Apple is holding a media event at their Cupertino campus on Wednesday, October 20 and based on the image of a lion peeking out from behind the company logo on their invitation, everyone is expecting a preview of the next Mac OS X 10.7, presumably codenamed “Lion.” But could new hardware also be on the horizon?
As it turns out, the rumor mills are already grinding overtime with speculation on what new Mac hardware we might see come Wednesday -- and here’s a roundup, complete with some predictions of our own.
Exhale, MacBook Air
Tech pundits seem to universally agree that a new MacBook Air is in the cards, particularly since the original unibody MacBook first introduced in January, 2008 has generally been viewed as overpriced and underperforming, despite two subsequent revisions to the hardware.
So what can a new MacBook Air offer to remain relevant in the post-iPad era? It seems that Apple plans to eschew a traditional hard drive or even conventional SSD storage in favor of a proprietary “SSD Card” storage embedded right into the device itself -- similar to what is already done with the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
Such a move would not only allow the already impossibly thin MacBook Air to shed even more weight and form, but also allow for what MacRumors has called “significantly faster boot and wake times” -- not to mention substantially lower prices, since the Air would essentially become a clamshell iPad with a hardware keyboard and extra ports that happens to run Mac OS X instead of iOS.
There are also conflicting rumors about the size of a new Air display -- AppleInsider claims one of their sources has it on good authority that the screen will be reduced to 11.6 inches, while photos leaked Friday night to Engadget appear to keep the current 13.3-inch form. Perhaps there will be two screen sizes available? Sources also indicate that the refreshed laptop may already be in manufacturing, which points to it being available immediately following Wednesday’s media event.
While all of that sounds great, what if the MacBook Air also gained the power of touch -- even if it was limited at first?
Come On, Come On, Come On, Come On, Now Touch Me, Babe
Now that Apple has revolutionized the touchscreen mobile device with the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, many pundits are speculating that Cupertino will bring the fun back home to its Mac products. Of course, PC manufacturers like HP have already been mining the touchscreen computer market for a while now with only modest success -- but let’s not forget, people were saying the same about the tablet market prior to the iPad, and we all know how that’s playing out.
Apple clearly thinks that touch is the future now that both of their key input devices are using it (Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad), but is the world ready for a touchscreen iMac or MacBook? By its very nature, touchscreens require a somewhat different user interface than traditional mouse-driven computers -- small icons and windows that currently work just fine via traditional methods are probably not what Apple would aim for, especially when there’s already plenty of evidence to show why it doesn’t work (Windows 7 running on various tablet devices such as the HP Slate or the Archos 9).
If the current Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6 isn’t quite ready to enable touchscreen computing on the Mac, perhaps the next version, rumored to be Lion 10.7, will be -- possibly even going so far as to adopt some of the simplicity we know and love with iOS to do it more efficiently.
Both the MacBook Air and the iMac would seem to be ideal candidates to launch a touchscreen Mac -- the Air would then have the best of both worlds (touchscreen plus a hardware keyboard and trackpad), where the iMac could be adopted to pivot to more easily allow touch gestures for controlling it, as recent Apple patent applications have shown.
Unfortunately, we don’t see Apple announcing a full-on touchscreen Mac on Wednesday -- but that doesn’t mean that they won’t show a preview of how one will work under Lion 10.7, and perhaps a new MacBook Air would tide us over in the meantime, allowing some basic Magic Trackpad-like gestures right on the screen.
Playing Catch-Up: 3G, USB 3.0, eSATA, Blu-ray
It’s hard to remember all these years later, but Apple was once an innovator when it came to adopting technology early on and pushing for it to become a standard. USB 1.0 and Firewire 400 were on Macs well before many of their PC brethren, but my, how times have changed.
A lot of great technology has passed completely by Apple’s radar: 3G-equipped laptops, Blu-ray, eSATA and USB 3.0, to name a few. We’ve had product refreshes for the MacBook Pro and Mac Pro this year, neither of which offered any of these technologies -- although they’re all available as third-party add-ons, but it would be nice to see them adopted by Apple and officially implemented.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs has famously dismissed Blu-ray as “a bag of hurt” and we won’t argue that -- consumers are clearly enjoying the benefits of streaming video services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus or even downloads via iTunes, all of which make optical discs look positively ‘90s by comparison. But a blessing from Apple and having at least a build-to-order option available for Blu-ray might go a long way toward helping the format find its footing.
eSATA is almost an embarrassing omission by this point, particularly since the MacBook Pro was updated last year, losing its ExpressCard expansion slot in favor of… an SD card slot? With almost every cheap external hard drive featuring both USB and eSATA connections, Apple should be ashamed that they haven’t gotten on the ball by now.
USB 3.0, on the other hand, is so new that its adoption by accessory makers and PC manufacturers has been slow, but that’s still no excuse for Apple not to get on board -- particularly when it’s backward compatible with existing USB 2.0 and USB 1.0 devices. Cupertino has already put Firewire on notice by removing the more common FW400 connector from its laptops in favor of Firewire 800, so it appears that USB 3.0 may very well wind up being the victor in this contest by default.
The lack of a 3G-equipped Apple laptop for wireless data access on the go is also a head-scratcher, especially when the iPhone and iPad have it and Cupertino is already in bed with at least one major carrier (the cats at AT&T). Maybe Apple has held out, waiting to offer an all-in-one solution that can use any available 3G network, be it GSM (AT&T or T-Mobile) or CDMA (Verizon or Sprint). Now that Apple appears to be BFFs with Verizon thanks to their iPad deal, perhaps the new MacBook Air will be the first to introduce such a feature -- or maybe Apple just feels the proliferation of MiFi and USB modems makes it no longer necessary.
iTunes Everywhere: Up in the Clouds
Apple is facing a fork in the road with its Mac-based iTunes -- in the past, having your content in one library, neatly stored on your computer was the best way to go, since you could always sync it over to any device as needed. But the company has changed its tactic with the new Apple TV, shrinking the box and eschewing the onboard hard drive used to store such media in an effort to drive their own streaming rental market -- meaning you now have to pull your own content from an available iTunes library.
