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).

Does Apple have an “Out” Clause for its partnership for AT&T?

The main problem with the iPhone 3G launch appears to have been AT&T. AT&T didn’t ship enough phones to its stores, and wasn’t able to handle activations fast enough. If you look at the number one reason stopping would-be iPhone users from buying one, I’m pretty sure it’s AT&T.

Our last experience with AT&T was having our account padded with a bunch of services we didn’t ask for (in fact explicitly refused) but not noticing it because during the first two months on a contract it’s impossible to figure out your bill (it has all kinds of whacky one-off items) and then not being able to turn off the features we didn’t want and weren’t using when we discovered them for over six months, and then not being able to be refunded for them afterwards. When we switched to Verizon (whom we hate for different reasons) AT&T reps called us to ask if there was anything they could do to change our minds. Well, you could go back in a time machine and not rip us off.

Generally, a contractual agreement between business partners, such as Apple’s exclusivity deal with AT&T, has “out” clauses for such things as non-performance. Recently, for example, Paramount was sued by licensees of the Star Trek brand for producing lousy Star Trek series and destroying the value of the brand. If a famous athlete is discredited for taking steroids or sexually assaulting someone he/she will lose his/her endorsement contracts. Perhaps the most germane example I can think of is Apple’s iTunes licensing agreement with the big music studios which gives them an “out” if Apple fails to address any cracking of iTunes DRM within 30 days.

Just how badly can AT&T screw things up and not give Apple an early “out” from their exclusivity deal? It almost makes me wonder if Apple’s incredible efforts to put iPhones in their stores were an attempt to force AT&T to fail some benchmark. (It would also explain AT&T’s deliberate understocking.)

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.

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.