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Macworld promises new products, but are they enough?

With the start of the Macworld Expo in San Francisco less than a day away, some Mac companies are jumping the gun with big announcements.

    Who opens their presents before the party begins? Mac enthusiasts, apparently.

    With the start of the Macworld Expo in San Francisco still a day away, some Mac companies have jumped the gun with big announcements.

    Apple Computer needs all the help it can get, analysts say. The company has anywhere from eight to 11 weeks of inventory sitting on dealers' shelves and is ready to report a loss of up to $250 million on Jan. 17.

    "Apple needs to come out of the gate swinging at Macworld with products that not only meet the needs of the Mac consumer segment, but that also create excitement amongst the entrenched Wintel users," Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal said, referring to the Windows-Intel duopoly. "Apple's growth relies on its ability to steer new users to the Mac platform."

    Adobe Systems, Canon, Epson, Iomega and LaCie are among the growing list of companies unveiling Mac products before the show. Among others, Power On Software and Roxio will make announcements Tuesday, the first day of the five-day show.

    But few of the announcements are likely to upstage those expected from Macworld showman and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Apple's chief executive is expected to show off new Power Mac G4 systems--potentially with processors running at 733 MHz. He is also expected to unveil the long-anticipated G4 PowerBook and Mac OS 9.1.

    But as important as Jobs' performance might be, so will be those of the companies taking the stage with him. Adobe, which on Monday unveiled a new version of its Premiere video-editing software, is expected to be front and center during the show. Microsoft also will have a prominent presence.

    The reason is simple, according to Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq. With the release of Mac OS X potentially less than 40 days away, "Apple must show its partners are behind them," he said. That is one reason the announcements at and leading up to the show are as important as Jobs' presentation. "They need this now," he said.

    Apple's biggest problem to date has been getting software developers to firmly back Mac OS X, which has been complicated by the company's recent problems, LeTocq said.

    With Apple's stock battered by recent sales problems, devastating setbacks in the consumer and education markets, and the dismal failure of the G4 Cube, the company must show more than ever that it does not stand alone and can compete effectively against PCs, analysts say.

    "The success of a new operating system relies upon having a rich selection of diverse and effective applications to run on top of it," Deal said. "Limited applications means limited choices, and that would spell doom for Apple's sales."

    But to get there, Apple must work through an enormous amount of inventory, convincing Mac enthusiasts there is value in existing systems, not just in upcoming models. One way to do that would be to offer Mac OS X as a free upgrade for people buying current systems, which Apple last week discounted by as much as one-third.

    "In terms of accelerating hardware purchases, I think Apple would be wise to do that," LeTocq said. But he warned that many "high-performance, high-end users have been waiting to buy until OS X ships because they know it's going to make a difference for the systems they buy."

    For now, Apple's best approach is to present a united front. And for that, it is starting the show with some big names unveiling new products early:

    • LaCie on Monday unveiled the PocketDrive, a 6-by-6-inch CD rewritable drive. The $399 PocketDrive, which also can be used with PCs, has a 4X write, 4X rewrite and 24X read speed and sports USB and IEEE 1394, or FireWire, connectors.

    • Iomega will show off its new Peerless drive system, which it announced last week. The external storage system, available in 5GB, 10GB and 20GB capacities, transfers data from a PC at up to 15 megabytes per second. An interface model for holding the storage is expected to sell for $249 with the 5GB, 10GB and 20GB disks going, respectively, for $129, $159 and $199. USB and FireWire models will initially be available, with USB 2.0 and SCSI versions coming later.

    • Qbeo will show off PhotoGenetics 2 and VideoGenetics digital image enhancement software for Mac OS X.

    • While Inuit has backed away from offering Mac accounting software, rival MYOB plans to show off a Mac OS X version of AccountEdge. MYOB plans to offer a free software update to current customers after Mac OS X's release as well as special pricing on the new version available at the show only.

    • Zapwerk will demonstrate Siteyard, its Web site authoring tool that supports XML. The program acts as a staging server, allowing Web authors to update an active site from multiple locations. Zapwerk unveiled Siteyard last week.

    • Asante will show off new networking products available later in the quarter, including the FriendlyNet Internet Accelerator used for caching Web content. An update expected later this month will add support for Apple Airport and other 802.11B wireless networking devices. Asante also will show off a new line of Gigabit Ethernet routers.

    • Olympus has two new digital cameras, the Camedia C-2040 and Camedia C-3040, ready for Macworld. Olympus announced the digital zoom cameras last week, with the C-2040 offering 2.1 megapixels and the other, 3.34 megapixels.

    • Adobe on Monday announced it has started shipping Premiere 6, the newest version of its video-editing software. Adobe announced the product, which sells for $549, in December.

    • Ahead of Macworld, Canon on Saturday unveiled four new camcorders Hi8, ranging from $329 to $499. The first, model ES60, goes on sale in March. Features include 22x optical and 700x digital zoom.

    • Epson on Monday launched the new Expression 1680 scanner, with 1600-by-3200 dots-per-inch resolution and 48-bit color. Four models will be available, starting in February, with prices ranging from $799 to $1399.