Bangkok Diary

    Saturday 12 January 2008: The Last Lap to MacWorld - Something in the Air?

Graham K. Rogers

Rabbit We all know the romantic scenario: All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. . ." but the reality is less serene than that. I have the tickets and the hotel reservation is confirmed. I rushed down to the Thai Immigration Office yesterday morning for a re-entry permit (I want to get back in after MacWorld), organised some last-minute laundry, confererred with the maid about feeding the dog and made yet another list of what still had to be done.

On Friday I was also sent the final itinerary of what is planned for us journalists (and I use the term somewhat loosely in my case) from the Asia Pacific region, which interestingly includes an Apple WW Product Briefing for AP Media. There is a note that the venue is to be "advised later", which may be simply that no one knows which of the many rooms beneath the Moscone Center we will be ushered into, or may be something more sinister: perhaps those of us from these foreign parts are to be whisked away in vans with black windows to a secret location.

Apple's secrecy sometimes engenders such speculation.

Along with most of the Cupertino-oriented press and blogs, I have written a couple of pieces on what I think may be coming. The main item will be printed on Wednesday next, which (because of time differences) will be on the streets only a few hours after Steve Jobs thrills us all with his announcements.

Last year, of course we had the intense build-up to the iPhone. Most commentators, including me (fingers crossed here) do not think that Steve is going to be able to top that. There are expected to be additions and changes to the iPhones, like an update and some more functions. Might this be the time that the technology for charging items to the iPhone, like a mobile credit card, will appear? This is an extra, not a major change.

powerbook Focus has been on a thin notebook, or a tablet with a touch screen -- perhaps a super PDA -- or both. Or, as was done spectacularly with the announcement of the iPhone, when he said, "not three separate devices, this is one device", maybe he has something extra up his voluminous magician's sleeves.

There has also been information apparently leaked about a new movie rental service, with the agreement of several movie making companies and, coming on top of the move by the four major record companies to allow DRM-free downloads via Amazon, might we also expect some additional adjustments to the services available via the iTunes Music Store? Probably not actually.

While some had been expecting new MacPros, Apple dispensed with this last week releasing updates to both the the MacPro with a faster 3.2GHz 8-core processor, and to the Xserve which has multiple configurations. With the professional hardware out of the way, this leaves Apple free to concentrate on consumer technology. Also, with a lacklustre Consumer Electronic Show at Las vegas now over with, the headlines are Apple's to take.


Let me return to last year's MacWorld for a moment. A few days before, at the entrance to the Moscone Center, a banner was displayed with what looked like an Apple eclipse of the sun. The meaning was made clear as the iPhone emerged from behind the technological darkness.

On Saturday morning, CNET was the first (that I saw) with photographs of the Moscone Center and a banner display with the words, "2008. There's Something in the Air."

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

iPhone Last year Apple announced major tie-ins with Google, particularly concerning the iPhone; and Eric Schmidt had a few minutes on stage at the MacWorld Keynote. Google has been flexing its muscles in the interim and has made a bid for the 700MHz band that is to be freed up for use in 2009. Is there to be a closer working relationship between Apple and Google with regard to online content? That idea of a super PDA would be a factor here, particularly as a number of like devices were shown at CES: Google provides the content and the signal, Apple provides the device.

Perhaps the relationship is to become symbiotic by way of a takeover or a merger: that would bring out howls of protest, particularly from the direction of Redmond, which would be pushed to number 2 (currently Google is number 2 and Apple 3 in the corporate league).

The 700Mhz link has a certain disadvabtage for Apple in that it is localised -- albeit in a large market -- while the rest of the world would be almost unaffected, at least in concrete terms (there could be spin-offs in the same way that the iPhone made the telephone makers re-examine their game). There is also precedent for this in the way that the iTunes Music Shop, and even the iPhone, are only available piecemeal. But both Apple and Google are global companies, even if the US market seems to be the largest. There are other plums to pluck.

The largest, virtually untapped, market for Apple is China. Although both Google and Yahoo! acted disgracefully towards dissidents and gave them up to Chinese authorities, there is a strong argument for all being fair in love and war, and business. In the end, although some shareholders do display a conscience (witness Distillers and Thalidomide in the 70s) many corporate bodies that hold shares do not and the bottom line is the bottom line.

Last week, Apple announced the appointment of Andrea Jung to its board of directors and she is fluent in Mandarin, a major language of communication in China. But she is also chairman and chief executive officer of Avon Products: beauty, scents, perfumes. Is this what Apple means by "something in the air"?

That banner has several interpretations of course and may simply refer to the movie rental service that is mooted. To make a real killing at this, as with the iTunes music store downloads, the service has to be global, but I am not holding my breath.

Thai iPhone Thailand, like other countries, is not deemed safe enough because of the illegal copying that is rampant. However, the disks themselves are on sale, and the music on these is DRM-free, although Sony had a go at protection with its awful rootkit, as did the local company, Grammy, some of whose disks install software on PCs but not on Macs. Once a legal tune is on a computer, it can be copied, which is zero difference from a downloaded music file: the music companies are insisting on a 12" steel safe door, while they still have 3" brick walls.

Movie rentals are a different animal of course. By their very nature, and unlike a rented disk, they must self-destruct after a period of time (although also by their nature, someone will try to work out how to avoid that -- witness the number of unlocked iPhones here). If the files do vapourise, then (I would argue) there is no reason that those in other countries -- and of course I mean Thailand, and me, and the rest of the Asian and African markets -- should not have access to them.

Already available are online television services like Joost, which I have been trying out for a couple of months. The one thing that needs to be overcome here is the lack of content, something that the movie download would not suffer from.

Those of us who travel across the Pacific for MacWorld tend to be looked after quite well, and we have a number of briefings and meetings with the Apple personnel which will fill in the details over the couple of days following the main event: one being a tour of the Apple booth and another (above) a product briefing, so we can fairly-safely predict that, indeed, there will be a new product if we are going to be briefed about it.

SF street Clown With the free time I do have while in San Francisco, I will spend a lot wandering round the booths taking photographs as I did last year and even, I hope, getting into the streets and using the camera there.

In the steets there will also be other clues if Apple sticks to form. Before the announcement of the iPhone, as well as that teaser, advertisements all round the area were showing iPods. Afterwards, these had been changed to the iPhone.

On Monday, I arrive in San Francisco. We are staying in The Clift Hotel, Geary Street, just down the road from the Moscone Center (I must try that diner again) and I will look out for what is being advertised.

Steve will have the last word, of course. Steve is the last word and we will know on Tuesday 15th, when he presents his Keynote Speech between 9am and 10:30am -- the most-anticipated 90 minutes of the year for Apple followers.


[Update: AppleInsider also now has a series of photographs of the area round Moscone Center and in addition they have one of the Apple street advertisements (as mentioned above) which are showing the iPod. Plus, other sites are mentioning WiMax as a possible solution to the banner enigma.]

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