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Is Apple readying a wireless announcement? Maybe not

The day before Macworld is set to begin, rumors are flying that Apple will make a big wireless announcement.

A banner at the Moscone Center in San Francisco where Apple will host its annual Macworld conference has many in the technology sector buzzing about a possible wireless announcement coming from CEO Steve Jobs' keynote on Tuesday.

The banner that reads "There's something in the Air" has prompted much speculation that Apple is readying itself for another big wireless announcement. The most persistent rumor is that Apple will include WiMax on Apple notebooks.

WiMax is a wireless broadband technology that will deliver faster download speeds than 3G wireless over longer distances than is possible with Wi-Fi, making it an intriguing next-generation technology. Intel has been pushing the technology aggressively over the past year and a half. And the company is about to include WiMax as an option in its next-generation processors set to hit the market in the next couple of years. Five laptop makers--Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Panasonic, and Toshiba--have all agreed to use the new WiMax enabled chips in their laptops.

For this reason, some people say that it makes sense for Apple to announce support for WiMax.

"WiMax is likely to be a hot feature in laptops this year," said Gemma Tedesco, senior analyst at InStat. "I expect all the big players to announce support for WiMax by the end of the year. So it might be worth Apple's while to announce support for it now."

While I can see why Tedesco might think this, my gut tells me that it's unlikely. The reasons are pretty simple. For one, there's no major WiMax network deployed today in the U.S. Sprint Nextel is currently building a network, but its right now it's only testing service in three markets: Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. It plans to roll out service more widely later this year. But Sprint's plans could change. In October, the company ousted its CEO. In December it hired a new one, but now there's talk that cutbacks are coming and that Sprint may scale back its deployment.

It seems highly unlikely to me that Apple would spend much energy touting a technology that may never get off the ground. Some experts agree.

"I don't see a WiMax announcement as very likely," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "With the exception of the iPhone and AppleTV, Jobs announces products that can ship today. And WiMax won't be available until the Sprint network is built out."

What about other possible wireless announcements? Some people wonder if Apple might be announcing support for ultra wide band or 3G cellular technology in its notebooks. Perhaps Apple is going to unveil new iPods with Wi-Fi support. Or maybe the company is going to announce a new 3G-enabled iPhone.

I suppose any of these could be possible. But when you analyze each one more closely, they all seem rather unlikely.

Let's take ultra wide band support for Apple notebooks. Ultra wide band is a technology that has been kicking around for a while. It provides high-bandwidth wireless transfers over short distances. And while I don't argue that this could be useful for file transferring or moving video wirelessly over short distances, I don't see it as a big enough upgrade or change to Apple's products to warrant much hoopla.

Adding 3G cellular technology to Apple's notebooks also makes sense, especially considering Apple has a relationship with AT&T. Many laptop companies, such as Dell, already provide 3G as an option. But again this doesn't seem like an announcement that Apple would spend much marketing energy on. While embedded 3G is a nice thing to have for business travelers, the feature hasn't exactly been a hit among other laptop makers. The main problem is cost. Embedding 3G into laptops can jack up the price about $50 or $60. And then users have to sign up for a service that will cost another $60 a month. And because wireless operators don't use the same technology and they strictly control which devices use their networks, laptop owners are locked into a single operator for their service.

Wi-Fi on iPods could be a nice addition to the product line. After all, the iPod Touch and the iPhone both have Wi-Fi. But again this isn't likely to be announced at this Macworld, since Apple refreshed this product line in September. And while it's almost a no-brainer that a 3G iPhone is on the way, it probably won't be announced until the second half of the year.

So what could Apple mean with its "There's something in the air" banner?

Perhaps the company isn't referring to wireless at all. Rumors have also been flying around that Apple will announce a new ultra-portable notebook that is being called the "MacBook Air" because it is so thin and light. Rumor has it that this mini MacBook is about 50 percent thinner and lighter than the current MacBook Pro, the largest notebook in Apple's portfolio.

Stay tuned for real-time coverage on the Steve Jobs' keynote to find out details on any and all announcements. My colleague Tom Krazit will be live-blogging the event from San Francisco starting at 9 a.m. PST.