San Francisco (CA) - Since its inception, but particularly during its earliest and latest years when Steve Jobs was in charge, Apple has positioned itself as the alternative to the everyday consumer electronics company. Playing a minor role in last week's Consumer Electronics Show - mainly as everyone else's key topic of discussion - the company is throwing its own response party this week, with Macworld Expo-related events beginning today, but with the Jobs keynote tomorrow.
With Jobs' last three major speeches having raised the curtain on the iPod nano (7 September 2005), and the redesigned iPod with video plus the redesigned iMac G5 (12 October 2005), there are plenty of expectations among Apple's fans that he will just keep at it and unveil something equally as big. If he makes a habit of this, Jobs could become his own worst enemy. If the like-named magazine weren't so closely involved with the conference, it could perhaps be re-dubbed "Apple World," since a great deal of both the speculation and the jubilation these days concerns not the Macintosh but the iPod - credited with saving the company.
So the star of Macworld Expo could very well be the iPod again. But for a gadget that already has very small speakers and, now, a very small color screen, just what is it that Jobs could possibly unveil next, so soon after his last two bonanzas?
Two of the leading Macintosh news services, Apple Insider and Macsimum News, have been following Apple's interaction with the US Patent and Trademark Office very closely. In a 13 October 2005 report, Apple Insider discovered that Apple had filed a request to trademark the brand "Vingle," describing it in very broad terms as pertaining to three categories of products and services. Here's the first:Telecommunication services, namely, electronic transmission of streamed and downloadable audio and video files via computer and other communications networks; providing on-line chat rooms, bulletin boards and community forums for the transmission of messages among computer users concerning entertainment, music, concerts, videos, radio, television, film, news, sports, games and cultural events; web casting services; delivery of messages by electronic transmission; provision of connectivity services and access to electronic communications networks, for transmission or reception of audio, video or multimedia content
The second category refers to the education of the computer user about those services, through the use of such services; and the third pertains to the search engines such a service may provide the user. The Washington Post's Frank Ahrens speculated soon afterward that "Vingle" could be a concatenation of "video" and "single," which would make sense if Apple were planning a video-based successor to iTunes. But the trademark filing would indeed allow Apple to take the service way beyond the distribution of music videos, into market territory that Google (another service that ends in "-gle") already occupies. Last week at CES, Google announced its first steps to enter the same market that iTunes now dominates.
But that's not the only path of speculation that the available evidence leads us. Last week, Macsimum News discovered that Apple had been continuing its research into wireless transmission technologies, an area which it has been known to do more than dabble in. Just last 29 December, the publication learned, Apple filed a patent request with the USPTO for a "method for data transmission utilizing a portable multimedia device." The application clearly describes the use of "an MP3 player (or, for that matter, any other digital media playback device)," described in a footnote as "(along the lines of an IPOD.TM. multimedia player manufactured by Apple Computer Corporation of Cupertino, Calif.)," equipped with a radio transmitter/receiver on VHF frequencies, capable of receiving multimedia signals transmitted to it through a computer equipped with "a multimedia data file processor unit." In other words, the computer acts as the server, and the wireless iPod as the receiver.
Since the patent application was only filed two weeks ago, many would say it's unlikely that Apple would have such a system ready so soon. If a wireless transmission service for networking iPods and Macintoshes is indeed months, or even years away, then long-time observers would note that it's unlikely that Steve Jobs would comment on such a development in its early stages. Jobs generally has not unveiled products, or even concepts, before they could be made readily available to consumers. But one thing is different today than in the last quarter-century: Although patents and trademark filings have always been publicly available, the Internet has made them not only readily accessible, but somewhat interesting. Public demand to peruse patent applications - which was non-existent when one had to drive to Washington, DC, to see them - is now virtually rampant, especially with the aid of publications like Macsimum News and Apple Insider demonstrating the virtues of perusing the USPTO database. If Jobs understands this - and, if anything, he is intelligent - his company may have risked not filing such patents and trademarks publicly until it was close to ready to use them, minimizing the time for public speculation as much as possible.
The other distinct possibility is that the star of Macworld Expo this year will be something called the Macintosh. Careful observers will note that Intel's keynote demonstration at CES featured not Microsoft's Windows Media Player, but Apple's iTunes; and that Intel's Viiv looks like it will use Windows Media Center Edition to leverage a multimedia distribution platform that could compete with Microsoft's after all - and may be further along in doing so already. It may be a long, long shot for anyone to suppose that a Macintosh could be branded as a Viiv PC - up to now, the Viiv qualifications have stipulated that the PC must run Windows Media Center Edition.
If the two companies are indeed getting cozier with one another, then the time may be right for Steve Jobs to finally give his loyal minions a peek at the future PowerBook with the long-awaited Intel processor. But Intel's CPUs are a little less dependent on Apple's whims than the PowerPCs. Intel, after all, has its own marketing cycles to contend with, and Apple is still in a position where its plans must fall in lock-step with Intel's, not the other way around. If a PowerBook announcement is indeed at hand, then it's likely the new models will contain Intel's new Core processors, perhaps the dual-core Core Duo, which Intel finally christened last week at CES. But if the announcement is further down the road, then Apple could be waiting for Intel's next-generation Merom architecture, which utilizes 65 nm lithography, and could make Apple's product "cooler" in a number of simultaneous respects.
As the follow-up act for CES, Steve Jobs might not necessarily have too tall an order for himself. In a CBS News "60 Minutes" interview with Lesley Stahl last Sunday, Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer (the former chief of CBS itself), fresh from his keynote at CES, nearly had his head handed to him when Stahl demonstrated an iPod for him, saying that Walkman was no longer cool, but this was. Sir Howard sloughed off the comment, saying she forgets that Sony is in a number of different markets, and that Apple's was just one. Just one, perhaps, but it seems to be the just one that everyone wants nonetheless - which is a fact you could read on Sir Howard's face, even if you couldn't hear it from his lips.
If Steve Jobs truly does have a tough act to follow this week, it's that of Steve Jobs. The iPod nano introduction may go down as one of the great marketing successes of this decade, making the Xbox 360 sadly look like "Howard the Duck" up against "Close Encounters." Apple may find itself having to keep up the forward momentum just to keep its investors happy, let alone its customers. If Jobs' message tomorrow boils down to, "Everything's fine, no worries, steady as she goes," the mood on the street could turn to disappointment. That might not be damaging in the case of Google, whose own non-announcement announcement last week at CES ended up as a wash. But for Apple, whose corporate outlook at any one point in its history seems to be either imminent doom or astonishing success, keeping up appearances may be an even tougher job than, say, Microsoft trying to make Windows work better.