|Apple's iPod still commands a sizable lead among MP3 players.|
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -
Trying to predict what must-have gadget Apple is going to release next? Might as well break out the tea leaves.
Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about its upcoming products and deals, but the rumor mill is in high gear as the company preps for the 2006 Macworld Expo on Jan. 9. Here's a look at some of what Apple watchers expect the company to announce in San Francisco next month.
The most pervasive rumor so far is that Apple will unveil its first computers to include Intel chips at Macworld – several months ahead of Apple's original target date. Several analysts, including Citigroup's Richard Gardner and UBS' Benjamin Reitzes, have forecast this. Many believe laptops will be the first to be unveiled. Apple computers currently use chips from IBM and others.
"I don't have any independent confirmation on that, but I'd say it's a pretty good bet," said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies. Kay added that Apple may bill the Intel Mac as the penultimate announcement, but then tack on a surprise announcement following that, a formula he said Apple has down cold.
"They try to roll out (new products) at a pace where just as you're catching your breath with the last one you get whacked with the next one," he said.
Gardner believes the Intel Mac launch will coincide with the introduction of Intel's new dual core "Yonah" processors at the Consumer Electronics Show, being held the previous week in Las Vegas. He thinks Apple's PowerBook will be the first product line to get Intel chips.
An earlier launch means Apple would not run the risk of a sales slowdown in the first half of the year because of consumers waiting for the newest models. Also, Yonah processors are said to provide better performance and improved power consumption than the chips Apple currently uses.
Gardner believes the move would make sense – in part because it would motivate consumers to buy computers after the holidays, a seasonally slow period for the company, among other reasons.
Steve Lidberg, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, also thinks Apple will roll out Intel-based Macs at the show, but he thinks the iBook laptop line has a better shot at being the first Intel-based Mac to be unveiled. Think Secret, an Apple news Web site dedicated to breaking news about Apple's new product line, also published a recent report that Intel-based iBooks are the likely first products.
Mac Mini update
Lidberg is also among a handful of analysts who think the Mac Mini, Apple's sub-$1,000 desktop line of diminutive computers, will also get refreshed.
UBS analyst Reitzes, who predicts Macworld will be "a circus," agrees that a new Mac Mini could be imminent, "perhaps as a digital media device," he wrote in a recent note.
Many analysts and investors have wondered what Apple CEO Steve Jobs is planning on the "digital living room" front – in other words, making Macs and iPods the centerpiece of the end consumer's home entertainment experience. Jobs has not made clear how he plans to do this, though with the introduction of the video iPod, it's clear he is thinking in that direction.
Reitzes added his research team still believes Apple may expand its "digital hub" offerings, including the possible introduction at Macworld of a product with DVR-like functionality.
New iPod Shuffles; iPod boom box?
Pacific Crest's Lidberg thinks the company will announce new versions of the iPod Shuffle. Lidberg said he thinks that Apple's announcement that it will not re-stock the one-gigabyte version of the iPod Shuffle until January is a strong hint in this direction.
Another Apple-tracking site, AppleInsider.com, predicts Apple will go further into the consumer electronics market with several iPod-related audio gadgets, including an iPod boom box. Citing an unnamed source, the site reported that such a boom box could take the form of "an over-sized iPod with boom box-type speakers." Such a move would expand Apple's reach into consumer electronics, where it has achieved attractive margins.
More content deals
With ABC, Disney, NBC, USA and the SciFi channel already providing content for the video iPod, look for other major media companies to follow suit, analysts say.
"I don't know why you would see hesitancy on the part of content providers given the initial success" of video sales via the iTunes music store, Lidberg said. The sale of music videos, Pixar short films, and episodes of TV shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" proved an instant hit. Customers downloaded one million videos within the first 19 days of their launch on iTunes.
"An expanded relationship with Disney as well as NBC would make a lot of sense also," said Lidberg.
HBO president Chris Albrecht recently said he'd be interested in striking a deal with Apple, as did the co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment and the president of ESPN.
Other rumored products include a different version of the iTunes phone than the one Apple launched with Motorola, though Lidberg doesn't see this as imminent.
He said that while it might make sense for Apple to start a "mobile virtual network operator," a mobile operator that buys access from traditional carriers and re-sells branded access to its customers, it probably will not happen for at least 12-18 months, he said.
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