While you can always leave your computer running 24/7 to serve content to your Apple TV, it’s not ideal for many users (not to mention the environment or your electric bill). A Mac mini jacked into your home theatre makes an attractive choice for those who can afford it -- not to mention having a full computer available to watch Adobe Flash content from TV network websites or Hulu that you can’t get elsewhere.
That leaves Apple with two choices: Host everyone’s content on their own cloud servers so it’s available all the time (which would require a reasonably fast Internet connection), or offer a hardware alternative in the form of a home network box to host your iTunes library and make it available to any computer or device that needs it.
Either of those options also solves another nagging problem, which is the onboard storage required to sync all of that media to. This year, Apple sent a very clear message when it failed to bump the iPhone 4 higher than 32GB, while the iPod touch kept the same maximum 64GB as last year. In both cases, Apple had been doubling the storage capacity each year prior -- so what happened?
Most likely, flash storage in capacities higher than 64GB is cost-prohibitive right now, but it could be that Cupertino has something else up their sleeve -- such as the massive data center they’re putting the wraps on in North Carolina right now. Rumors have been swirling for months that Apple’s acquisition of Lala.com points to a cloud-based iTunes, perhaps backed by a subscription fee which allows a user to consume all of the music they want for a monthly fee, without worrying about where to store it all on their computer. But some people will always want a local option within their home network.
iTunes Everywhere: AirPlay Server
While a cloud-based strategy would be an attractive one for on-the-go users, it’s also complicated by the reality that not everyone has a strong Wi-Fi or 3G connection all the time to bring their media down from Apple’s data pipes. We think a more attractive strategy would be something we’re calling “AirPlay Server” -- essentially a souped-up Time Capsule with ample, upgradable storage which would house the iTunes content from everyone in your household and make it available to every Mac or Windows system running iTunes, your Apple TV and even your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad.
We already know that Apple is rolling AirPlay into iOS 4.2, allowing you to play content from your mobile device to the Apple TV much in the same way you can already do from an iTunes-equipped computer. But that’s really only a halfway point, because ultimately users would like the capability of using their mobile device to watch or listen to their iTunes content without having to worry about syncing it first.
The answer could be a hard drive-equipped AirPlay Server, essentially a network-attached storage (NAS) box with at least 2TB of hard drive space and the ability to add more by plugging in external USB hard drives. Such a solution would also require some additional media management capabilities on the software side with iTunes -- for instance, you might want to keep your music library locally on your computer but have a backup copy synced to the AirPlay Server in order to feed tunes to your iOS device when the computer is off.
On the flip side, maybe another new box isn’t the answer -- after all, any user with an Airport Extreme could plug a high-capacity hard drive into the router’s USB port and mount that on every Mac or PC in the house. Or it could even be the aforementioned home theatre Mac mini, whose iTunes library can be shared easily with other computers using iTunes or even the Apple TV. But we still think there must be a better way.
One Last Thing: MacPad?
There’s one last area that Apple hasn’t fully covered, and in fact has outright dismissed: The netbook. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad earlier this year, he essentially made the argument that nobody wants a netbook because it’s underpowered and not a real laptop anyway, and the juggernaut sales of the iPad thus far would seem to indicate that he was right.
However, the MacBook Air may not yet be the full-featured, sub-$1,000 laptop that everyone is hoping for from Apple, which still leaves open a market for people who can’t afford full Mac OS X-equipped hardware but who find the iPad limiting when it comes to getting actual work done (running Microsoft Office, for instance). So why not pull the best traits of the iPad and the MacBook and give the people what they want?
For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the MacPad -- a smaller-form laptop capable of running full iOS apps as well as light-duty Mac OS X programs such as those included by Apple, including Mail, iCal, Address Book or even iLife/iWork. Sure, you wouldn’t want to install memory-hungry applications like Adobe Photoshop CS5 on something such as this, but it would serve as direct competition for Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS -- or rather, blow it out of the water, since it would be capable of not only running the hundreds of thousands of iOS apps, but also Mac OS X applications as well. Built-in 3G wireless connectivity would also be a must-have here.
Come to think of it, maybe Apple is already set to unveil just such a device on Wednesday -- assuming that photo of an 11.6-inch MacBook Air isn’t really an Air at all. Then again, Apple may have really written off the netbook market as they’ve publicly stated -- but it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve slagged something in public only to turn around and jump on the bandwagon anyway (or do it one better). We love our iPads, but not everyone is ready to make that leap, particularly when Apple hasn’t gotten iOS to maturity just yet.
Keeping Us In Suspense
Whatever Apple has in store for us come Wednesday, you can bet that there are plenty more surprises to come -- the folks in Cupertino don’t seem content to sit on their hands for very long, although we acknowledge that it’s getting harder and harder for them to pull rabbits out of their hat, given the constant barrage of rumors, leaks and speculation the company is constantly having to contend with.
One thing’s for sure: We’ll all be watching come Wednesday (hopefully via streaming video feed like the September 1 music event), and the Mac will again have its day in the sun, reminding us all how we got here in the first place.
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(Images courtesy of AppleInsider, Engadget and Patently Apple)