Can Apple Outdo the iPhone?

With an underwhelming Consumer Electronics Show receding in the tech universe's rearview mirror, the focus has turned to the upcoming Macworld. Steve Jobs has a lot to live up to after last year's performance, when he introduced the iPhone, forever altering the smartphone landscape. Jobs isn't expected to announce anything quite so groundbreaking, but there's still plenty of speculation about what he'll be unveiling on Tuesday. Here's the buzz:

Movie Rentals on iTunes
Can Apple transform how we watch movies the way it changed how we listen to music? BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal are reporting that Apple, which already sells first-run Disney movies through its online store, is hammering out rental agreements with Disney as well as with Warner Bros., Lion's Gate and Paramount. One potential sticking point has been pricing. The recording industry hates the 99 cents per song standard, and it appears unlikely that the film industry will go along with a similar flat pricing structure—they want flexibility. Exact details of how the rental system would work are scarce, but it seems likely that the rented movie would live on your hard drive for a predetermined amount of time (24 hours or a week) and then disappear.

Rip DVDs onto iTunes
The Financial Times is reporting that Apple is also hammering out a deal to license its FairPlay digital rights management scheme to Fox so users would be able to rip Fox DVDs onto iTunes, a first for Apple, which has historically been nervous about compromising the integrity of its encryption. Taken together with Sony's new Amazon partnership, could this signal the coming end of DRM?

Ultrathin Laptops
One rumor that's been impossible to shake is that the MacBook Pro could get an upgrade—or rather, downgrade. Don't be surprised to see a thinner, lighter laptop with a 12-inch screen  released some time around February (in the $1,700-$1,800 range). The new machines—some are calling them "subnotebooks"—will come with Intel inside, naturally.

Second-Generation iPhone
This is, after all, the one-year anniversary of the first iPhone announcement. Some expect to see a 16 Gb iPhone, with twice the capacity of the current model. Another possibility is that Apple might uncuff the device from AT&T's service—which has been a sore point among folks who prefer to choose their own service provider. (Some more enterprising customers have already taken this matter into their own hands.)

High Definition
Analysts suspect that Jobs will announce that Apple is embracing Blu-ray, Sony's high-definition DVD technology. For its part, Microsoft already has a partnership with Toshiba and its HD DVD format (which, given Warner Bros.'s recent announcement that it will be releasing movies only in the Blu-ray format, may be the losing bet). What better way to stick it to your nemesis?

Long-Distance, or " Last Mile ," Wireless
Apple doesn't have any sort of wide area wireless built into its laptops (Dell and HP do), but Apple's new friend Intel is helping to drive the wireless broadband WiMAX Alliance. A few Macworld photos have already leaked, including one with the slogan "There's something in the air." It would be very attractive to see this sort of technology go mainstream. Either that, or the thing "in the air" could be …

Revamped Apple TV and/or Apple Cinema Displays
The company's "digital adapter" hasn't made inroads with consumers yet. The device, which connects computer networks with in-home entertainment systems, is designed to fling digital videos from your hard drive up onto big-screen TVs—or even just play digital music through stereo speakers. With all this talk about movie rentals, high definition, "something in the air," and now fully green, LED-backlit LCD screens, expect a potentially major audiovisual foray into the living room.

A Mac Tablet
This would be a totally new product, but one that's been swirling through the rumor mill for years. Think of it as a giant iPod touch: a flat, portable touchscreen device running on some modified version of the Leopard operating system and powered by Intel. Given the public's lack of demonstrated demand for such a product, however, many analysts remain skeptical. Then again, we didn't know we wanted iPods before we had them.

"One More Thing…"
The company has been typically ruthless when it comes to keeping secrets this year. Just last month it (somewhat heavy-handedly) had a popular rumor site called ThinkSecret shut down  for publishing, well, leaked secrets. So chances are pretty good that Jobs has some well-concealed announcement up his sleeve for Tuesday's Stevenote—he usually saves the sexiest stuff for last.

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