Burning the Macworld Oil

With Macworld Expo in San Francisco approaching, the rumor mill is working overtime along with developers feverishly constructing demos and beta versions of new applications. One wonders when the expo folks will change its name to Apple Expo — I think by next year. The show covers far more than Mac, and given recent rumors of Windows XP applications running on OS X without emulation — unhindered, side-by-side with Mac apps — the show will need a name change. Besides, the majority of new products and services will be for the iPod and iPhone. You’ll see far more sophisticated iPod-automobile interfaces, lots of cool headphones and gadgets, outstanding iPhone and iPod touch apps in beta, and a mushrooming industry of Web-based apps, some labeled “Web 2.0” and some “Software-as-a-Service” but mostly built with Ajax tools.

There is no doubt that Apple has several important new products lined up for 2008. A next-generation iPhone with 3G capability is nearly guaranteed by June, while analysts also think a new Apple TV is in the works that will include an LCD (display). The sexiest rumor of all is the Mac Tablet or iTablet, which according to some is supposed to be a much larger version of the iPod touch that runs OS X in some form, and according to others is a full-blown Mac in tablet form. An iTablet form factor with a touch interface would killer as a video player as well as an ultra-portable computer. Add a built-in camera you’d have a device capable of portable video communication. It would also be a far, far better electronic book reader than the Amazon Kindle.

Apple TV truly does need a boost, as Apple has sold about 800,000 units, a bit shy of analysts’ projections of one million. Of course, compared to TiVO and other third-party video devices, that’s pretty good, but Apple needs a winner in this category. Apple TV should be capable of working with iTunes and a subscription model for TV shows and movies — media that is mostly watched once. You should be able to dial up a show or movie directly from Apple TV, after having set up a subscription service via iTunes.

As for tablets and other Apple devices, Robert X. Cringely offers a must-read article about Apple’s strategy with the iPhone and possible future devices (including an iTablet) that pins its hopes on WebKit, an Open Source Web browser engine that underlies Apple’s Safari on OS X, Windows, the iPhone, and the iPod touch. Incidentally, the article also explains why you won’t see Flash on your iPhone real soon — Apple would rather see the WebKit (and its underlying standard, KHTML) evolve as a standard for rendering Web pages on all sorts of devices, and would rather promote Ajax for development than either Flash or Java. Ironically, Apple is using Open Source to gain some measure of control over mobile Web rendering, preempting Java and doing an end-run around the proprietary Flash technology.

The software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone and iPod touch is coming in Feb. 2008. Why the wait? On the one hand, Steve Jobs seems to plan these announcements well in advance, to give the press something to chew on every month — like the iPhone price cut. Apple always wanted third-party development, but the iPhone — as market leader in its own class of device — is a huge fat target for viruses and malware, and Apple needed to shake it out first. Apple knocked out all the “jailbreak” hacks and unauthorized applications with software updates, and I’m sure this helped the company immensely in learning how to deal with intruders. One thing is certain: Apple-authorized third-party applications won’t break your iPhone’s service with AT&T.

There is obvious pent-up developer energy waiting to be unleashed on the iPhone/iPod touch platform. Some cool apps are already in beta, such as ProRemote Pro Tools Controller, which turns an iPhone or  iPod touch into a wireless controller for Pro Tools LE — the video shows someone touching and flicking mixer controls on the iPhone as the Pro Tools LE changes on the Mac screen. Musicians can control the board levels from inside the playing area or sound booth. The innovative use of the touch interface will inspire all kinds of new apps. If you want to jump on this bandwagon, learn how to use WebKit, KHTML, and Ajax development tools.

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