What to expect when we go ‘Back to the Mac’

Xavier Verhoeven
14 October, 2010
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Predicting what Apple will announce at one of its keynote events is harder than picking the winner in the Melbourne Cup. A lot harder. Until days or even hours before, when Mr X might manage to uncover a product code for the soon-to-be-announced wares, or blurry images of what may or may not be the ‘next big thing’ appear on blogs around the world, it’s anyone’s guess what glorious new hardware and software we could see.

Often, however, Apple hints at what’s to come in its invitations, and the blogosphere spends the week-long leadup attempting to decipher the code. Before the September event just passed, there were the inevitable cries: “It has a guitar on it – is The Beatles catalogue finally coming to iTunes?” Not quite.

This time, however, Apple’s gone and put a picture of a lion on the invitation, and said it will be previewing the next operating system, so everyone (including myself) is announcing that 10.7 Lion is nearly ready to go. That seems a reasonable conclusion, but how much more can we read into it? The lion is the ‘king of the jungle’ – does that mean 10.7 will be the king of OS X, standing above all that came before it, but perhaps signalling the last iteration before OS XI? Afterall, Snow Leopard was a relatively minor upgrade to Leopard, at least on the surface.

So begins the speculation of what might be next week. Add to that the fact that a preview of Lion is unlikely to take up a whole hour, there’s a good chance we’ll see Steve Jobs talking up some other products and innovations at the event.

A new face for a new cat?

The one certainty in this whole thing is that a new version of OS X will be previewed. It may or may not be called Lion, and it may or may not be 10.7 (though many website’s logs, including this one, are showing 10.7). But really, what’s in a name? It’s the OS itself that will be interesting, not what it’s called.

Given that Snow Leopard was pretty much a behind-the-scenes upgrade to Leopard, I’d be willing to bet that OS X is about to see some aesthetic changes. The interface doesn’t exactly feel old, but it could do with some sprucing up. iTunes has often been an early adopter of forthcoming interfaces, so I wonder if we might see the vertical traffic light buttons across the board? (I realise most people hate the new look, but I don’t mind the smaller buttons.)

Also possible is a new font for OS X. While it’s used Lucida Grande since the beginning, iOS and the Apple TV interface use Helvetica (the iPhone 4 uses Helvetica Neue). Helvetica is also used throughout the iTunes Store, and now, for Ping. With Ping replacing the Genius Sidebar, we now have the unfortunate mix of Helvetica alongside Lucida Grande, and it just looks odd. Could we see Helvetica as the typeface of choice on the Mac to bring the range into line with iOS and Apple’s other devices?

Don’t touch the Lion

Speaking of iOS, the successes Apple is having in touch devices has led many to predict that the next Mac OS will get a whole lot more touchy-feely. Of course, multi-touch gestures are already supported with MacBook trackpads, the Magic Trackpad and the Magic Mouse, but a touchscreen on a Mac is still a thing of the future. Which is exactly why I don’t expect 10.7 to feature too much touch-integration.

Apple does hardware and software together – never just one or the other. In offering a touch-based Mac OS, the company would need to update its entire range of Macs upon the release of the operating system. If it demos a touch-based OS next week that isn’t available until mid-next year at WWDC (as many are speculating), you can bet that it won’t sell a lot of non-touch Macs in the meantime. Assume instead that it releases 10.7 and supporting hardware all at one in less than seven days time – wouldn’t we have heard at least a whisper of all the new tech about to fill our nearest Apple Store? Or maybe Apple will start the touchscreen migration with just one line of Macs – perhaps the MacBook Air or MacBook Pros – but either they wait for 10.7 to be released next year before they work properly, or it’s released without developers having had time to prepare their software. None of these options seem particularly likely.

Ageing Airs

While we’re on the topic of new hardware, until a few months ago, Apple had a number of old products in its lineup. But after the Mac Pro and Apple TV have seen recent updates, pretty much all that’s left is the MacBook Air. Its last refresh was June 2009, making it a pretty ancient beast by computer standards. If Apple currently sells enough MacBook Airs – it’s clearly not as popular as its other portables – to make it worth the company’s while making a new model, it has to be updated next week. If not, the Air can’t be far from extinction.

