Mac soothsaying: Survey says...

What goodies are on tap for Macworld Expo?

Between getting my week's supply of vintage Power Computing T-shirts starched and blocked and scheduling assorted drinking and dining bouts with friends in the international Mac press and developer community -- if not Apple's PR department, which seems to have lost my phone number again! -- the week leading up to Macworld Expo/New York is sliding by like a dab of Crisco on a hot Teflon skillet.

Nevertheless, both honor and my editors require that I shake the moths out of my Jean-Louis Gassée signature-edition hexachrome turban and Windex the Bondi-blue crystal ball in advance of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' Wednesday morning keynote presentation.

Caveat lector: These words of wisdom come from a guy who dismissed the iMac's marketing appeal at first sight (privately, thank heavens!) and has managed to whiff some predictive at-bats completely. (Remember my zero-for-four performance at January's Macworld Expo/San Francisco?)

In short, my prognostications about next week's announcements carry about as much weight as those of the Decca Recording Co. exec who passed on signing The Beatles back in 1962. These wagers are for entertainment only; your mileage may vary.

One thing we do know going into this summer's show: An appearance by the Mac maker's chief executive-slash-avatar generally means some sort of shake up in Apple's core product line, which currently comprises four quadrants for professional and consumer desktop and laptop systems.

I don't think we're going to see big, big things from either portable sector at this show. My insiders are pretty firm that Apple's next pro PowerBook won't surface until this fall at the earliest, and I've heard nary a whisper about a serious refresh to the consumer-level iBook, which debuted at last year's New York show. Both these systems were revamped at February's Macworld Expo/Tokyo, meaning Apple still has a few months to satisfy even the most innovation-hungry notebook enthusiasts.

Instead, I vote with the Mac rumor sites that Apple's next round of envelope-pushing will focus on the desktop. More specifically, I'll lay a small, discreet bet on a pumped-up version of the iMac DV, the multimedia-enhanced version of Apple's flagship consumer desktop system that debuted way back in October 1999.

Aside from various sightings of fruit-flavored mouse and keyboard prototypes that match the iMac DV's five-color scheme, rumblings of new consumer-friendly DVD-authoring software and reports of dwindling supplies of the current models, the iMac is the line most urgently in need of rejuvenation. As I opined in a recent column, the consumer market is unforgiving of last year's fashion statement; the recent softening of iMac sales reflects that hard truth.

At the same time, I'm still having a hard time figuring out how the rumored 17-inch iMac -- or even more, a headless iMac with an external monitor -- would fit in with Jobs' stated goal of holding Apple's Mac line to a near-platonic ideal of simplicity. The Model T minimalism of the original iMac has given way to a family tree that includes five colors (six, counting the Graphic iMac DV Special Edition) and three tiers.

Adding new screen sizes to the mix -- or diving into the consumer display market after ditching its surprisingly successful imaging-hardware operation a few years ago in the name of simplicity -- would add new offshoots to a line that's already grown rather leggy. (It also raises the question of what branches will be pruned to make room for the new shoots.)

That leaves the Power Mac G4 line. While it received a goose at Macworld Expo/Tokyo, that update did little more than restore Apple pro desktop line to the clock speeds that Jobs had promised when he unveiled the first PowerPC G4-based systems at Seybold Seminars San Francisco in August 1999. ("Errata" in that generation of Motorola chips ultimately prevented the first wave of Power Mac G4 systems from reaching the 500MHz mark.)

My prediction? Jobs has another keynote turn scheduled for a scant month after Expo, when he takes the stage at the 2000 edition of Seybold Seminars San Francisco. The pro publishing show would be an ideal spot for a Power Mac G4 based on the beefier G4e processor or even the fabled multiprocessor Mac Apple first started whispering about behind the scenes at last year's Seybold.

The MP Mac could also provide a bully pulpit to demonstrate the potential of Mac OS X, which will introduce multiprocessing support among its other enhancements. Which brings me to my last prediction of this column: While Apple may introduce at Expo the 9.x OS upgrade we first reported way back in October, my pen pals are markedly bearish on the chances that the company will deliver the Mac OS X public beta (promised for this summer) at next week's show.

And I'm spent! Let's gather back here next week and see how I did; in the meantime, please show your soothsaying chops in the TalkBack space below.


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