Show forecast: Thin, light notebook 'sure bet'

The most persistent rumour is of a very small subnotebook, say analysts

Although only Steve Jobs knows for sure what new products he will introduce today to the Apple faithful gathered in San Francisco, if there's anything close to a sure bet, it's a smaller notebook, said analysts.

"The most persistent rumour is of a very small subnotebook," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Smaller than a MacBook or MacBook Pro, possibly with a multi-touch interface or perhaps just super thin."

Rumour and speculation are more than a cottage industry in the Apple ecosystem. In the weeks, then days before January's Macworld Conference and Expo and the summer's Worldwide Developer's Conference — the other stage the company takes to roll out new hardware — the guessing gets serious.

As banners went up at the Moscone Center, the venue of Jobs' keynote on Tuesday morning, bloggers snapped shots and promptly speculated if the catchphrase "There's something in the air" meant that the iconic CEO would introduce iTunes purchases over AT&T's EDGE network, new wireless hardware for the Mac line or even a WiMax initiative.

Or, as the appropriately titled site MacRumors.com speculated Friday night, the marketing slogan might point toward a smaller, thinner portable dubbed the MacBook Air.

Neither Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, nor Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, would be surprised, since both joined Golvin to bet on a petite portable as the rumour most likely to prove out.

"It's a given," said Munster, who said that his sources had pegged the screen at just 11 inches, even more diminutive than the blogosphere consensus, which had earlier gravitated toward a larger 13-in. display. "The one real wild card [for Tuesday] is whether it will come with a touch screen. In a year, that's certain. This could be the beginning of the end of the mouse."

"The ultralight seems like a good bet," said Gottheil.

While the maybe-MacBook Air/maybe-not machine's specs have been all over the map, the anticipated thinning of the frame and the lightening of its heft likely will come from ditching a traditional hard drive — and probably a built-in optical drive as well — and replacing it with a flash memory-based device. Forrester's Golvin said the move made sense. "Apple gets the best price on flash [memory] of anybody, thanks to the quantities they buy for the iPod," he said. "Whether it happens now or not, I would think Apple would be the company to do this."

Other than Jobs holding a new laptop aloft, the most probable announcement, said the three analysts, will be one or more changes to Apple TV, the slow-selling music- and movie-streaming box.

"The next most likely is Apple TV," argued Golvin. "There are some natural evolutionary steps that would make it a more attractive product." Among them, he said, would be an integrated television tuner to turn the device into a digital video recorder and the ability to take a cable card, especially a two-way cable card, to transform it into a true set-top box.

"They have to do something about Apple TV, because it's just sitting there like a lump," said Gottheil, who took a more conservative approach and pegged the probable change as new movie rentals from iTunes that can be downloaded to the Apple TV.

Munster saw that bet and anted up. "There will be some improvement in the [Apple TV] software, with movie rentals and more capacity at a lower price," he said. "Apple will want to make a statement of some sort on the Apple TV. But we won't see Blu-ray support."

After checking off a lighter laptop and Apple TV modifications, the analysts, like most who have tried to read Apple's tea leaves, spread their bets.

Gottheil, for example, thought the time was right for Apple to make a Microsoft-esque move, and introduce a home server. "Time Machine [the backup and restore tool in Leopard] is a nice piece of software, but there are a lot of other things you could pack into a home server. Apple should be heading in that direction."

Or at least into the cloud, Gottheil continued. "One thing Apple could do is offer some kind of online long-term backup," Gottheil said. "It's kind of dull, but they need to do something to recognize the fundamental sea change that broadband connectivity has made to personal computing."

Golvin saw a design revamp of the MacBook Pro line as a possibility. "It hasn't been refreshed in a while," he said, adding that he was talking about more than just a bump in processor speed, something Apple does regularly but rarely at major events such as Macworld.

Munster, on the other hand, put his money on something that wouldn't happen Tuesday: any major news about the iPhone, which dominated 2007's Macworld. "A 3G iPhone won't come until June," Munster said, citing sources among suppliers in Hong Kong.

Munster was convinced that Tuesday will bring a different kind of Macworld than last year's paen to the iPhone. "Apple announced [Mac Pro] desktops this week, and those are great," he said, "but 2008 is the year of the portable, and that's what Macworld will be all about."

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