Another processor landmark from Intel has taken its Pentium4 line past 3GHz chip, with a 3.6Ghz part following hard on its heels. It makes more dismal reading for professional Apple users, who've seen the most competitive Apple hardware spanked out of sight by Chipzilla's latest in tests by Digital Video Editing.
This couldn't come at a worse time: for a hardware company, the whole point of improving your system software is to sell more hardware. (Unless you license the software, which obviously doesn't apply to Apple).
And it could be some time before the seventh cavalry arrives, in the form of the PowerPC 970 processor. So what can Apple do?
Well, we suggest - and desperate times call for desperate measures - it's time to cause a huge distraction. A hand wave. Create an explosion that generates vast clouds of smoke, under which the processor problem might be forgotten.
Seriously. Apple has one of the world's best design teams, can generate acres of uncritical coverage in the Times, the WSJ and Business Week (far more than its miniscule market share merits), and has improved its retail presence, so the world can see the results.
The following ideas play to Apple's strengths in consumer design and packaging and as far as possible leverage work that's already been done: this was a constraint in the the following exercise - the incremental R&D is minimal.
So no flying cars here, then: instead here are four product suggestions that could guide the company through its darkest year.
The market for appliance servers has almost died. What could be more crazy than launching into a dying market? Well, for a start Apple's educational customer base is more receptive to a plug-and-play server appliance than the broad spectrum of SMEs who were targeted with appliances from HP, for example. A headless file and print server would be welcomed in a fair few classrooms. It uses little incremental software R&D over and above what's already in OS X. An iPliance could cannibalize general-purpose server sales in some situations - but it doesn't have to, Apple can price and position it close to $1000. The disks don't have to be the fastest, and Apple's aren't, and it doesn't have to anything more than a couple of functions simply and reliably.
What is it? A file and print appliance server
Pros: cheap, little incremental R&D; management software is already written
Cons: cannibalizes Xserve, low margins
The writing is on the … tablet. Rumor sites have been kept busy since Apple demonstrated its InkWell technology earlier this year. But the big question is whether the tablet is a "fat client" - like the TabletPCs, or a thin client, like Microsoft's forthcoming Mira. A thin client has obvious advantages: it only needs enough CPU horsepower to drive some elementary display logic, so it can be priced at about a third of a mid-range notebook, and stay "untethered" for far longer. Apple already has the technology developed with its Remote Desktop product. The original iMac was developed out of a plan to produce an NC, so this would there would be some irony in the return of the concept. The drawback of the thin client approach is that it would only appeal to households who already have a Macintosh computer: and that Mac may already be being maxed-out by the user burning a DVD, or making a home movie. But conceptually, Apple already has the technology written, and the unimaginative Tablets would give the company a chance to differentiate itself with some great design.
What is it?Thin client consumer device
Pros: tech already devised, little incremental R&D; cheap
Cons: overtaxes the iMac mothership
Since Jobs called in the clones, Apple is back to being what Steve Wozniak describes as a monopoly, and no where is this more acutely felt than in the notebook business. Wild horses couldn't part me from my iBook, but next year will see Wintel notebooks improve in both performance and heat dissipation. Most of the Banias prototypes I've seen are fanless and very thin indeed. You've probably had a light lithium polymer battery in your cellphone for a couple of years, and next year notebook manufacturers will increasingly standardize on these, bringing dramatic weight savings.
And yet power consumption remains a silver lining to Apple's processor problems. It's surely time to diversify: the 2x2 product grid was discarded some time ago in any case. The most obvious opportunity is for a premium consumer product. The 14" iBook has a fine display but looks hugely overweight compared to the new thin and lights. The tricky decision is whether to base such a machine on G4 processors - which certainly need a fan for safety's sake - or the cooler running G3s.
What is it?: Premium consumer thin and light
Pros: remains competitive with Banias
Cons: cannibalizes PowerBook sales
We've saved the best until last. Let's assume that Apple's 2003 notebooks will come with Bluetooth built-in. (It'll be criminal neglect if they don't).
Apple has a great technology in Rendezvous, and Steve Jobs personally demonstrated cross-playing (but not exchanging) MP3s between Macs earlier this year. Adding Bluetooth and Rendezvous to the iPod would require a software stack and drivers for this operating system , and that might fail the test we set ourselves in this exercise, of only spending incremental R&D on a project. But Ibex, as the only software company to have a stack that supports the RTXC DSP might fit the bill. Bluetooth chips are now below $5. And think what you'd have then.
It would greatly annoy the RIAA, which would argue that it's a portable Napster. But not all MP3s are illegal: fair use still exists, and this music sharing appliance could have fairly dramatic social effects.
So what could you do with a Bluetooth-capable iPod?
You could get promiscuous with strangers: you could pair and exchange a song on the same short bus ride.
You could create short, ad hoc personal broadcasts, to anyone else with a Bluetooth iPod.
You could have a "what am I listening to?" menu option and share your choice with anyone within discoverable range.
Do it, Steve.
What is it?An iPod with built-in Bluetooth and Rendezvous
Pros: Revolutionary. Adds little to bill of materials.
Cons: The Wrath of Hilary Rosen