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Macworld's turn: Apple may unveil retooled laptops

Posted by iMark - 2006-01-11

Now it's Apple's turn.

After tech firms last week tried to out-dazzle each other at the Consumer Electronics Show with gadgets that marry the Internet, consumer technology and entertainment, Apple Computer takes center stage at its own Macworld conference in San Francisco.

Apple fiercely guards its product announcements until CEO Steve Jobs' speech.

In that address today, tech analysts who follow the company expect Jobs to unveil redesigned laptops and a new iteration of the iPod Shuffle player, and perhaps - but less likely - introduce a newly designed Mac mini computer that hooks into a TV set and can track all at-home digital content.

Rob Enderle, an independent analyst with the Enderle Group, says he took special note of the raft of CES announcements about new digital media services that worked with Microsoft software - and not Apple's.

Among them: MTV is launching an online music service called Urge. The Vongo service from pay-TV network Starz offers 1,000 movies for viewing on PCs or Microsoft-backed portable devices. Yahoo showed new software to link computers and TV programming.

"Apple is locked out of these services, not because people don't want to work with Apple, but because Apple is a closed system," Enderle says.

Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research, says most of the big announcements at CES played catch-up to Apple's groundbreaking alliance in the fall with ABC to sell reruns of hit shows for viewing on its video iPod.

Apple has since added NBC to the lineup, and broadcasters have jumped on the portable-video bandwagon. Monday, Internet search giant Google was set to begin selling downloads of CBS shows for playback on PCs.

"Now, Apple has to take it to the next level," Wu says.

Wu and other analysts expect a new line of Powerbook and iBook laptops to wow customers.

Last year, Apple said that it would begin working with chip manufacturer Intel, replacing IBM, and that new Apple/Intel computers would begin appearing by midyear.

Those laptops are expected to be announced today, six months early.

"The new chips allow for a new form factor," Wu says. "That should get the faithful really excited."

It should also boost sales. Some consumers postponed Apple laptop purchases in 2005, waiting for the new models, Enderle says. "We should see a nice spike in sales after they come out," he says.

Many Apple-enthusiast websites have predicted that Jobs would unveil a redesigned Mac mini computer that could serve as a digital media living room hub, complete with a TiVo-like digital video recorder and selling for $500 to $600.

Tech analysts aren't so sure. "That's a product that will sell best in the fourth quarter, and Apple likes to announce things and have them in the stores at the same time," Enderle says.

Still, Jobs must "set the tone that the living room is Apple's next target zone," says Gene Munster, an analyst with securities firm Piper Jaffray. "That's where all the action is going."

Wu projects that Apple sold 9.7 million iPods in the fourth quarter, vs. 6.5 million in fourth-quarter 2004.



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