While the Apple community is buzzing about Steve Jobs pulling out of Macworld -- and speculating about a Mac Server and tablet PC -- upgrades to Mac OS X, the iMac, and Mac Mini are expected.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

January 2, 2009

10 Min Read

Leave it to Apple to steal headlines by doing nothing. The big talk leading up to Macworld Conference & Expo, which kicks off today in San Francisco, was all about Apple's abrupt announcement late last month that Steve Jobs will not deliver his traditional keynote address this year, and that Apple won't exhibit at the conference beginning in 2010.

Steve Jobs will be a Macworld 2009 no-show.

The announcements set off a tidal wave of speculation and rumors. Many people wondered whether Jobs is pulling out because he's too sick to participate. Jobs survived serious cancer treatment in 2004, and since then there have been several waves of rumors about his failing health. Nobody, however, has presented a single scrap of evidence that Jobs is actually sick. It's all a bunch of gossip.

In the latest round of speculation, the gadget blog Gizmodo last week claimed to have an inside source who says Jobs's health is rapidly declining. Apple's stock price dropped more than three points within minutes of the report. CNBC columnist Jim Goldman said the report is unfounded, noting that if Apple is misrepresenting or withholding information about Jobs's health, "someone -- indeed a lot of people -- could be going to jail." The sharp drop in stock price is an indication of Apple investors being "skittish" and having "little conviction" in Apple, Goldman said.

Kara Swisher, writing on the Wall Street Journal blog All Things Digital, scolded the rumormongers in her grandmother's language, calling them "crepe-hangers." Crunchgear suggested Goldman and Gizmodo settle the dispute with a "slapfight."

But blogger Robert Scoble settled the question: "I'm in Palo Alto. Just had yogurt at shop that Steve Jobs eats at frequently. They said he was in a couple of days ago and is in great health," he wrote on FriendFeed on Tuesday.

Good investigative reporting there, Robert. But what flavor yogurt does Jobs like?

[Update: Jobs announced Monday, 1/5, that he lost weight throughout 2008 due to a hormonal imbalance. He said he is undergoing treatment, is staying on as CEO, and expect to regain his lost weight by spring. ]

Yet another wave of speculation surrounded the future of the conference. Macworld Expo is the big annual reunion for the Mac family, where the most committed users, and vendors large and small, get together to network, communicate, and make deals. Apple's big, sprawling booth and the traditional Jobs keynote are like the anchor stores at a mall. Can Macworld survive without Apple? If it does, it'll be a different show than it was before.

But business continues as usual for the Apple community. This time of year, that means speculation, leaks, and rumors about what the company is likely to announce at Macworld. Philip Schiller, Apple's senior VP of worldwide product marketing, will deliver the keynote in Jobs's place. Let's take a look at what he's likely to unveil. Probable: New iMacs, Mac Minis, And Snow Leopard Preview

Apple's all-in-one consumer iMac, and its low-end Mac Mini, are both likely to get an upgrade at Macworld. The company plans to add Nvidia chipsets to the new models to take advantage of the capabilities of the upcoming Snow Leopard operating system, according to the Apple blog 9to5Mac. The new machines also will include new quad-core CPUs from Intel designed for small PCs and all-in-one PCs, and new cooling technology for chips using a magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis, according to the Apple blog Cult of Mac, which attributes the report to the Chinese-language Economic Daily News. (Asian business publications are often good sources of Apple news because that's where Apple manufactures its products.)

Apple's Mac Mini is likely to get an upgrade.

The Mini will get its internal optical drive replaced with a SATA optical hard drive that can be swapped out for a second SATA hard drive, according to The Unofficial Apple Weblog. That'll be great for departments and small businesses using the Mini as a server. And the Mini gets a facelift -- instead of the current white plastic top, the computer will be designed with black plastic and aluminum, like Apple's other, newer products. Instead of a smooth surface, the Mini will have a "lip" similar to Time Capsule.

The Mini is, to the casual observer, the most boring product Apple sells. It's a simple, boxy, sub-$1,000 computer, without even a keyboard, mouse, and display (you have to buy those separately). Last year, Apple blogs were buzzing with rumors that Apple planned to discontinue the model entirely.

But the plain-jane Mini actually leads a fascinating secret life, according to MacMiniColo, a Las Vegas hosting service based on Mac Minis.

"Many people are looking to use their Mac minis as servers in data centers such as ours," according to the company. "However, there are also quite a few who just need some advice on setting it up in their own situations. For instance, here in Las Vegas, I know there are at least 10,000 Mac minis running in the different hotels and casinos on the strip. Many are used for video security points. Certain casino companies use Mac minis in each of the slot islands on a casino floor to manage the back end. I know of one nationwide salon franchise that uses two Mac minis for each one of their stores. (One on-site and one off-site as a backup.)"

