Phone, video hub expected at Macworld

The Mac faithful are converging on San Francisco for Macworld with visions of phones, TVs and iPods dancing in their heads.

It's time for that one event on the tech industry calendar that's a combination of a rock show, political rally and gadget fest. And it's not the one in Las Vegas.

Macworld officially starts Monday, but all eyes will be on Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs on Tuesday when he takes the stage at San Francisco's Moscone Center. According to analysts, bloggers and devoted fan sites, Jobs is expected to introduce some combination of its iTV concept living-room product, new features to accompany the upcoming release of Mac OS X Leopard and an Apple-designed phone.

Things are a little different this year at Macworld, in part because it is taking place during the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show currently filling up the taxi lines in Las Vegas. However, the main differences between this and past Macworld conferences are the lack of any buzz around potential new Mac hardware (of course, given Jobs' penchant for surprises, don't count that out) and the stock-options scandal hanging over Apple's head.

Last January's Macworld was an important event in Apple's history, as Jobs and Intel CEO Paul Otellini introduced the first Macs to feature an Intel chip: the MacBook Pro and the iMac. Apple has since introduced Intel processors across its lineup of Macs and is enjoying a surge in shipments and market share thanks to demand for its MacBook consumer notebooks, in particular.

Instead, speculation has focused mainly around an Apple phone, known affectionately as the "iPhone" until Cisco Systems exercised its trademark rights and announced the . Rumors have circulated for months, if not years, about an Apple-designed smart phone that would place calls, play music, organize calendars and browse the Web.

Opinions vary on just what exactly Apple has up its sleeve. One sticking point is the carrier that Apple has in mind. Some have pointed to a distribution deal with Cingular as a carrier. Others have claimed that Apple has figured out a way to

The phone speculation has been so widely circulated among the and the Mac enthusiasts that most believe it's just a question of timing. Apple may announce a phone at Macworld but not have it ready until later in the year, according to some reports.

Traditionally, however, Apple announces a product at Macworld that attendees can run out and buy as soon as the keynote concludes. Most are betting that, this year, Apple's iTV product will be on the shelves of Apple retail stores by lunchtime Tuesday in San Francisco.

A sneak peek
The company broke with its tight-lipped tradition surrounding upcoming products to reveal some details about its home-video centerpiece, code-named iTV. The iTV device is designed to take movies or television shows from a Mac or PC and play them back on a living room television, Jobs said in September. At the time, Apple said it would cost $299 and be available in the first quarter of this year.

Since then, other details have emerged courtesy of . Iger told attendees at a Goldman Sachs conference that the iTV would have a hard drive, so people could download videos right to the iTV box. Iger's Disney was the first to sign on with the iTunes Store for movie downloads, and he and Jobs are especially tight given Jobs' position on Disney's board of directors.

The PC industry has been trying for years to get its products into living rooms as the center of the TV experience. For the most part, it hasn't worked. Microsoft and PC makers have sold lots of Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs, which organize and playback videos, but sales of so-called Media Center Extenders have been almost nonexistent. Media Center Extenders are basically the same thing as iTV; they can be used to stream content to a television from a PC over a home network, though Media Center Extenders are not the easiest devices to set up and use.

If Apple can simplify the experience, and make iTV as easy to use as other devices like digital video recorders, the company could be arriving at just the right time as high-definition TV sales soar and broadband Internet connections become more prevalent, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD Group. "A lot of times stuff comes out before the infrastructure is ready to support it," he said.

The phone and the iTV product have been the most talked-about devices expected at Macworld, but more information is also expected about Leopard, the next release of Mac OS X that was covered in some detail back in August at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. Jobs is not expected to announce the immediate availability of the new OS, but hinted during his August keynote that more details about Leopard features would be disclosed in due time.

ThinkSecret reported last week that Apple plans to introduce a new version of its iWork applications suite, which currently includes the Pages word processor and Keynote presentation software. The missing piece? A spreadsheet program that ThinkSecret and other Mac enthusiast sites say will be part of iWork '07.

Other potential products that could surface are a widescreen iPod designed for a better video experience, another phone model with a BlackBerry-like integrated keyboard, and an ultraportable MacBook Pro with a 12-inch display, said Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray.

But what will be the "one more thing" of this year's Macworld, the traditional closing act of a Jobs' keynote invoked with those three anticipated words? Whether it's a phone, iTV or some far-out thing that has flown under the radar of the Mac community, many eyes in San Francisco--and more than a few in Las Vegas--will await the answer.

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