For some reason, a few popular blogs took me as an authority on this and linked to my iPod predictions post as if it were newsworthy. (Sometimes my audience becomes bigger than I intend. I know. It actually sucks in some ways.)
Let me be absolutely clear on this: Apple speculation is completely theoretical. It’s like the “futurists” in the 1950s who predicted that we’d have flying cars and all-plastic furniture in 1999 (well…). You should expect a very poor success rate on such predictions.
I have no idea what Apple is doing. Nobody does. I have no informants and no connections. I have no more information than you could find on the rumor sites — in fact, I don’t even read them and I usually ignore their information (because it’s usually wrong). Predicting Apple’s upcoming product launches with a moderate degree of accuracy, which is all you need to be “credible” in the area, is very, very easy. Here’s how.
Realistic or wishful?
When the possibility of a new product arises, separate the allure of what fans want from the reality of what’s best for Apple, the integrity of their product lines, and their long-term goals.
Netbooks are a great example. The Apple netbook was rumored for so long because fans wanted a very cheap Apple laptop. (See previous rumors for the xMac tower.) But there won’t be a $299 MacBook for the foreseeable future. It’s just not realistic in the big picture of what Apple does.
You can safely discount any rumor that Apple will significantly lower the entry price of a high-profile product line. They’re selling an assload of laptops at $1200, so they’re almost definitely not going to drop the price to $500 or less just because of price-related whining by some fans who end up buying them anyway.
Some product updates aren’t important or consumer-focused enough to justify being introduced at events most of the time, such as Mac Pro or Mac Mini refreshes, or minor spec bumps in the laptops. These are likely to be done suddenly one morning with an Apple.com frontpage feature at best. It’s not worth trying to predict these with any precision.
For event-worthy introductions, what type of event is coming up? Product introductions rarely fall outside of the norms:
- MacWorld in January (no longer happening): Consumer hardware updates, including iMac and laptops. Updates and big demos for iLife and iWork.
- WWDC in June: iPhone updates. Some consumer hardware updates. Mac and iPhone OS announcements.
- Fall iPod event: iPods, iTunes software, iTunes-related content deals.
- Any other event: Just look at the press invitation.
Since tomorrow’s event is the annual fall iPod event, it’s very unlikely to be used to introduce unrelated products, such as the mystical tablet or a new iMac.
Look for gaps and shortcomings in the product line.
If the 15” MacBook Pro has been updated more recently than the 17” and has a faster maximum CPU, the 17” will get the new CPU shortly.
The iPod Touch currently has significantly slower hardware than the iPhone. They’re usually kept at or near parity for CPU speed and RAM capacity, so this is extremely likely to be rectified at the next cycle, which is probably happening this week.
The Intel roadmap
The Mac Pro’s updates coincide with Intel’s server CPU updates, so even if an exact date can’t be established, you can usually predict the update within a few months by looking at Intel’s server roadmap. (For a product with an 18-month lifecycle and nobody trying to dig up rumors about it, that’s not bad.)
The iMac and MacBook Pro have historically used the same mobile-series CPUs. Intel’s roadmap has the Nehalem core coming to mobile this winter with the Clarksfield series (supposedly in late September, but Intel’s “paper” release dates usually lag general availability by a month or three). But it has a 45W TDP and a marketing-unfriendly clock speed of just 1.6-1.73 GHz at that TDP — that’s too much power draw and too much of a marketing challenge, so Apple is likely to skip it for its laptops and iMacs.
In all likelihood, they’ll wait for Arrandale, which can squeeze 2.0-2.13 GHz into a 25W TDP, but that won’t be out until “Q4 2009” (which, in Intel land, means at least January). We’ll probably see an iMac and MacBook Pro update in Q1 2010 with Arrandale CPUs. It remains to be seen how (or whether) Apple will advertise Intel’s semi-bullshit “Turbo Boost” speeds.
Pushing the limits
Always bet on Apple pushing the limits of what we think is possible, reasonable, or realistic for technology or the market to bear.
In 2005, everyone assumed that flash memory was far too expensive and short-supplied to replace hard drives in portable media players anytime soon. Everyone also assumed that the iPod Mini, the best-selling iPod by far, was about to receive an update. That September, having negotiated excellent high-volume deals with Samsung, Apple replaced the Mini with the all-flash Nano. Geeks whined that it was a lower capacity than the Mini. It didn’t matter.
In the first few days of 2007, nobody thought that anyone would pay $600 for a mobile phone. Six months later, Apple gave them a reason. By 2009, nobody thought Apple could find a way to offer an iPhone with a contract for less than $199 without cutting it down and making a cheap “iPhone nano”. But in June, they dropped the contract price of the full-featured iPhone 3G to $99. Today, you can buy most of that pocket computer’s hardware for $229 as the iPod Touch. Tomorrow, that may cost even less.
Apple aggressively drops backward compatibility and older technologies if their absence creates a compelling benefit, such as reductions in size, cost, complexity, or power consumption. The original iMac dropped the floppy drive and nearly all tower-hardware expansion potential. The MacBook Air dropped optical drives. The iPhone dropped the physical keyboard. In all cases, people whined because they thought everyone needed these things. And everyone didn’t.
Apple is not concerned with matching other products’ technical specifications or prices on paper. We all looked at the MacBook Air’s introduction and thought, “Why would anyone pay $1700 for a laptop with a slow CPU, a small hard drive, no optical drive, and an inaccessible battery when you can get a white MacBook for so much less that’s better at every spec?” Then, when we saw and felt the Air, we instantly understood.
If a product upgrade or new product makes sense in the lineup, but seems slightly out of reach for some minor technical or economic reason, don’t discount it.
I believe my predicted 8 GB iPod Touch at $149 falls under this category.
But they can only push boundaries within reason. They can’t make a 3-pound laptop with decent performance and a 12-hour battery life for $799. But they can get a custom CPU package from Intel to make a new form-factor possible, and they can find a way to make people want to pay $600 for a phone or $1700 for a slow and limited laptop.
Leave room for surprises, and never bet on updated Cinema Displays.