Mac rumour mill is working overtime

The Mac industry got a new dose of product speculation the week before Apple's big gathering in New York

The online rumour mill, long a staple of the Macintosh community, has gone into overdrive in anticipation of next week's Macworld Expo in New York. This year, speculation is focused primarily on desktop hardware, with rumour sites hinting at speed bumps for Apple's iMac consumer systems and a radical reconfiguration of the Power Mac professional systems.

Web sites for fans of skulduggery (which rely primarily on individual, anonymous tips) have been engaged in prognostications over what stealthy hardware and software will make their public debut, most likely during Apple chief exec Steve Jobs' keynote presentation.

In the past few years, sussing out the future directions of Apple has become a field much like Kremlinology at the height of the Cold War.

Those who would attempt to divine the mind of the Mac maker rely on whispers, inside sources, and hints picked from, for example, shipping data, to break the news of what secret projects will be unveiled at the annual US expos held in San Francisco in January and New York in July.

As a result, rumour watching has become one of the most popular pastimes among the Mac enthusiast community.

Amid all the speculation, Apple has remained silent. Ever since the return of Jobs as interim and then permanent chief executive, the company has clamped down on the once-copious flow of pre-release information from within the company.

Under Jobs, Apple has reportedly instituted extensive security measures to prevent the premature release of software and hardware specs as well as the marketing materials turned out by its contractors and to seal loose lips in-house.

Recently, the company has gone so far as to threaten legal action against Web sites that display leaked information. There are even unsubstantiated reports of intentional disinformation spread to detect sources.

There have also been reports of inside information about new peripherals. In fact, reports of a new mouse and keyboard design appeared on both ZDNet News and AppleInsider, although the specifics of the industrial designs differed widely on the two sites.

And this week, some Mac rumour sites began to claim that Apple will unveil a new LCD monitor and a smaller version of the company's 22-inch (as well as rare and expensive) Cinema Display.

Depending on whom you believe, during his Expo keynote speech next Wednesday, Jobs could announce an iMac with a 17-inch CRT or perhaps a 17-inch flat-panel LCD, iMacs with up to 500MHz G3 processors made by IBM, a special-edition iMac with a G4 processor and bundled DVD-burning software, new colours, or perhaps just speed-bumped iMacs with redesigned keyboards and mice.

The Mac OS Rumours site, for example, has posted that it has seen "serious momentum" indicating the existence of an iMac DV SE with the larger monitor, in addition to a faster processor and "possibly" a DVD-RAM drive.

The site AppleInsider (an offshoot of the MacNN site) sees a bifurcation of the iMac line. Lower-end models will resemble current iMacs but will come equipped with faster processors, while the iMac DV SE is "expected" to feature a G4 processor and a 17-inch display. (It should be noted that rumors of a 17-inch iMac have circulated around the last two Macworld Expos.)

None of these sites cites direct evidence of new iMac models -- no spy shots, no technical specifications. However, the circumstantial evidence is strong.

First, there is the fact that the last iMac revision came in October 1999, and six to eight months is the normal life span for an Apple product.

Also, there are widespread reports that Apple has let the wholesale stock of iMacs thin out -- this is normally done when a new model is imminent, to prevent outdated systems from remaining in the channel. And the low-end iMac has been "end-of-lifed" -- that is, marked as unavailable.

The buzz surrounding the Power Mac line is stranger. The Godot-like multiprocessor Power Mac G4 has been a source of speculation since stories of behind-the-scenes demos at the Seybold publishing trade show last summer were spread and gained steam with a reported multiprocessing demonstration at May's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose.

Most rumour mills say that an MP Mac is imminent, but there's little agreement about configurations or date of delivery. Most reports come with the caveat that announcements about the pro line may be held until August's Seybold conference in San Francisco.

The most conservative estimates are that the new MP Mac will feature two G4 processors at the speed of current offerings -- that is, from 400MHz to 500MHz -- on the existing motherboard design. AppleInsider, which along with other sources labeled the new model the code name "Mystic", claimed that the new model will feature a revised case design that will be slightly wider than the current system.

There seems to be no consensus about whether the next Power Mac G4, whatever its configuration, will be based on the existing or the supposedly upcoming "UMA-2" motherboard design.

However, ATI Technologies, which currently supplies all OEM three-dimensional accelerator chips and cards to Apple, has said it will announce its next-generation Radeon accelerator card at Macworld Expo next week. The card has also been announced for the PC market, but only in a 4X AGP version; no current Mac motherboard supports 4X AGP.

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