CES vs. Macworld: Will Apple own 2008

As you may recall, last year saw Apple bump heads hard with the rest of the technology industry at CES and MacWorld; Apple was so overmatched that rather than David and Goliath, it was more like Bambi vs. Godzilla. This only makes the fact that Bambi kicked Godzilla’s butt back then all the more impressive.  

This year though, the proverbial Godzilla in this scenario is coming armed to the teeth. However, Bambi has also been working out as well, and this makes for one heck of an impending battle royale between the two parties. Let’s discuss the upcoming confrontation this week.

Apple’s Armament:

As 2007 ends, we’re seeing Apple putting Think Secret – one of its leading fan sites – out of business which may have implications for news coverage surrounding the company in 2008 and clearly makes Apple appear far less friendly than it typically does. 

Even so, Apple is expected to announce officially the 3G version of its popular iPhone, which has often been criticized for poor battery life, being relatively fragile, its high price tag, the device’s use of the wrong carrier and having poor network speed. Overall however, the phone has been a huge success and if the company can fix more than one of the problems for what has overwhelmingly been one of the most popular products in 2007, it could make even more headway.

Nevertheless, expected to eventually launch this year, January 2008 may be too early for the iPhone Nano to make an appearance, although it is probably safe to anticipate some third-party developer announcements surrounding this offering in the near future.

What Silicon Valley is really buzzing about are the rumored new Apple laptops which are supposed to sport solid state drives (likely Pro only at first), a much thinner appearance and updated industrial design which are more in line with the iPhone than the iPod classic, which defined the old MacBook offerings. LED backlit displays have already emerged, but Apple hasn’t yet done outdoor viewable displays and these are a likely enhancement as well. In short, Apple is expected to once again try to take the lead in laptop design where it lagged (unexpectedly, I might add) Dell and HP for much of 2007.   There is also a lot of buzz around an ultra-small laptop from Apple, but the Intel technology isn’t where it needs to be yet and so I’d expect that product next year, just before the Christmas rush at earliest.

In terms of desktop products, there is also lot of noise surrounding the Mac Nano as well, an even smaller version of the little desktop that I made my desktop product of the year in 2006. Folks may be confusing this with the Apple TV 2 which is also expected, given that the original Apple TV kind of flopped.

It is well past time for a smaller update on the Mac Mini as well, let alone one that makes more use of metals or is available in black coloring. Given that this product is often used as a media server inside the home, I’d expect Apple to better embrace such applications in 2008 given the system’s popularity and expect future efforts surrounding it to push in this direction. It’s well past time for Mac Pro redesign too, but MacWorld seems early for that and I’m not seeing much buzz on that product right now.  

Anyhow, the iPhone Nano, which will likely come later in the year, is the only product that looks to be capable of being a CES-beater and most of us anticipate that product as arriving much later in the year. A refresh of the iPhone itself likely won’t be enough to steal CES’ thunder, and the audience for Mac PC products just isn’t big enough, but a combination of the two could turn some heads. 

CES: The Empire Strikes Back

On the flip side, technology vendors are loaded like a ear this year and they will be putting up a fight. On the cellular phone front is likely where you’ll see the biggest battle emerge as RIM begins to position itself for the biggest fight of its life. Up until now, Apple has been consumer-focused and RIM more business-focused. (If you are sharp, you’ve surely noticed by now that there are a lot of folks that have a RIM Blackberry for work AND an Apple iPhone.) This, of course, is just silly – people only want one, all-purpose phone. With Apple aiming to go after that spot, RIM is expected to double-down and showcase its idea of what the perfect combination device will be. And while the company doesn’t have Apple’s touch-sensitive functionality or way with design, when it comes to keyboards its efforts are nearly unmatched.

LG, Samsung, Sony/Ericsson, Motorola, HTC, and others will be ramping up their efforts strongly as well. The company to watch here is likely HTC as it has both Google and Microsoft as strong partners with different efforts. No one even comes close to a partnership like this and the manufacturer’s HTC Touch was the closest we saw last year to an iPhone clone with advantages (price and email integration). HTC has a solid line of phones, and at the right price (with Google free is good) it could eclipse Apple in sales, and with the right product, could even own the entire segment (especially since its business isn’t just tied to AT&T). The company is light on marketing though, so building the needed wave of branding will be problematic. 

On the PC front, design is in. Expect Dell and HP to be running hard to eclipse Apple’s expected new models with much more stylish offerings of their own. We’ve already seen the HP Blackbird desktop and now it is nearly time for a Blackbird laptop to emerge. Rumors are this thing is drop-dead beautiful and will be just as revolutionary as its big brother. In fact, we may see the beginnings of a Blackbird line and that alone could help eclipse what Apple is offering. But Dell isn’t sleeping either – its Dell XPS One already featured Apple-quality marketing and was targeted solidly at the aging iMac (which had only been re-skinned last go-around). Still, to really compete it needs to expand into an entire product line as well. On the Alienware side, it has been a while since we’ve seen new products and it’s time for that brand’s own refresh to boot. Expect something stunning here as well, though the real win for the entire category will be a product that’s both light and powerful. We’ll see who gets that equation right.

Sony and Toshiba have also been on the design warpath for some time. While Sony has been under a cloud of missteps for much of 2007, it’s looking better all of the time and Toshiba’s R500 which was technologically more advanced than anything on the market is due for a tweak to fix its initial shortcomings. Both of these companies are capable of producing scene-stealers. What they seem to not get is the need for good marketing, however, and that may keep them from stepping up to their potential.  

Wrapping Up

This CES is shaping up to be quite the fracas, not just in terms of infighting between vendors, but also between general mindshare when compared with Macworld, and Apple once again seems overmatched. But, given how Apple managed to wipe the floor with CES last year while in a similar position, it is too early to call the company out.

I will say that it’s doing some questionable things though – including, towards the end of 2007, forcing Think Secret to close. Frankly, I’m not sure how many folks are going to feel comfortable buying from a company that does things like that and it may be that companies at CES will win because Apple throws the fight.

Nevertheless, it continues to be a fascinating battle to watch and we’ll end up with great new products regardless. Here’s hoping the New Year proves a wonderful one for you – and not just in terms of technological innovation either!

*Edit 1/1/08 –  Removed reference to Dan Lyons as it turned out to be a hoax.

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