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Apple event fuels speculation

Apple schedules a press event for May 1 with CEO Steve Jobs, sparking speculation that he will unveil new Macs or announce plans for retail stores.

Apple Computer on Friday scheduled a press event for May 1 with CEO Steve Jobs, sparking speculation that he will unveil new Macs or announce plans for retail stores.

An Apple representative wouldn't say what will be announced at the event. But sources have told CNET News.com that Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple is working on a slimmer version of its iBook consumer notebook. There has also been speculation that Apple will introduce new dual-processor PowerMacs.

Both of these products are expected to come no later than July at Macworld Expo in New York, but some sources have said they will come sooner.

"Apple CEO Steve Jobs and senior management will make some exciting announcements and host a Q&A," Apple said in its invitation to reporters. Apple press events are relatively infrequent and, in the past, have served as launches for new products.

Distributors have been running low on iBooks, which is often a harbinger of new Apple models. As of Thursday, distribution giant Ingram Micro had no 366MHz iBooks and only a few of the faster 466MHz machines, sources said. Ingram Micro listed no date as to when more systems might be available. Apple recently stopped selling its 667MHz single-processor PowerMac.

"If Apple has run the iBook inventory to zero and there are no backorders, then that means new models are coming," Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq said.

Apple does not comment on its future products. However, Jobs said at Wednesday's annual shareholders meeting that the company will introduce products this year in events other than keynote speeches at industry trade shows.

"I think you will see some major products announced this year--not at keynotes," he told shareholders.

The company has also been making plans to open a series of retail outlets, with locations said to be set in Chicago, Minneapolis, Palo Alto, Calif., and Littleton, Colo., among other locales. Apple has repeatedly refused to comment on those plans.

"It's about time Apple discussed their retail store plan," Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal said. At the same time, Deal has reservations about Apple opening the stores.

"In light of Gateway--the Wintel equivalent of Apple--and the recent closing of their stores, I don't think it's a good time for Apple to promote a retail presence," he said. With more than 34 percent of sales coming directly from Apple's online store and the recent departure of Mac dealers, he added, "it's clear more and more of their customers are buying online."

The only way a retail strategy makes sense is "Apple getting in the face of non-Mac users and converting some of them," Deal said.

If Apple does introduce new products at the event, it would be a step in the right direction, NPD Intelect analyst Stephen Baker said.

"The things that Apple needs to do to improve their performance is to become more like (other PC makers) in terms of how they manage their product lifecycles," he said. "When you only have a couple of product refreshes and nothing in between, the pace of the market can get ahead of you."

Typically, Apple releases new products at trade shows, such as Macworld, which occur only a few times of year. Critics have said that such an approach limits Apple's flexibility in reacting to market trends quickly.

For example, last summer the company began offering Macs with DVD drives instead of machines with hot-selling CD-rewritable drives. Not only did Apple miss the trend, but the company didn't respond with CD-RW iMacs until January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

"Certainly (with) the whole CD-RW thing, the pace of the market got ahead of them," Baker said. "It took them too long to catch back up again."