Ask Not Just What is In the Air, But On It.

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 1:38 AM

It’s that time of year again. If you are at all interested in the trends of technology in the next year, January is the time to learn what is coming up. And not at the CES mind you – these years, the future shows up at MacWorld. Last year it was the iPhone, which managed to shake an industry that had never faced Apple before and start a major shift in the way cell phone development is done. What will this year bring? Tim puts his money on more devices coming out of the Apple-AT&T partnership, for one thing.

It seems reasonable now to put one’s money on a thinner, smaller MacBook laptop. Many such as myself have been yearning to see such a machine ever since Apple dropped the 12” PowerBook a few years back – for my part, I have been anxiously hoping Apple would release something before my trusty 12” decides to give up its ghost. So far, so good, but I would feel better if something comes out tomorrow. Fortunately with the massive amount of chatter, it seems to be more than mere wishful thinking that a “MacBook Air” will appear. The ultra-slim laptop market is one that Apple has surprisingly ignored given its penchant for stunning, thin, industrial design infused devices, such as the various iPods, and, of course, the iPhone.

That is rather exciting, but what if Apple has something bigger in its presently hidden MacWorld booth? A lot of pundits are predicting an Apple TV 2.0, some kind of device that will help Apple’s try at a media center extender-type device become a bit more of a significant player in that market. Apple faces a major problem in creating a better Apple TV: the device seemed powerful enough (and pricey enough) to warrant the inclusion of DVR functionality, but Apple chose not to offer a “TiVo-killer.” Given that most current Windows PCs can work as DVRs that then link to media center extenders like the Xbox 360, and the TiVo itself is gaining more and more features that step on Apple TV’s territory, this could be seen as a major downfall for the Apple TV. To make matters worse, for not that much more than an Apple TV, one can buy an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 that ostensibly offers similar functionality plus at least DVD (or, in the PS3’s case, Blu-ray) playback and a powerful gaming system. With Sony and Microsoft looking to sell movies through their respective consoles’ online stores, expect the attack from the “game systems” market to only intensify for Apple. Apple needs an incredible DVR to make the Apple TV really stand out.

Of course, I have come down on record why I think Apple skipped over the whole DVR game: presently it is nearly impossible to offer Apple’s signature elegance and ease-of-use with a third party DVR. DVRs not provided directly by pay TV providers, such as the cable company, cannot access the full spectrum of digital channels unless they use an “IR blaster” to control a separate cable box or a CableCARD. The latter solution brings everything into one box, but is not entirely seamless, and, because it lacks two-way communication, it still cannot offer Video-on-Demand or other advanced featured included in even the most generic modern pay TV box.

So what is Apple to do to save the Apple TV and yet avoid compromising on the elegant design of the features it includes? Partner with a pay TV provider and sell the box through that company, just as it is doing with the iPhone on the cellular side. Apple could partner with the cable companies, but cable companies lack the strong retail presence Apple would need to sell a premium box. However, Apple already has experience in partnering with another TV provider: AT&T. Thanks to AT&T’s huge retail presence drawn from its cellular division once known as Cingular, Baby Ma Bell has the ability to show off an Apple device and already does so with huge iPhone displays at its retail stores.

Moreover, AT&T’s new TV service, U-verse, is IPTV-based (Internet Packet TV), meaning that there would be no need for expensive legacy tuner equipment or developing different tuners for different markets (such as is necessary with digital cable). Apple needs a partner to take the Apple TV further, but AT&T could use the boost too. In its quest to take the cable companies head on, an exclusive, stylish set-top box could potentially help lure customers away from its competitors and into a lucrative triple or quad-play package of wireless and wire line services. For Apple’s part, the deal would likely be good profit source not only because of the revenue from the device itself, but also subscription revenue from AT&T, again, like the iPhone.

Of course, U-verse is only available in a limited region right now, but Apple could potentially release an alternate version with a satellite tuner meant to work with AT&T’s Home Zone satellite service across the rest of the nation.

What of the cable companies? Well, with Comcast’s new push for Tru2Way – formerly OpenCable Access Platform (OCAP) — at the CES last week, the time for selling a device at retail that worked well with digital cable may be coming soon, but not yet. If Apple launched first with AT&T, it could establish a better foothold in the set-top box market and create demand amongst non-AT&T customers, demand it could fulfill once any exclusivity contract with AT&T ended and Tru2Way was relatively ubiquitous.

Oh, one more thing. Controlling the Video-on-Demand feature from the iTunes Store or downloading content from the iTunes Store through the approximately 24 mbps connection AT&T dedicates to TV – and walls off from normal internet usage – in a U-verse home are the tantalizing possibilities of such a device. Perhaps including the ability to stream from the Apple TV to computers with iTunes would be another possibility and one that would provide Apple with another source of content for video hungry iPods, hedging the company’s bets, should any other providers in the iTunes Store follow NBC in pulling out.

What’s “in the air” tomorrow? Surely a sub-notebook, but don’t be surprised if IPTV surfaces as well – it would fit neatly with the whole “air” slogan Apple is using to promote the keynote. But if not tomorrow, don’t be surprised if such a box goes on the air soon after.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business. Note that Tim owns a small amount of Apple (AAPL) stock.