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Apple Accelerates: New Guts, New Shells, Lower Prices?

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 1, 2009 4:00 AM PT

While Apple CEO Steve Jobs might be resting (or working) from home, that doesn't appear to have stopped the company from pushing forward.

Apple Accelerates: New Guts, New Shells, Lower Prices?

New reports from the Apple-focused blogosphere suggest that Apple is hiring new microprocessor engineers and architects, considering carbon fiber for new device casings, and possibly even working out plans to offer new, lower-priced, entry-level Macs.

Hiring Frenzy?

Wall Street Journal and Forbes stories detailing Apple's latest hiring efforts hit the presses this week, pointing to a company looking to create its own microprocessors with better graphics for a line of mobile devices. The iPhone and iPod touch clearly come to mind, but there may even be other projects lurking somewhere in the high-security corridors of Apple HQ.

"Apple's body-snatching spree, particularly focused on veterans of the GPU team at processor maker AMD, aligns with the purchase of PA Semi last year in expanding the company's hardware design capabilities," notes Michael Rose in his post on the subject for The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW). "While there's no Apple product yet on the market featuring chips designed by the new squadron, the expectation is that future iPhones and mobile devices will benefit from Apple-only silicon; graphics capabilities built into these new and exclusive chips would be, presumably, unmatchable by competitors in the mobile space."

Plus, The Wall Street Journal also reported that more than 100 LinkedIn profiles for chip engineers have slid over into Apple's camp. The big question is, what are they working on? And can they create something fundamentally better than everyone else?

"Expect all this new tech to drive iphone, ipod and the new tablet/media pad," comments gman on the TUAW post on the subject. "unlike the bloated netbooks that are running full OS on slow HW, the new iPhone OS will have great processing power, and memory rivaling that of the [Nintendo] WII platform."

Assembling the Dream Team?

"Apple is putting together this dream team to do with portable computing what they did with portable mp3 players," adds FightTheFuture -- "separating themselves from the low-spec netbook trend on the PC front. though i don't think this will change macs at all -- apple gained a ton of market share and compatibility by going the intel route and allowing to boot and virtualize windows. i doubt they would ditch intel & nvidia hardware in their conventional systems."

So, can Apple really compete with companies that have been building low-cost, low-power microprocessor systems for years?

"Clearly, to the extent that Apple can roll its own chips, it can get some product differentiation -- or it might be able to get some product differentiation. It's certainly not a sure thing," Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64, told MacNewsWorld.

"At this point, based on the kind of people they have, the idea that Apple would build its own ARM chip for an iPod or iPhone makes some sense -- they might be able to do a better ARM chip than ARM, but even that's a challenge," he added.

"I think it was Bill Joy who formulated a law that said, 'There are more smart people who don't work for your company than do.' In the case of ARM, there's a large company that has a lot of smart people busily engaged on next-generation ARMs that'll be better," Brookwood said. "And will a group of guys that are good at designing processors but are relatively small in number -- compared to the group at ARM -- be able to come up with something better in the same timeframe? I don't know."

Still, "There's no doubt that the people that Apple has attracted are good people," he added.

Carbon Fiber Better Than Aluminum?

Even though MacBook cases are now cut from a single block of aluminum, it's still metal, right? How does metal compare to something like carbon fiber? It's tough, it's light -- but is carbon fiber really better, or is it just a cool-looking new material?

"As far as I know, at this time, carbon fiber is the best material overall for strength, weight and 'coolness,'" David Pitlyuk, a carbon fiber enthusiast and editor of Carbon Fiber Gear, told MacNewsWorld.

"It's probably the same reason that a few other laptop manufacturers already use it in their cases -- such as Sony and Voodoo," he added.

So, what's Apple up to? An October 2007 patent filing indicates Apple has been looking into carbon fiber, according to a post on MacRumors.com -- and, as it turns out, carbon fiber might need an upgrade in the eyes of Apple.

The patent, according the MacRumors post, points out that carbon fiber typically results in a sometimes-uneven woven fiber look and is usually only colored charcoal or black, both of which may give products produced with it a "'tired,' unexciting look."

Consequently, the patent application is for a "scrim" layer that will let Apple produce a more uniform or, presumably, colored look.

"I can see this being used in the next iPhones," sn00pie commented.

"Given the amount of work that went into overhauling the notebook production process for machining [aluminum] for the new unibody notebooks, I think it will be a while before we start to see carbon shells, but it's definitely a look to the future," added digitalpencil.

Overall, the consensus seems to shift toward a possible application in mobile devices like the iPhone. Either way, obviously Apple has been poking around with carbon fiber for quite some time.

"We probably won't see this for a while, but i'm guessing that apple is keeping their options open," noted gonnabuyamac. "at some point, people are going to get tired of aluminum laptops, and it's going to be hard to continue coming up with new designs that don't look a lot like previous models. (although i still keep dreaming of the day when i can get a MBP in a gun-smoke grey anodized aluminum -- done with the process they use for coloring iPod nanos)."

Cheaper Macs on the Way?

Citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, AppleInsider.com has reported that Apple is looking to offer more affordable Macs. AppleInsider didn't provide details, but the report suggests that we may soon see lower-priced MacBooks and possibly lower-priced iMacs. For instance, Apple recently started offering an aluminum iMac in the 20-inch form factor for educational institutions at the rock-bottom price of $899. Might Apple be working on something similar for consumers?

If so, not everyone is happy about it.

"This is NOT good. I repeat, NOT good," comments lkrupp on the AppleInsider.com post. "Thus begins the slow, downward spiral to mediocrity. Do the previous posters really think Apple can produce cheap PCs like Dell without sacrificing quality, customer service, and margins? If so then you live in a fantasy world."

More to the point, though, Virgil-TB2 nails the issue for many possible Mac consumers: "What's hard for us all to justify today is paying fat margins for computers when many of our jobs are hanging by a thread. I've already had some of my bennies reduced but I'm glad to be collecting a paycheck," Virgil-TB2 wrote.

So, what are the sweet-spot prices, anyway? How much can Apple reduce its prices before they go "too low?"

"I'd like Apple to do a $799 MacBook -- that's about as low-priced as they need to be without really starting to worry about cannibalization and changing their product image from the way people think about them," Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group, told MacNewsWorld. "They don't have to compete with Windows PCs on every price point -- that's not their business.

"I don't think their current MacBook sales problems have anything to do with netbooks. Truthfully, it's an economic thing today, and they do need to find something cheaper -- the Microsoft ads hit on the right note," Baker added.

The current buying climate isn't about value so much as it's about cost of acquisition, he said, noting that even if a Mac were 1,000 times better, consumers just might not be able to spend as much money on it.

Besides Virgil-TB2, how many Mac lovers have held off on buying a new Mac these days simply because of the cost?


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