Spoutin' Off: Apple speculation could bear fruit

By Michael Rau

March 17, 2009

It's time, once again, to engage in one of my favorite activities.

A letter from a reader reminded me that I haven't poked into Apple's business for a while. And with plenty of juicy tidbits flowing from Steve Jobs' progeny, it seems like a good time.

Where to start...

Okay. Apple just introduced a new iPod Shuffle. Although they only offer one memory configuration (4 gb), it now has twice the capacity for the same price ($79), and is now roughly the size of a thumbdrive. Additionally, it has a new voice menu feature. Push a button and the device will tell you audibly about the track you're listening to. Pretty cool...

The week before that, Apple released upgraded versions of their entire line of desktop Macs. As you would expect, all have upgraded specs, although prices remain essentially the same.

To me, the best news out of these releases is that they upgraded the “Mini” line of desktop systems, thus signaling some commitment to trying to maintain an introductory level of Macs. The only thing I would say in regard to this is that, given the state of the economy, it might have been a good idea to retain the cheapest of the old models, while dropping its price to say, $399.

I'm still hoping to see some sort of marriage between the Mini and the Apple TV appliance, with the result being an all-inclusive multimedia device incorporating a digital TV tuner, a slot for a cable decoder card, and a DVR platform with a software management system such as that offered by El Gato with their excellent digital video interface devices.

Now let's get into the fun stuff.

As I've often expressed, speculating on what's up Apple's sleeve is about as much fun as a columnist like me can have. You can try to read the tea leaves, be wildly wrong, and still maintain your credibility because, heck... No one has ever proven unusually adept at second-guessing Apple.

With that in mind, let's talk about netbooks – those smaller, cheaper, mini-laptop like devices that are bridging the gap between smartphones and full-powered computers.

Speculation about the emergence of an Apple netbook have been all over the map (literally) over the past few weeks. A Chinese newspaper reported that Apple has ordered 10-inch touchscreens from Taiwan-based Wintek, and that Quanta Computer (also Taiwan-based) would build an Apple netbook with those screens.

This would confirm my December prediction that just such a device would emerge this year. It would basically be a larger version of the iPod Touch with a beefed-up OS X based operating system and more powerful hardware.

Others such as Salon's James Kendrick have speculated that such a device will have an actual physical keyboard, rather than one as a function of the touchscreen, citing the difficulty of engaging in productive keyboarding on such a screen.

But Apple continues to issue denials, and industry observers say speculation about such a device is premature. Some say it'll flat-out never happen because Apple hates dipping its toe in the shallow end of the pool.

But times have changed and Apple hasn't been immune to the economic downturn. In fact, they apparently just quietly laid off around 50 employees.

Paying attention to the lower end of the economic spectrum doesn't mean Apple needs to start building junk. I'd think that Apple could apply it's phenomenal industrial design and engineering capabilities to adjusting to the realities of today's economy, as I pointed out earlier with the suggestion of a lower-priced Mini.

Such a “We feel your pain” strategy would just further endear them to an already appreciative public.

Believe it or not, this brings us to St. Patrick's Day, when Apple is supposed to make an announcement regarding the next generation of the iPhone's OS X based operation system (version 3.0).

But beyond this, will Apple slip in a major announcement of another kind?

Will they finally announce plans for either a lower-priced iPhone model? Or maybe they'll announce a less expensive plan for iPhone service through AT&T. Or maybe they'll let us know who they've chosen to be the next service provider (the smart money's on Verizon).

Personally I hope they'll finally allow the iPhone to be used as a 3G modem with a laptop. The phone has the capability, and Null River has built an app to enable such a function, but Apple says their agreement with AT&T forbids this usage.

It remains the primary reason I have yet to buy an iPhone.

And what about the letter that prompted this topic?

In response to my last column about HD Radio, the writer steered me to a great iPhone app called “Public Radio Tuner”.

According to Jack, the correspondent, it “automatically makes available any of the standard and HD internet feeds feeds of hundreds of Public Radio stations from all over the country. (It includes all of the local HD feeds, which are great.)”.

Thanks, Jack.

So taking all of this into account, I guess you could say there's lots of fruit on Apple's tree.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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