MacBook “Helium”

Two rumors: Apple building a carbon fiber MacBook Air, and Apple building (or needing to build) a NetBook (i.e. an ultralight and ultracheap MacBook that is net-centric). Well, Apple isn’t going to sell a $400 notebook any time soon, but it might sell a $600-800 notebook similar to, but smaller than, the Air, and to keep costs down it might use plastics — I mean Carbon Fiber — and such a notebook would be smaller and lighter than the MacBook Air, so it might be called the “MacBook Helium”.

I’ll laugh out loud if I’m right. I was right about Apple releasing its NeXT-based OS as OS X way back when — I predicted they’d release a stopgap OS 9 which would make them a ton of money and keep people satisfied while they polished Rhapsody which they could then call OS X. Of course, I also wanted them to call the Mac “se/30” the Mac “sex” for similar reasons.

If Apple does release a $400 micro-notebook, I hope it’s basically a super iPhone and not a crippled Mac (or that it dissolves the distinction between the two).

Last minute Macworld speculation

Something in the air?

Something no-one seems to have considered is the possibility that Apple will announce full support for Adobe’s AIR on the iPhone (and possibly Mac OS X in general). This would make the Flash/ActionScript ecology an intrinsic part of Mac OS X, further cement Apple’s disdain for Java, and (partially) solve the iPhone SDK issue. It would also dovetail nicely with Cringely’s idea that Apple plans to buy Adobe.

Note: AIR is, in essence, Webkit + Flash.

What’s wrong with this possibility? Well, Flash is still a terrible processor hog, and it will suck the iPhone’s battery dry … unless it gets a bunch of tweaking. Another option would be to support a battery-friendly subset of ActionScript 3 (if there is such a thing) and go to an event model which doesn’t redraw the entire screen at (typically) 30 frames per second.

MacBook Air?

There are a lot of people suggesting that (a) the announcements this year will be relatively ho-hum (who can compete with the iPhone, after all?) and that (b) Apple will release an ultraportable.

It seems to me that if Apple releases an ultraportable with the obvious feature set (given its recent releases) it will be bigger than the iPhone (although people won’t immediately realize it). Imagine the following:

8-10″ ultrathin laptop running a modest but still decent cpu. Maybe multitouch, maybe funky dual screen with one touchscreen/keyboard. Whatever. (Frankly, most folks would prefer a fullish sized hard keyboard to some kind of funky DS-style exercise.) Given bluetooth support, the keyboard could be a cable-less clipon, and the unit could have a “giant iPhone” form factor.

3G cellular network support, compatible with Sprint, Verizon, AT&T.

Bluetooth, 802.11B/G/N.

32 GB of flash memory, 1GB of RAM (upgradeable to 3GB).

Battery Life: 4+h “active”, 24+h “standby”

Prices (Good, Better, Best): $1499, $1799, $2099.

OK, it’s not an iPhone. On the plus side it’s a Mac OS X notebook, it can run standard OS X software (including Skype and Vonage) and can be used as a cellphone when closed. Oh and it does video conferencing.

Maybe for bonus points it has Newton-like functionality (e.g. you can draw or take notes on it with a stylus).

iWork, iLife, etc.

There’s an assumption running that because there are already iWork and iLife “08s” out there’s nothing much to expect on the software front. We know that Apple plans an announcement at a Final Cut Pro user group meeting during the expo (possibly the successor to Shake, possibly something else like … Apple has bought a high end 3d company — Newtek or Softimage, say — and is making all their stuff Maclike).

It’s always possible that iLife/iWork will get serious revisions which don’t require existing owners to buy an update.

Quad Core iMacs

Given that Dell is currently selling quad core XPS desktops for $799, it would seem to be a no-brainer that Apple will put quad cores into at least the upper end iMacs, possibly the whole line, and possibly into a Mac mini variant.

This will, unfortunately, close the gap between the iMac and Mac Pro product lines, which makes the introduction of a headless iMac with upgradeable video even less likely.

Next Generation Computers

We’ve by now all seen the new iPods, and of course the iPhone. I also saw an interesting post on Mac 360 to the effect that Macs are kind of boring, with no real changes (aside from better performance) aside from the introduction of the Mac mini in five years. Good point.

