Monday, at Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference, Apple is going to release *something*. They have a habit of making such announcements.
Many rumor sites have been saying it is a bigger, fancier iPod Shuffle with a little screen. In the last couple of days, many have been saying that Apple is going to shift their computers all around and start using Intel chips instead of IBM’s PowerPC chips. I have no idea about the former, but have a hypothesis on the latter.
For Apple to introduce a whole new hardware architecture now would be extremely detrimental to their existing user base. Their shift from Motorola 68000-class chips to PowerPC upset quite a lot of people. Their shift from OS 9 to OS X upset quite a lot of people. It is great that they are able to occasionally reinvent themselves and say, “that old way we were doing things? It sucks and we are going to switch to something better and still do a decent job trying to emulate the old stuff.” Microsoft is still trying to continue with an operating system with roots in old 8-bit computing, back in the 80’s. Intel is still trying to continue with a chipset with instructions and registers dating back to the same time. Every once in a while you have to stop, put everything aside, and say “we learned a lot from that previous venture; let’s start from the ground up with something new.”
For Apple, now is not the time for introducing a whole new architecture. They have finally build back their user base–the people who gave up at OS 9 have been replaced by new technophiles that love the Unix roots of OS X (…like me.) Any new hardware architecture is going to require a lot of operating system support. They will need to release an entirely new operating system to make it work. Has everyone forgotten that they just did that a month ago? They would need some pretty big developer support for such a switch, as well. Sure, most existing applications would run under an emulation layer and others could be recompiled to work. Some of the more advanced things like Photoshop or VirtualPC may require some serious rewriting. It is very important to note that they would need *much* more close and technical support from the people writing drivers, which are not easily emulated.
What I believe to be the more likely scenario goes back to the rumors of a few months ago: a handheld tablet computer. Such a device would need a whole new architecture. Sure, they could use the innards of a Mac Mini or iBook, shrink them down a bit and change the form factor. As an alternative, they could use some cheaper, lower powered chips from Intel. For something like a tablet, it is all about the profit margin and battery life–and those ARM XScale processors can be pretty good for that; they are cheap and have a lot of battery-saving features. Let’s not forget, they already have a lot of experience with another manufacturer’s ARM processors. Guess what’s inside the iPod!
Such a tablet would require a new operating system. Sure, you could just take OS X and dump it in a tablet, but it would not be optimized to best use the form factor. Apple, being the big-time user interface company, would not do this. They would want something smaller with a user interface best handled by a pen or fingernail, not a mouse and keyboard.
This tablet would, of course, have wireless. It could play music and videos, stream them from your desktop, or remotely control your desktop via VNC (or “Apple Remote Desktop,” as they market it.) It would need to be recharged every so often. I am sure this could be done by plugging it into the wall. It could probably also be done by plugging it into your existing Mac desktop–at which point your iTunes music…and the newly added videos…would sync up. Think “iPod Halo Effect.” You could use it standalone, but with a Mac desktop, the experience would be so much better.
Why else would they have added videos to iTunes recently? People talk about video iPods and effectively, that is what this would be. Steve Jobs has said countless times that nobody would want to watch video on an iPod. The screen is too small. People want to be doing other things–working, walking, driving–with their iPod. Things that do not work well with visual distractions. They added photos finally, which can play on the tiny screen or out to your television. Admittedly, they could do something similar with the current iPods and videos–have it play them out to a TV–but that would seem a bit awkward. You would always need a television to plug it into. It would also need a way of dealing with the various video codecs. Its processor and battery life, I believe, are just not up to that. Additionally, the current stock of iPods in retailers is pretty darn high. Usually when they release a new iPod, the number of units they have in backstock go down significantly (otherwise they are sitting on inventory that has instantly devalued a bit.)
So, along comes a brand new device. It is similar in nature to an iPod, but larger. It is more portable than a laptop, but less portable than an iPod–say, about the same form factor as a Play Station Portable. It gives you wireless internet, remote desktop, music, video, and the ability to play video out to a television. It probably plays a couple of basic games, too. Since it is not a dedicated video/media player like many other devices out there, there is not the legal sticky situation of “what to do about pirated stuff” that was one of Jobs’ previous excuses about not having video on the iPod.
These are my predictions. I guess we will find out Monday at the keynote. Anyone can fancy themselves a pundit and make predictions. Not everyone is correct when doing so.