October 15, 2008 4:00 AM PDT
Three things Apple won't do
Posted by Erica Ogg
Nothing is much of a secret about Apple events these days.
Turns out, a high percentage of the rumors and leaked images of the notebooks announced Tuesday were right on target: The price drop, the aluminum casing across the entire product line, the new unibody construction process, the black bezeled displays were all mentioned on Apple rumor sites and gadget blogs before CEO Steve Jobs took the stage Tuesday.
But, as would be expected, several of the most widely circulated pieces of speculation proved false. In brief comments after his keynote speech, Jobs did something he doesn't usually do, and clarified what isn't on his company's immediate notebook road map. Three of them are some of the most oft-repeated rumors of future Apple products. Here's why touch screens, Blu-ray, and Netbooks are not what Apple has in store for us anytime soon.
Perhaps Jobs' most puzzling or awkward comment during Tuesday's event was regarding what is assumed to be the standard in high-definition packaged media. Regarding Blu-ray, Jobs described it as "a bag of hurt." He expanded, saying that he meant that not from a consumer experience perspective, but that the licensing is expensive and complex. Apple apparently plans to take a wait-and-see approach after Blu-ray has been in the market awhile.
Though Jobs clearly left some wiggle room in his answer, don't expect to see a Blu-ray drive in an Apple notebook anytime soon. If you're disappointed, blame iTunes. Apple is in the middle stages of building a video download business, and it's clear that the company wants its customers to use iTunes to watch high-definition videos, not revert to packaged media, where it can't get a slice of the revenue as it does while selling or renting digital content.
While Blu-ray is certainly the dominant high-definition format, it's still not the dominant packaged media format. DVD sales are tapering off, but still haven't completely disappeared. By the time that happens, it's assumed digital downloading for videos will become more common. In the interregnum, the major Hollywood studios are hedging their bets, some offering titles as a free download once you buy the title on disc.
But not Apple. In fact, Blu-ray's presence in an Apple computer is pretty much a moot point, according to Steve Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD Group.
"They're (Apple) not trying to be everything to everyone like Netflix or Blockbuster. They're going to keep trying to deliver economy around digital downloads. I still question why anybody would question or care whether they'd have Blu-ray," he said.
Jobs also seemingly put the kibosh on any touch-screen Mac, another rumor that rears its head every once in awhile. When asked Tuesday, Jobs said that while they've looked at touch screens for notebooks, "it hasn't made a lot of sense to us," he said.
Apple is one of the leaders in implementing touch screens in its devices–the iPhone, the iPod Touch–and using them in innovative ways. And while Jobs admitted that his company has looked into it, it's passing on making a notebook version of Hewlett-Packard's TouchSmart PC, the desktop with a touch-screen monitor.
While it would be innovative to put one in a notebook, it's not really likely from any major computer makers at this point, according to Charles Smulders, Gartner's managing vice president.
"We're seeing some vendors using touch screens, but it's typically on the desktop form factor not on a notebook," he said. HP's TouchSmart, for instance, is designed to be used in a room like the kitchen, where interactions are more brief. Long-term or all-day use generally requires input devices like a keyboard.
And though many Apple fans were hoping for a Netbook, a cheaper, underfeatured notebook, from the company Tuesday, they'll have to wait longer. When asked about that Tuesday, Jobs said Netbooks are still a nascent market and that "we'll see how it goes."
While he certainly left some room to change his mind, he didn't sound excited about the category at all. And the company might be timid about getting into the Netbook market since its attempts at the smaller, cheaper Mac Mini weren't that well received, said Baker of NPD.
"They did a Nettop (a desktop version of a Netbook) and it wasn't particularly successful, if you think about the Mac Mini as a precursor to Nettops," he said.
On one hand, it does make sense for Apple to leave Netbooks out of its Mac lineup if just to preserve its brand image. (Just look at the reaction to Apple lowering the price of its lowest-end MacBook to $999.) Netbooks are based almost purely on price, and Apple doesn't make its product decisions on price points, but rather features.
Any lower price point would be likely be a big hit to the quality of experience Apple tries to deliver, and its margins. (While Apple is catching up in the U.S., it's still far outpaced in units shipped by HP, Dell, and Acer, which can afford a side business of making smaller, cheaper Netbooks.)
But while Jobs' comments Tuesday don't sound too promising, he certainly left plenty of room to change his mind. After all, he's right about Netbooks being very new. And while they're selling relatively well right now, there's not a lot of innovation in the sector. As the market matures, there's plenty of room for Apple to jump in, according to Smulders.
"It's such an early developing market; there's a long way to go before the optimum form factor and user experience is delivered," he said.
For complete coverage of the Apple notebook news, see "Apple polishes up its MacBook line."