SAN FRANCISCO - While most analysts don't expect dramatic product introductions at next week's Macworld here (Jan.4 to 8), the show could serve as a window into Apple Computer Inc.'s next major move, drawn from a bag of tricks that includes the AltiVec-enabled G4 Macintoshes, a chip-integration project aimed at set-top boxes and other devices, and possibly another foray into the handheld computing market.
Given the success of the curvy, transluscent-aqua iMac, analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies (San Jose, Calif.) expects to see more products heavy in eye-catching design, "products that really shock people as far as the design of the computers," he said. "What I think [Apple chairman and chief executive officer Steve] Jobs is trying to do for his second legacy is industrial design."
Bajarin noted that because Apple's shareholder meeting falls at the end of January, the company usually abstains from major product releases at the San Francisco Macworld. Apple is expected to unveil little more than its next iteration of desktop Macs and iMacs at the show.
Still, it's possible that traces of Apple's next product push might surface at the show, said analyst Richard Doherty, founder of research firm Envisioneering Group (Seaford, N.Y.). In particular, Apple might use the chance to preview the first fruits of an integration project called Columbus, he said. More a design-optimization strategy than a specific product, Columbus aims to reduce the number of chips in a system, particularly items such as set-top boxes or handheld computers.
"Jobs likes to surprise people," Doherty said. "We could see him showing something that's going to ship in 90 days, or he could surprise people by shipping a series of products with the Columbus technology."Columbus would lower the cost of Macintosh computers, but more importantly, it could help Apple make its move into compact, low-cost systems such as set-top boxes or-echoing Apple's jettisoned Newton platform-handheld computers.
As an example, Doherty cited the set-top arena, where vendors prefer having multiple sources for the multiple components comprising their box, such as the central processor and the operating system. But because Apple would be the sole owner of an Apple-built set-top box, the company has no qualms about taking integration to its fullest possibilities.
"Apple's costs could be lower than that of a PC vendor for the same power," Doherty said. "They could essentially have a system that's a processor, a total core/glue-logic chip and memory."
As part of the Columbus effort, Apple is investigating the integration of graphics controllers with core memory, much as Intel Corp. plans to do with its upcoming Whitney chip set, Doherty said. Apple officials declined to comment on any unannounced products.
On the PowerPC front, Apple has committed to using the AltiVec instruction set from Motorola. That commitment runs so deep that pieces of the Mac OS were specially tailored in anticipation of AltiVec, according to executive presentations at the company's developers' conference in May. IBM initially shied away from the technology but is making plans to accommodate AltiVec in some fashion, IBM general manager Mike Attardo told EE Times recently.
Doherty, for one, believes IBM and Motorola have continued to work together despite IBM's withdrawal from the jointly operated Somerset design center. "We believe most of the announcements of mid-1998 were to make sure the taxman didn't walk away with anything," he said. He is sticking to his initial prediction that Apple will offer separate groups of machines based on IBM and Motorola's offerings.
Other analysts agreed that Apple would continue to work with IBM even if Big Blue chose not to implement AltiVec.
"IBM is very committed to the PowerPC platform, and I would suspect that no matter what, IBM would have product there," Bajarin said. "It's my thinking Apple will have another source in IBM no matter what," Bajarin said.
"The power of these [PowerPC] things is impressive. Whether you do a knockoff or not for Apple is kind of the question. There must be some mixed feelings inside IBM in terms of where their resources should go," said Fred Zieber, president of Pathfinder Research Inc. (San Jose).
IBM declined to comment on any of the work being done for Apple. An Apple spokesman said only that the company still considers IBM and Motorola to be viable suppliers and will decide which processors to use as the chips become available.