would like to see Apple get back under $500. That was the original price point and the product has crept up since they moved to the Intel Processor.

Like the laptops, the Mac Pro was recently upgraded to the new 8-way design. I do not see any changed in this product line. The form-factor is getting a bit dated. Like the MacBook Pro, they look just like their PPC predecessors.

Also on the list of things we are not going to see would probably be any updates to the AppleTV and AirPort Extreme. Both of these product have recently been updated.

Now I can start speculating about what would like to see. I wish there were a product between the Mac Pro and the Mini — something that could accommodate two 3.5″ SATA hard drives. With innovations like TimeMachine coming in the next version of the OS, it would be great to have a Pro-sumer machine that could internally accommodate more than one drive. The Mac Pro is just too big – at least for my needs. When you look at the price points, there is room between the Mini and the Pro for a small mini tower. I like the iMacs. I also think there is some cost benefit to keeping the same monitor and simply upgrading the computer. I still have my old blue and white 17″ monitor setting in a corner of my office. I use it occasion when I need to test something with a VGA monitor. More often than not its a PC. I still have the blue and white Yosemite G3 that I bought in 1999 but it has been running headless for many years now. So there you go. I want a product for about $500 that has two hard drives, one optical drive, the usual ports, and can plug into an external monitor. It would lack card slots. Two monitors would be nice but that may be a differentiator of the Mac Pro.

Monitors have not been updated in a while. I could see Apple releasing some new thinner monitors. Here’s the evidence. At last year’s WWDC, there was much talk about resolution independence. I really did not see much discussion about what that would mean to the consumer. Then last we we got some new laptops with the option for a higher resolution screen. If you run your current apps on this new screen, it will be rendered smaller. If the apps and the OS were updated to be resolution independent, you could scale your screen to any resolution and the picture would still look great. I have not seen one of these new screens up close but I have to imagine that the image quality would suffer if you did not run the screen at its native resolution like any LCD screen.

Argument number two for some updated monitors is the recent statement from Apple responding to Greenpeace. In that response, Apple disclosed that they were working on new LED monitors. The first of those LED monitors arrived in the updated 15″ MacBook Pros.

The next argument is the lack of iSight. This does not make sense to me. The iSight was a good product. How do you do video iChat on a Mac Pro or Mac Mini without an iSight. So a new monitor with a built-in camera would be Apple-like but the iSight is still a better solution.

The Apple TV is also another compelling reason. Other competing monitors have some sort of TV or input capability. It would be nice to be able to plug in an HDMI device into my monitor and switch between the two inputs or even do a picture-in-picture thing.

The final argument that I have is multi-touch. If the monitor had a touch screen as standard equipment it would fundamentally change the way user interact with their computers. It may have not be the primary input method but it could augment the experience. This would have to come in conjunction with some sort of new surface for the screens. Today’s screens suffer horribly if someone touches them. For this I look at the iPhone. This is the same problem but on a different scale.

In summary, I would not be surprised by an announcement of a new screen to complement upcoming enhancements in the OS.

That’s about all the speculation I have for hardware, at least traditional desktops and laptops. What else is there? I think there is room for a product between the iPhone and the iMac. This would be a device that runs Mac OS X or a version of OS X. It would be primarily wireless but not a phone. It’s primary interface would be multi-touch. I do not see this device having a hard drive or optical drive. Flash memory is nearly ready for such an implementation. I see this device as being a combination notepad, graphics tablet, e-book reader, and PIM. It could leverage the same widgets that run on the iPhone and run some light-weight apps for simple editing tasks. If I can edit a Word or Excel document on my Palm, I should be able to do the same thing on this device. Inkwell may actually get to be used. Remember Inkwell?

So why haven’t we heard about such a device? Apple is good at keeping secrets. I think the reasons that we heard about the iPhone so far in advance was that it needed FCC approval. Since Apple had to disclose it to the FCC they might as well let the buzz build up for 6 months. This same logic could be applied to the AppleTV which was also uncharacteristically pre-announced. Such a new device would fundamentally be a computer with a standard 802.11 interface and not require special FCC approval. Apple could keep it a secret.

So that’s my speculation about new hardware. The model is not unlike the original plans for the Newton. Apple had planned to release several devices all running the Newton OS. If you take the phone out of the iPhone, you still have a killer PIM. It’s too expensive to just use as an iPod but if you can edit documents on it then you can take it into the meeting room with you as a tool. This new device could be priced in the $999 price point. Hopefully it would let you use a bluetooth mouse and keyboard as a replacement for the Mac Mini.

Do I think we will see a new iPod this week? I think a new iPod coming out this week would really confuse the public. This month is all about the iPhone. I’m sure there will be an iPod out that can do everything that iPhone can do without the phone capability but with a hard drive so I can store a few movies on the disk. The iPhone lacks a hard drive and with only 8 GB would not hold my library that I like to carry around. This would be a good Christmas product or a Macworld 2008 release.

Since this is a developer conference I need to get back to the heart of the matter and that is Leopard. Apple announced leopard a year ago and sent everyone home with a developer preview. I immediately noticed that the Finder had not been touched in this preview and there was virtually no discussion about ay changes to the Finder. Core Animation will be pervasive in areas like TimeMachine. It does not make sense for there not to be Core Animation. However, the Finder remains untouched in recent builds of Leopard. Then Apple announces that a feature-complete version of Leopard is coming. Translation: Apple will let us see what they have been working on to replace the Finder.

When you mix the Finder with Core Animation and multi-touch, you get some really cool possibilities. Think Minority Report but on a much smaller scale. I really do not see people waiving their arms in the air like Tom Cruise. You can image all the Repetitive Street complaints workers would have. This also goes hand-in-hand with the idea of a tablet device. Users could zoom in on documents to see a preview right in the Finder. Items could be stacked together in piles using natural physics and gravity.

The Finder itself is a representation of the hierarchical nature of the underlying file system. Documents are stored in folders. Folders are stored in other folders or on Volumes (hard drives). Looking back to the Newton again for inspiration I am reminded that the Newton did not have a hierarchical file system. The Newton uses something called a soup to store data. When an application wanted to save some data it created a new soup and save the data into that soup. The soup remembered all the meta data about your data. All the user had to worry about was wether or not it was being saved to the internal memory or a removable memory card. This sounds a lot like ZFS. Apple has already gone a long way in this direction. When you want to save a document, you save it in the Documents folder. This has been around since Mac OS 7. Users don’t care where things are store so long as they can find them and they get backed up. Sun recently spilled the beans on ZFS so it seems like a sure thing.

I’m sure there’s at lease one more wiz-bang thing that we’ll see tomorrow that I have not thought of yet but there seems to be a common thread in my predictions anyway. I think Apple will be attacking our expectations as to how we interact with a computer. All the pieces are in place for a tablet form factor that could actually be a viable product. Previous incarnations failed because they did not address the nature of the form factor. Having multi-touch, resolution independent graphics, ZFS, and a new Core Animation finder could all come together to make a tablet work.

We’ll see in 12 hours.

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