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As one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies, Apple has created a virtual industry around making consumers guess what its next move will be.


Fans of Apple products follow, praise and criticize the company the way they would a local sports team. Part of the buildup is Apple’s knack for keeping secret its direction.


The suspense ends Tuesday morning when Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs takes to the stage at the 24th Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco to unveil his company’s latest gadgets and gee-whiz announcements.


“The real holiday season starts,” joked Michael Gartenberg, a vice president and research director for Jupiter Research.


About 50,000 people are expected to fill up Moscone Center - 10,000 more than last year. It’s the greatest PR show on earth as 800 members of the media will be on hand to witness the next big small thing from Apple.


The buzz among analysts and bloggers is that Apple will offer up an ultra-light laptop (some have dubbed it MacBook mini), announce a new iTunes movie rental service and commit to Sony’s Blu-ray high-definition video standard for future computers.


Whatever Apple decides to show off next week, it will be difficult for the company to outdo 2007, when it rolled out the iPhone, its latest Macintosh operating system, Leopard, and innovative iPod updates, Gartenberg said.


But the analyst quickly added, “I’ve been doing this too long to speculate on what Apple might or might not do.”


Jobs could prove predictors wrong when he lifts the black blanket from the Cupertino, Calif., company’s next-generation products.


“Everything that has been rumored we believe has been built and tested,” said Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group. “He’s already got too many products. He’ll be the arbiter for what makes it onto the stage with him. I don’t think HP has that luxury. Dell doesn’t have that luxury.”


Here is a sampling of what Apple watchers anticipate Jobs will announce this week:


The MacBook mini: The last time Apple produced an ultra-small laptop was the PowerBook 2400 a decade ago, said American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu. He believes a slimmed-down Mac notebook could be priced at $1,500 to $2,500. He and others said it could use lighter, and more stable, flash memory for those who want the Mac experience on the road without the weight of a laptop with a hard drive.


Apple blog MacRumors.com provides what-if mock-ups of a new small Mac laptop. The blog site also predicts the company will offer an external drive to keep the mini laptop as light as possible.


Should the company decide to create a slim laptop, it’s bound to pack pizzazz, Gartenberg said. “Apple is not going to simply put a smaller screen on a laptop and call it a new product,” he said. “That’s not the way they do it.”


Some analysts also think Apple’s traditional laptops - MacBook and MacBook Pro - could get upgrades.


Apple goes Hollywood: Apple, which helped launch the legal digital music business and television-show downloads through its online iTunes store, has struggled to do the same with movies. Now Jobs is rumored to be ready to jump into the movie rental business.


Just after Christmas, the Financial Times reported that Apple had inked a rental download contract with 20th Century Fox. Various other reports say Jobs is close to deals with studios for movie rentals and sales.


Rental fees could be $4 or less, Wu said.


These deals would help Apple take a lead in the digital movie distribution business as the competition heats up. Netflix, the DVD-by-mail company, has teamed up with South Korean manufacturer LG Electronics to stream entertainment through a set-top box to high-definition TVs. Netflix hopes to expand its year-old service that allows its 7 million subscribers to watch movies and TV shows on their personal computers at no additional charge.


Studio deals also could help Apple TV, the company’s “digital adapter” that connects consumers’ computer networks with their living-room entertainment systems. The device enables them to view digital videos stored on computers on big-screen TVs, or even listen to digital music through stereo speakers. Apple TV, which only works with new digital televisions, has yet to catch on with the mainstream consumer.


Apple and Sony team up: Wu and others say Jobs will embrace Sony’s next-generation high-definition DVD technology, known as Blu-ray. Microsoft has a partnership with Toshiba and its HD DVD format. Warner Bros. Entertainment said last week it will release movie discs only in the Blu-ray format. Warner Brother’s decision means the majority of high-definition movie releases will be using Blu-ray.


“I see this as two industry leaders collaborating to compete against a common adversary, known as Microsoft,” Wu said of Apple and Sony.


Macworld isn’t the company’s only launchpad for new products. Apple maximizes its ability to garner media buzz by holding product events throughout the year.


“January is the first shot of the year,” Gartenberg said. “It’s never the last word we hear from Apple.”

Tagged as: apple | steve jobs
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