The Mac mini sells twice as frequently to businesses as it does to consumers, MacMiniColo says. And it's consistently in the top five of Amazon's bestselling desktop computers.

It's easy to leap to the assumption that the Mini sells badly, and Apple plans to kill it, because Apple doesn't update the product often. But it's not a neglected product because sales are bad -- it's because sales are good, MacMiniColo says. "If a company can use less expensive parts and still sell for the higher price, it makes sense that they would do that. The Mac mini was never intended to be a screamer like the MacBook and iMac lines. In their current condition, the Mac mini works just fine as casual consumer desktops. And they work great as servers."

Also, the Mini blends into the background. MacBooks, iMacs, and iPhones are all highly stylish product that leap out, but the Mini is a plain box.

Personally, if I make a big Apple purchase in 2009, it might well be a Mac Mini; I've been hankering recently for an Internet-connected video server for our living room TV, and a Mini (possibly with an external hard drive) would do the job nicely.

Rounding out the probable announcements from Apple at Macworld: Expect to see a preview of the upcoming Snow Leopard upgrade to Mac OS X. Snow Leopard, a/k/a Mac OS X 10.6, is due out in early 2009, and will be the first major upgrade of the operating system in about a year and a half, since Apple introduced the current version of Mac OS X, version 10.5, a/k/a Leopard. So far, Apple's been saying that Snow Leopard's enhancements will be exclusively focused on performance, for processor and graphics improvements. The Guardian predicts Apple will showcase Snow Leopard at Macworld, a prediction akin to forecasting the sunrise. It's a major operating system upgrade, it's been announced, it's due in early 2009 -- how can Apple not showcase it?

Mac OS X 10.6, due in early 2009, will be the first major upgrade of the OS in about a year and a half.

My gut feeling is that, despite Apple's protests that all the improvements in Snow Leopard will be under the hood, we'll see a couple of new features and capabilities for end-users. Apple likes surprise announcements.

Those are the announcements we're nearly certain to see at Macworld. The next batch are possible, but nowhere near certain. They're believable predictions from usually reliable blogs and news sites, but they lack the widespread sourcing that make them seem likely.

Possible: Media Server, iWork Goes Into The Cloud, And The Perennial Mac Tablet Rumor

Apple plans to introduce a hardware media server (hmmm, maybe I should hold off on buying that Mac Mini), giving users access from anywhere on the Internet to all their music, video, and photos, from devices including the iPod, iPhone Touch, and Apple TV, according to 9to5Mac. The device will connect to MobileMe with a system called Dynamic DNS, so each server would have its own subdomain on me.com -- for example, if Steve Jobs names his media server after himself, it would be at SteveJobs.me.com. The server will be based on the current Time Machine backup server, which includes the ARM processor, not the more expensive Intel/Leopard server configuration. The machine will offer built-in networking connectivity to cable modems or DSL, power-saving features like turning off hard drives when not in use, and multiple hard drive configurations for RAID 5 redundancy.

iWork, Apple's suite of office software, will become a cloud app suite, competing with Google Docs and office suites from Microsoft and Zoho, says 9to5Mac, which goes on to wonder whether the apps will run on the iPhone and iPod Touch, and whether they'll have traditional apps to provide offline support, or whether offline support be handled entirely in the browser.

And it wouldn't be winter without the rumor that Apple is getting ready to introduce a tablet PC. (It wouldn't be spring, summer, or fall, either). The latest incarnation of this rumor: Apple will introduce an iPod touch in the fall of '09 with a 7- or 9-inch screen, according to TechCrunch, which adds that it's talked to someone who's seen and handled prototypes.

"Apple has been experimenting internally with large-form tablet devices for years, one source says, but there was concern that users wouldn't like the device," TechCrunch says. "The difference now is the iTunes app store, which has thousands of games and other applications that are perfect for a touch-screen device with an accelerometer. Apple says more than 300 million applications have been downloaded since the App Store launched in July 2008. Combine the App Store, iTunes, and a browser and you have one heck of a device."

It's inevitable that Apple will introduce something like a big-screen iPhone or Touch in the next few years. It just makes sense. If you predict a wide-screen Touch every year, eventually you'll be right.

In a short time -- Tuesday at 9 a.m. Pacific time -- Schiller will take the stage for the keynote and deliver Apple's announcements for Macworld 2009, putting an end to rumors and speculation. For a short time. The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference is the other traditional venue for big Apple announcements. That's in the spring. Anybody got any ideas what Apple's planning there?

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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