Gazing into My Macworld Expo Crystal Ball

Iive recently returned from a trip to Japan. Compared to my home state of California, Japan is 16 hours ahead. This means, for example, when it is Wednesday morning in Tokyo, it is still Tuesday afternoon or early evening in San Francisco. As I explained to my friends, Japan lives in the future. While in Japan, I knew what the next day was going to be like, well before my friends back home!

More seriously, while I was generally able to keep up with Mac news during my trip, most notably last weekis announcements of Appleis new laptops, it will likely be a few more days of recovering from jet lag before I am truly back on track. In the meantime, Iill plunge ahead as best I can...

Now that Appleis likely final big announcements of the fall are history, itis time for a Mac loveris fancy to turn to the annual ritual of...guessing what the big deal new product will be at Macworld Expo. The rumor sites have not yet ramped up their insider-fueled predictions, so all thatis left for now is pure speculation, grounded in common sense and lessons learned from years past.

With that in mind, hereis my take:

Whatis not coming

I start by ruling out what not to expect.

Itis virtually certain we wonit see any new iPods or laptops (other than a 17" MacBook Pro). Both of these lines were just refreshed. Itis too soon for another major upgrade. Itis also doubtful that weill see a new iPhone. Apple appears content to push forward with the 3G for at least another 6 months.

Mac OS X 10.6 (aka Snow Leopard) is waiting in the wings. Itis entirely possible that Steve Jobs will use Macworld Expo as an opportunity for the OSis first public preview. Still, this cannot possibly be the primary focus for Apple at Macworld Expo. Apple has acknowledged that this update will not include any major new end-user features. Instead, the emphasis will be on changes to the OSis underlying architecture. This type of update does not lend itself to major hoopla at a consumer-oriented show.

Actually, I doubt that any new software will take center stage at the Expo keynote. In past years, the big announcements have almost always been hardware.

A key clue

So where does that leave us? In my view, the October 14th Mac Event provides a key clue. And that clue is the 24 inch LED Cinema Display. In particular, the display features a new connector type: the Mini Display Port. For the moment, only the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros can connect to this display. But Steve Jobs noted that this port would be included in "everything we make." Going further, Steve added that the dayis announcements were "only part of the story." Clearly, something is in the works.

One part of what is in the works is easy to predict: an upgrade to the Mac Pro lineup. Of all the Mac models, these are the ones that are most often connected to Cinema Displays. New Mac Pros with Mini Display Ports have to be just around the corner. Otherwise, Apple would be in the awkward position of having a Pro line of Macs that are incompatible with its latest monitors. Given the obviousness of this prediction, you would be foolish to purchase a current Mac Pro. This puts further pressure on Apple to get these upgrades out the door in a hurry. Until they do, Mac Pro sales are likely to plummet.

At the same time, you can expect Apple to go beyond the 24" Cinema Display, adding a smaller (20") and larger (30") model, replacing its entire current lineup. This will be welcome news for Mac Pro users, especially those desiring an iSight camera. Apple stopped selling its stand-alone iSight camera years ago. The new Cinema Displays come with iSight built-in, at last returning this option to the Pro models.

As iMacs come with a display already attached, and most users do not add a second display, iMacs have little need for a Mini Display Port. Still, the next iMac upgrades will include this new port. Rumor sites are already predicting such an update, possibly even before Macworld Expo. Most likely, the new iMacs will feature a few additional tweaks, but will not be any sort of major overhaul.

While all of this hardware is almost certainly on its way, neither the Mac Pros, iMacs, nor Cinema Displays are up to the task of taking center stage at Macworld Expo.

Whatis left?

So whatis left? What else could be in Appleis hopper? There are three remaining plausible possibilities.

The first (and least likely in my view) is a substantially upgraded Apple TV, at last transforming this device into a true DVR (possibly with a Blu-ray drive, despite Steveis reference to Blu-ray as a "bag of hurt"). I assume Apple is still looking to move the Apple TV from its self-imposed "hobby" status to that of a major player. This may be the time.

The second is the Mac mini. This product has been languishing for quite some time. I suspect many people have forgotten that this product is even still around. Apple could invigorate the mini model by coming out with a beefed-up version (a Mac midi?) that works with the new Cinema Displays and offers more expansion options. If Apple is also aggressive in pricing a 20" Cinema Display, the combo could be an especially attractive alternative to people who want more than an iMac but less than a Mac Pro. At the other end of the spectrum, there could be something coming akin to the "Mac micro" (an idea I wrote about in a prior column), designed to work with the Mini Display Port on the new Cinema Displays.

The third possibility, and the most intriguing, is an entirely new hardware product, one that has been rumored for months: a Mac tablet. Essentially, this device would be bigger than an iPhone (more like the size of a Kindle and similarly serving, at least in part, as a book reader) but significantly smaller and lighter than a MacBook. It would work more like a full-fledged Mac with a touchscreen than a souped-up iPhone. I would expect that it too, as with the just-released laptops, would work with the new Cinema Displays.

Beyond this, my crystal ball remains hazy as to exactly what is coming. If you want certainty, youill have to wait, as always, until the day of Expo keynote. Iive already marked January 6 on my calendar.