MAC-APPLE

 After watching the rest of the high-tech industry unveil its coolest electronic gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Apple Computer Inc.’s Steve Jobs stands poised to unveil his own company’s latest and greatest at this year’s Macworld Expo.

Apple’s chief executive will take center stage at the annual trade show Tuesday, highlighting a four-day tech showcase where more than 36,000 attendees are expected to roam through San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

As usual, Apple has been tight-lipped about what Jobs will say or show in his keynote speech. Some of the rumors include the unveiling of a laptop or a desktop Macintosh that uses chips from Intel Corp.

Some wonder if Apple will transform its Mac Mini into a set-top box by adding its Front Row software, a program already inside new iMacs that allows the user to access music, movies and photos using a remote control.

Others have speculated Apple may release a new iPod, perhaps a version to replace its iPod Shuffle, which was announced at last year’s Macworld show.

“When it comes to (Apple events), short-term prediction is where you can be absolutely right and be dead wrong at the same time,” Gartenberg said, referring to Apple’s announcement of the iPod Nano last September.

While Apple’s size may pale in comparison to some of the high-tech heavy hitters like Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and Intel, the Cupertino company remains the team to beat when it comes to digital entertainment, particularly in music, analysts say.

“Everyone has Apple in its crosshairs,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research, a market research firm.

Apple’s line of iPods have been the product of choice among the majority of consumers looking for a portable digital music player, and a recent addition of video playback capability and content deals with TV networks also have caught much attention from its rivals.

Jobs has relished the opportunity to use occasions like Macworld Expo — this year is the 22nd in San Francisco — to showcase new products. At last year’s show, he unveiled both the iPod Shuffle and the Mac Mini, a small desktop computer priced at $499 that represented Apple’s first foray into the budget PC market. In prior years, he used Macworld show in San Francisco to introduce the first iPod Mini, the flat-panel iMac and, in 1999, colorful iMacs in five fruit flavors.

Apple was founded in 1977 by Jobs and Steve Wozniak with the debut of the Apple II computer. The first Macintosh premiered in 1984, the iMac in 1998 and the iPod in 2001. While Macs remain the core of the company’s business, the iPod has opened new and lucrative avenues for Apple.

In the weeks leading to the unveiling of the iPod Nano last year, there was rampant speculation that Apple would replace its iPod Mini, which uses a tiny hard disk drive, with a version that uses flash memory chips.

While Nano is indeed a flash-memory-based music player, no one expected a player with a bright color display to be so small that it would fit inside the coin pocket of Jobs’ blue jeans, Gartenberg said.

Tech industry analyst Rob Enderle agreed that Apple’s success with the iPod and its online iTunes Music Store — which now sells popular TV shows like ABC’s “Lost” as well as music — has made the firm an easy target.

In fact, Enderle said he believes Apple’s success may prove to be a “massive problem” as competitors gang up on the firm. Just last week, more digital content providers were announcing additional deals with competitors like Microsoft and others that use the software giant’s Windows operating system.

“Some of the big announcements like the Microsoft-Starz Entertainment deal (to make TV shows and movies available online) will not work with Apple products,” Enderle said.

Another example is the Digital Living Network Alliance, a consortium of some of the biggest names in computer and consumer electronics industries. The group has been working on a list of technology standards to make their devices compatible. Apple is conspicuously absent from the group.

Many devices at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas have adopted the standards.

“It is the entire market. Pretty much everything at (the Consumer Electronics Show was) going back to Microsoft and its Plays for Sure (digital rights management scheme). And that’s going to be a long-term problem for Apple,” Enderle said.

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