It's clear that 2006 was a momentous year for Apple. The company's entire Mac lineup was converted to Intel processors, Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop offered every Intel Mac owner the ability to run Windows on their computers and iPod sales continued to surge – the release of the Zune notwithstanding. Coupled with a successful year on those fronts, Apple tantalised users with a preview of the next version of Mac OS X 10.5, aka Leopard, and a set-top box for streaming photos, music and video to your TV. And it continued to keep everyone guessing about the next generation of iPods and a possible iPhone.
As exciting as 2006 was for Apple fans, 2007 promises to be even bigger.
The biggest and most compelling coming attraction for the majority of Mac users will be the release of Leopard some time this spring. Going by those facets of it that Apple has made public to date, the OS (operating system) has an impressive feature set, and this may very well constitute the biggest advance of any OS X release.
Leopard is expected to provide developers with amazing new capabilities (particularly in animation and imaging), and it's designed to make the Mac easier and more productive for the average user. New features include Time Machine for backups and recovery; improved Spotlight searching; a more advanced version of Front Row that works on every Mac; Apple's virtual desktop software, Spaces; a truly collaborative version of iCal; and a new version of iChat sporting a variety of fun features.
Of course, those are just the things we know about; when Leopard is released or demoed, Apple CEO Steve Jobs will no doubt have his famous "one more thing" to show us about it.
Equally big news is Leopard Server, which is planned for release along with the Leopard client OS. With Leopard Server, Apple will be implementing some dramatic new and updated technologies. Advances in Open Directory will give systems administrators more ease and flexibility in managing clients; iCal server will allow users of any major calendar application to share information; a wiki server and updated blog and mailing list components will offer users new and easier forms of collaboration; Time Machine will offer easier backups of both servers and workstations; a dynamic firewall should offer better security; and 32- and 64bit applications will be able to run side by side.
Those features are all available for the single cost of a server licence – without a doubt, a smart move on Apple's part and something systems or network administrators will want to check out directly.
But Leopard Server reaches an audience beyond the typical set of IT professionals. Apple is aiming to capture some of the small business community by offering a new Server Preferences application that offers stripped-down server management for small workgroups. There are question marks over how Apple will manage to create a fully functional and yet very simple server management system, but if any company can design an elegant interface to accomplish this task, it's probably Apple.
If the firm gets this right, Leopard Server could be an ideal solution for small organisations that can't afford a full-time systems administrator. That could attract a new class of business users to the Mac and to Mac OS X Server – while providing a product that they can grow into should they need more advanced features.
Expect Apple to continue to leverage its hold on the digital entertainment market. Despite some conflicting reports about the state of online music sales, Apple's iTunes/iPod combination remains in a class of its own. Microsoft's Zune probably isn't going away soon, but it also isn't likely to replace the iPod. Even so, don't expect Apple to rest on its laurels.
The iTV is the clearest example of Apple's plans to capitalise on the digital hub strategy it has pursued for the better part of a decade. Its iTV offering will, for the first time, make it easy to join a Mac and TV. There are other systems that do this now, but iTV will be the first that is as easy as connecting a DVD player. It will offer access not just to your music and iTunes Store downloads, but also to any other videos on your computer (including those made in iMovie) as well as digital photos – turning your TV into an always-available family photo album.
Many people are speculating and/or hoping that Apple will ink a deal with TiVo or offer its own personal video recording capabilities as part of Leopard or the iTV offering. Given TiVo's history of telling Mac users that a Mac version of its TiVo-To-Go software is coming – without having yet delivered anything – it seems a bit hard to believe the two companies are collaborating on a Mac product. Apple is much more likely to continue to focus on sales of TV content through the iTunes Store. Thankfully, there is Elgato's EyeTV for those who want to use a Mac as a PVR.
If Apple's patents are to be believed, there is also a new crop of iPods on the horizon that will offer larger screens and possibly new navigation techniques. No one can say for certain whether these products will offer Bluetooth or WiFi access or other still-unpublicised features. But Apple has never released a new iPod that didn't advance the product line in some way, and I have no doubt that the next generation of iPods will continue that tradition.
If any of the rumours, analyst reports and patents are accurate, we probably will see an iPhone as well (though possibly not at MacWorld San Francisco, which begins on 7 January). The iPhone has the potential to be completely revolutionary, both as a digital media player and as a phone. Depending on how it's sold, it could even have a major impact on the US mobile phone market. But if Apple doesn't manage to get the product spot-on and hit the right distribution channels, it could be in for some very stiff competition.
Apple will also almost certainly unveil a new version of its iLife suite. IPhoto will no doubt offer more options for digital photos, iDVD will no doubt sport new themes, and iMovie and GarageBand will no doubt get updates, as well. But I'm looking for the newest iLife app, iWeb, to get the biggest changes. Hopefully, iWeb 2.0 will create cleaner HTML code and offer easier publishing when not using .Mac – including an option to publish only updated files.
Professional app updates
Apple's Pro applications are also likely to undergo major updates in 2007. In particular, look for advanced colour correction and asset management features to be built into future versions of Final Cut Studio. And we could also see technologies from recent acquisitions filter into other pro apps as well. Aperture should get a major update – possibly a complete overhaul, given reports that much of the Aperture team was replaced earlier this year.
'One more thing'
As always, it's probable that Apple has a least one surprise product or announcement that no one will really be expecting. Whatever that may be, it's sure to add to what already seems like a very full and exciting year for Apple, Mac users and iPod owners everywhere.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specialising in Mac and multiplatform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of 'Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration' and the author of 'Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs'. For more information, visit RyanFaas.com.