The obvious next thing to fold into the laptop is cellular internet (3G, whatever). Having to stick a card into your laptop to get wireless internet sucks just as much as having to stick a card to use a modem or an external hard disk or whatever did five years ago, and Apple should address this. (My pet suggestion was to build Macbooks with an iPhone slot in them, but that would represent a huge waste of space for those of us, like me, who haven’t bothered with an iPhone).

It seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, three niches for computers today: desktop, inconveniently portable (i.e. notebooks), and conveniently portable (i.e. pocket-size). There’s also the data storage unit which may or may not have playback and ancillary devices attached (i.e. the “datastick”, a.k.a. iPod).

I’ve been shopping for audio recorders lately, and this just reminds me of the fact that we all still need a datastick, and the iPod still isn’t a datastick. The iPod classic isn’t because it doesn’t have a small general-purpose computer in it, although 80GB/160GB of storage is just dandy. The iPod touch isn’t because it doesn’t have enough built-in storage and/or removable storage. Neither have convenient cameras and audio recorders built in, and, frankly, both need built-in speakers — even if they’re crappy.

So this would be my computer lineup (in a perfect world):

Desktop

Mac Pro (like current Mac Pro, but smaller, second CPU optional for base model, ~$1500).
Mac Mini (like current Mac mini but a bit bigger — room for real video card and hard disk).
Mac Nano (like current Mac mini but possibly Flash RAM based and smaller)

I think the iMac is intrinsically evil — because it makes you toss a good monitor when your cpu starts to age. Build monitors with a bracket for a Mac Mini/Nano instead.

Laptop

MacBook Pro (like current MacBook Pro, but provision for internal cellular internet, new style keyboard, CPU is a Mac Nano which can be swapped out / docked.
MacBook (like current MacBook, but Flash-based and thin).
10″ MacBook (Flash-based)

Laptops can function as iPhones/cellular net devices if you have the optional receiver (as with Bluetooth options a few years back).

Pocket

Pocket MacBook (Basically a clamshell iPod touch with faster cpu, slightly larger screen, real keyboard. Oh, and it’s an iPhone too.)
iPhone/Mac — but fully unlocked, doesn’t pretend it’s not a Mac, can work with keyboard accessory which doubles as a stand and dock.

In Summary

Apple should completely blur the distinction between Mac and iPhone and iPod Touch — making the halo effect irrelevant. There are 100,000,000 iPods out there. If 25% of them get replaced, turn those 25,000,000 new iPod users into 25,000,000 new Mac users. Declare victory. Withdraw from Iraq… Oh wait, that’s part of my Steve Jobs for president rant… Never mind.

The gPhone

Google is, apparently, working on its own phone. Google isn’t exactly a stranger to the hardware world — they do all kinds of hardware work internally (ranging from building their own infrastructure, to cargo containers that contain a decentralized server hub that can be shipped anywhere and plugged in, to immense, highly optimized server farms) and even sell some hardware products (enterprise search engines that can be installed on a corporate LAN and remotely administered). But Google is a stranger to consumer hardware.

Alan Kay once famously remarked that if you’re really interested in software, you build your own hardware, but the more I think about this, the less it makes sense to me for Google to release its own phone hardware (except possibly as a reference platform).

Economics 101 dictates that you want your complements (products that help consumers use your product) to be free or cheap and ubiquitous (makes sense) and competing products to be expensive and rare. For Google, web browsers are their ultimate complementary product. If FireFox and Safari didn’t exist, Google would have had to invent them.

So what Google really wants is for every cellphone out there to be a web browser with full “Web 2.0” support — i.e. basically an iPhone. But to do this it needs to make them good, cheap, and very common — something Apple can’t or won’t do.

It seems like the best way to do this would be do produce a great cellphone OS and license it for next-to-nothing. This would simultaneously help push Microsoft out of this space and turn lots of cell-phones into Google-friendly web-browsers. Rather than having to figure out how to manufacture and sell phones at a profit, Google would simply help existing phone companies to do this, and make more profits the way it already does: via web advertising.

Google would probably be just as happy if every cellphone became a standards-compliant web browser without their help. The question is whether Google needs to do anything (now that Apple has essentially raised the bar for cellphones across the board) except wait.