Monday, January 08, 2007

Will 2007 turn Apple into Sony?

Damn. One of the real reasons why I always wanted to write a Mac blog was so that I can publish Macworld Expo predictions and speculation. However, this year is difficult. There are already way too many shoo-ins, too much speculation, and a general cornucopia of rumors, predictions and wishes.

But anyway, these are my pre-expo thoughts. As this post will have a very short shelf life, I'm not bothering with links or references. Use Google at your own discretion.

What's given

iLife '07
can't just be merely inferred from a pattern, it's been leaked brutally (by iWork will almost certainly receive an update, too. Leopard and iTV are the rare things that Apple pre-announced, so some details will certainly follow. Of these two, the iTV doesn't create that much buzz, though it's yet another non-Mac product from Apple with a GUI and an OS of its own, and should thus warrant great interest as a significant player in the diversification of Apple.


I think Leopard's Top Secret features are perhaps the most eagerly anticipated items in the keynote. Leopard will certainly be a developer's delight with Objective-C 2.0, Core Animation, greatly enhanced developer tools and other killer features, but the consumer appeal of the new OS itself may be lacking a bit in comparison to earlier Mac OS X upgrades, especially in light of the slower update cycle that debuts with Leopard (which will ship after an almost two-year wait over Tiger). By the way, I don't think Leopard will ship any earlier than the spring deadline Apple announced. It just doesn't seem ready yet.

Rumors suggest an updated GUI, though nobody knows whether this change (if true) would only be skin deep, or it would add new behaviors or change existing ones. I guess the iTunes look (i.e. gray window borders without textures, flat, matte scroll widgets, and a shiny 3D selection highlight among others) will become more widespread, at least this would be the least surprising development (and certainly a welcome one over the brushed metal look, though not necessarily suitable to replace current non-textured windows).

If the look and feel change, I certainly hope for the following:

  • Hopefully, it won't be such a radical change that all icons, buttons and other custom graphics of third-party apps would need to be redone in order to avoid looking out of place. This was the case with the switch from Platinum to Aqua, and the transitional period wasn't pretty. Platinum icons on Aqua backgrounds looked decidedly horrible.
  • I hope pinstripes will be gone for good.
  • The ability to select a neutral gray color scheme (unlike the blue-biased Graphite theme) would be good for graphic designers.
If changes go beyond looks, I'd like to see a revamped Dock with some hierarchy or grouping of the countless random objects that thrive there. And, of course, many hope for the return of a spatial Finder, or at least the debut of a simply better one.

I've been thinking a lot about the "top secret" features, and have considered various theories on why these have been kept secret. The official explanation has been to prevent premature copying by Microsoft, but many wondered what Microsoft could have copied in the few months between the WWDC and Vista's debut other than looks – and this has certainly helped the "new GUI look" rumor gain momentum.

However, I don't think Apple's fear of the Redmond copycats necessarily involved Microsoft looking at Leopard features in August and squeezing them into Vista in two months' time.

Instead, this is what I think this "fear from copying" might have involved:
  • Announcing even difficult-to-copy features seven months before shipping, rather than only two months ahead, would give Microsoft five more months to catch up with these in a Service Pack release of Vista. Apple has bought itself five more months of market lead on these (still mysterious) features.
  • Microsoft isn't the only company that copies Apple. With the advent of the so-called Web 2.0, rich web interfaces abound, and many Apple design trends already surface on new websites. Today, web applications sometimes approach the functionality of desktop apps, and their development and distribution can be very fast.
  • Most likely, though, I suspect that at least some of the "Top Secret" features have something to do with as yet unannounced products, both hardware and software. Just one example: I think .Mac will be seriously revamped (the updated webmail client may be a hint of some progress going on behind the scenes), and just about everyone agrees that Dot-Mac sucks. The complaints have been going on for so long (and have yet to be addressed by Apple) that I'm sure something is happening by now. Oh, and of course, the iPod phone and the touchscreen iPod wil both use some extra tie-ins with Leopard.
Macs updated? Yawn…

Some Mac models will likely be updated. Eight-core Mac Pros do sound cool (c'mon, eight freakin' cores), even though the OS won't support them really, but come on, when did that particular problem stop Apple from releasing new pro hardware?

But frankly, who cares? If 2007 is going to be a great product year for Apple, I'd really like to see new things. Apple calls just about all of its years "great product years," with "exciting products down the pipeline," but these usually merely signify updated laptops, desktops and iPods with elegant, minimalist designs.

I actually hope that Mac updates will be a minor part of the keynote, or they may not even make it into the keynote.

Sonification ahead?

I mean, sure, it's great if the Mac Pro receives yet another update and gets even faster (prompting Phil Schiller to announce with genuine enthusiasm that "this is the fastest Mac ever," as if we were somehow expecting Macs to get slower every year), but still: there's only so much enthusiasm incremental updates, or even new form factors such as the Mac mini can create. I hope Apple is in a position today to become more like Sony, and diversify. Create new things. As in, mobile phones and PDAs. Apple-branded versions of these devices have been but a pipe dream for a long time, but not any more. The iPod phone is a given (though not necessarily at the Expo), and the iPod PDA is a possibility.

As it turns out, at least one of Apple's MWSF posters will tout the year 2007 (as does Apple's homepage). Will we see a(n unlikely) roadmap for the rest of the year, or will 2007 start with a bang? We'll see very soon.

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