Rumours have been floating around that the new Air will feature an 11 or 12in screen, giving it even more in common with the netbook that Apple has avoided since day one, but also making it pretty similar in size to the iPad. I can’t imagine a huge overhaul of the Air – it might come with a smaller screen, but it will be as high in resolution as the current model (or higher). An iOS (or touch-based OS X) Air would sit very uncomfortably between the iPad and the other MacBooks.

All that said, the Air with the same screen bezel as the MacBook Pros (black and glass), the glass trackpad of its chunkier cousins and some increased specs could breathe new life into the svelte model.

Pro bumps

Portable upgrades have been a mainstay of the past few October/November Apple events. While both MacBooks and MacBook Pros could see some love, the MacBook Pro is the slightly older model, and could benefit from a few spec bumps. USB 3.0 is becoming increasingly more common in peripherals, so now is the time for Apple to add it to the lineup (though why it wouldn’t have made the cut in the iMacs and Mac Pros is difficult to understand). Blu-ray is almost certainly not going to be included – Apple is too firmly planted in online content distribution, whether Blu-ray is a bag of hurt or not – so I think it’s time we all move on from asking that question.

What I most want to see in Apple’s notebook lineup is a bump in screen resolution. My 13in MacBook Pro has the same resolution (1280 x 800) as my MacBook had four years ago. I don’t expect Retina displays in new MacBook Pros, but high-resolution screens either as an option (as in the current 15in) or a standard feature in the 13in would definitely be welcomed. Plus, it would be another way to differentiate the base model Pro from the white MacBook.

The showdown: iWork ‘11 vs Office 2011

Given that the Office 2011 for Mac launches at the end of October, it would make sense for Apple to release a big update for iWork right about now. A week earlier than the Microsoft release sounds like a time Apple would choose.

But what can we expect? An update that features design elements from the new Mac OS would be nice, given the lifespans are very likely to overlap. Most importantly, it would be great to see Apple step up to the mark and offer a good way of syncing documents between Mac OS X and iOS. Perhaps iWork.com will fill the gap, or perhaps MobileMe. Either way, it would be great to just save a document on one platform and have it available on the other, dare I say, by ‘Magic’.

iLife in the clouds

If iWork sees an update, there’s a good chance iLife will get a makeover too. My wishlist includes a DIY app maker, where designing a simple app is a matter of dragging and dropping interface elements and actions – but I’d be surprised if that eventuates. More likely, the current applications will have better integration with MobileMe and utilise cloud storage. That big ol’ data centre that Apple’s building has to be for something.

FaceTime, meet iSight

I count this one as a certainty – though it might not happen as soon as next week. Either Apple will release a FaceTime app for OS X, or the technology will be integrated into iChat. It’s a great way to tie together all its devices, and makes easy video chat across platforms that little bit more ubiquitous.

One more thing… All my media in one place

Kirk McElhearn said it better than I can in his blog about why iTunes needs a server version. It might not happen just yet, but with Apple TV now streaming content, wouldn’t it be great to have a headless low-powered unit always on in a cupboard somewhere that contains all your content and is easily accessed by the whole family?

Of course, as is always the way, we’ll see but a fraction of these upgrades when Steve graces the stage next week. But remember, if new hardware is announced, we could see some cheap Macs given how strong the Aussie dollar is right now. Surely that’s enough of a reason to get up at 4am and follow along on AMW? At the very least, you’ll be able to laugh at how horribly these predictions pan out.


3 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Laith says:

    What about 3D iMacs? That’s what I want to see. Even a 30inch 3D iMac. And Blu-Ray.

  2. Stephen Dutton says:

    Yes, a revamp is required, the Mac interface has become too corporate, and even slightly bland (think Aqua), its good though, very good for work.

  3. mediasorcerer says:

    how about a gpu update,for crying out loud,its a crime to produce such a beautiful,powerful machine,[i5 i7 cpu,s]then to have the grafix at “medium” performance level say what!~!!!
    you wouldnt make a ferrari,with a 500+hp v12 super fast engine in it,then mate it with a five speed hyundai gearbox,?????
    do the right thing steve,for everyones sake!

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