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Apple keeps users guessing at Macworld

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There was plenty of speculation, interesting new products, and a hint of nostalgia at Macworld this year. But without Apple itself at the 30th annual gathering of Mac/iPhone/iPad loyalists in San Francisco which concluded this past weekend, it was a lot like going to a great four-day party in a big mansion where the host never shows up.

Apple ended its participation in the show in 2009 and since then the new version, rebranded as Macworld/iWorld, offers a tantalizing but completely speculative glimpse into what the future may hold for the house that Steve Jobs built. Indeed, it is Apple’s reputation as a company which rocks the world with groundbreaking new products that keeps people coming back for more. As iMore’s Editor-in-Chief Rene Ritchie put it succinctly, “Apple waits until they can see the pain that other products are causing and then they move in.”

Ritchie was part of a panel session on Thursday that offered at least a possible roadmap for where the Cupertino-based consumer giant may be headed. On speculation that Apple may be about to enter the growing wearable computing field, the consensus was that they will likely enter this market. But it’s not going to be a big new area for the company because the margins are low. “Apple would have to sell ten times what they currently generate with phones,” said Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies.

The panel was also skeptical about Apple’s rumored project to build and market televisions. Christina Bonnington, a staff writer for Wired, said that her careful tracking of Apple’s patent filings shows that 3D and gesture interface technology may be a part of the company’s TV strategy. But the notion of Apple joining the notoriously competitive television market with its own set seems unlikely. “If you are in the business of the box, why would you want to get into the business of the glass?” said Jason Snell of Macworld.

With a sizable number of PCs due for an upgrade and less than positive results from the introduction of Microsoft’s Windows 8, Bajarin felt that there was significant upside for the Macintosh over the next year or two. And there was a unanimous feeling that Apple will introduce an iPhone with a bigger screen to accommodate the important Chinese market where larger displays are quite popular.

On the show floor, there was no shortage of companies seeking to capitalize on the exploding social media market. As if the current generation wasn’t young enough, there was an app specifically aimed at kids two years old and younger. The app – Babiis – displays icons on a tablet which, when tapped by a baby, morph into pre-recorded videos of family members. The front facing camera records the toddler’s coos of delight.

For smartphone users, WeCamChat offers a location aware feature that lets you search and connect with nearby friends on video. And if you’re tired of human interaction and just want some time with four legged friends, Petcube lets you watch, talk and play laser games with your dog or cat. The mobile app/four-inch cube won the show’s “6 About To Break” startup competition and will begin shipping in May.

On the hardware side, Flir showcased an iPhone case that’s also a thermal imaging sensor. It can be used for everything from finding air leaks around windows to locating your pet in the dark. And Ring (a Kickstarter funded venture) was drawing crowds with a finger-worn device that connects with an iPhone or iPad and lets you perform tasks by making hand gestures in mid-air. The company’s motto: “Shortcut Everything.”

When a conference celebrates its 30th year, the trips down memory lane become more noticeable, especially when it comes to Apple. A session on Friday featured Andy Grignon, a former member of the original iPhone development team, who reminisced about everything that went wrong before Jobs finally introduced the signature device in his legendary presentation at Macworld on January 9, 2007.

And there was a lot that went wrong. “I don’t think you could have stacked the deck any more towards not having a successful product,” Grignon recalled.

As Grignon described it, he and the members of the development team were seated in the auditorium and every time Jobs showcased a feature and it miraculously worked, everyone passed a flask of liquor to celebrate. By the end, they were undoubtedly the happiest people there.

A nostalgic nod towards Apple’s rich history makes a lot of sense at the conference this year. When you can’t easily see forward, you might as well look back.

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