Expecting something from Apple can be a dangerous game, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to try and read the tea leaves every once in a while.
Below are five things I think we can expect from Apple next year. Some of these are based on a long ramp-up of rumors and telltale signs from this year, with others outright speculation from trends and the company's product release habits.
It's worth pointing out that Apple's usual lack of predictability is what makes it such an interesting company to watch. Nowhere was that more clear than what happened with the iPhone 4S. While most of the press and rumor blogs were anticipating a full overhaul of the iPhone's hardware, we got a souped up iPhone 4 instead. Sure, Siri turned out to be pretty cool, but many were expecting something else.
Now, without further ado...
1. No TV set, yet
The rumored product that's spent most of 2011 as an abstraction of data points is almost certainly on its way to being a real thing, but likely won't be seen next year.
In the recently released biography of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson noted Jobs' efforts on making an easy-to-use TV set that is integrated with the company's various products and services. "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use," Jobs told Isaacson. "It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."
Of course how far along Apple really was in that endeavor remains a significant question. In an interview with CNET, Isaacson said Apple wasn't "close at all," and that "it was very theoretical." In late October, Bloomberg claimed that the company had already turned to one of the founding team members of the iPod and iTunes Music Store to get a TV set out the door. More recently, Jefferies & Company analyst Peter Misek claimed that Apple was tapping Sharp for display panels in order to make a TV for a mid-2012 release.
But that estimate seems awfully bullish, especially given where Apple's home entertainment landscape currently sits. For better or worse, the Apple TV box remains a hobby product for the company. No doubt it will become more capable in future iterations, but what many are expecting with a TV set would be something that leapfrogs that effort. Will Apple deliver that in 2012? My guess is no.
2. Siri opened up to developers
The sassy voice assistant has been a breakout hit for Apple since its introduction with the iPhone 4S in October, but it's missing something big. Apple's current implementation is limited to Web queries from partners like Wolfram Alpha and Yelp, along with Apple's own apps. What's missing is a way to hook it into the half a million or so apps that are on the App Store.
Much as those very same apps helped expand what one could do with the iPhone itself, creating voice plug-ins for apps could very well be the next step in making Siri a more useful service.
It took Apple a little less than four months after the launch of the original iPhone to announce a software developer kit, a move that led to the App Store in 2008. In Siri's case, the apps are already there, as are the tools to make them. However Siri does most of its magic on Apple's servers, and is currently limited to the iPhone 4S.
Would developers take on extra work for just one device? They certainly did that with the iPhone 4 and its move to a Retina Display, as well as the iPad and its bigger resolution.
3. The end of the Mac Pro
Desktop sales just weren't what they used to be compared to when Apple introduced the original design of the Mac Pro (then the Power Mac G5) in mid-2003. While Mac hardware sales have grown considerably since then, notebooks have been the belle of the ball since they surpassed the company's sales of desktop computers in 2004. Those same notebook units now face cannibalization from Apple's iPad, which itself blew past Mac sales last year.
So why keep the Mac Pro around? It certainly links back to Apple's roots in providing designers and professionals with beefy workstations. But it's one of the only products in Apple's lineup that just doesn't fit in anymore. Apple's Macs are basically sealed up, and need to be taken to a repair professional for anything outside of swapping out the RAM. By comparison, the Mac Pro lets you open up the side and fiddle around with the inside bits. That's the standard for PC manufacturers, but Apple's made a hefty business out of doing things the other way around.
An anonymously sourced report from AppleInsider in October suggested that Apple's seen a sharp decline in sales of the workstations, which begin at $2,499 in the U.S., and that the drop has led executives to reconsider whether it's worth continuing to invest in the product. Lending further credence to that idea is the fact that Apple hasn't given the line a proper overhaul since before it made the move to Intel processors, instead putting its focus on updates to its Mac Mini, iMac and MacBook portable lines.
The real question is how the Mac Pro will take its bow. Will Apple announce its demise, or simply replace that spot in its product line with something else?
4. Apple ditches Google for Maps
Google's been closely tied to Apple's iOS since the first iPhone was unveiled, but that could change next year if the company ends up introducing its own mapping service. Why would Apple do that? Tensions between the Apple and Google have increased in recent years with the rise of Android, Google's mobile operating system.
Making matters more interesting was Apple's acknowledgement that it was collecting traffic data "to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years." That sounds more like a layer on top of an existing mapping service than a standalone service of its own. Yet, Apple acquired C3 Technologies this year, the third such mapping company it's bought up, and one that specializes in eye-popping 3D imagery.
Something that throws some cold water on this prediction is that Apple renewed its deal with Google to use its mapping service earlier this year, but we don't know how long that's good for.
5. A truly new iPhone
Apple's released a new iPhone every year since its introduction, making this one a bit of a no-brainer. So far that cycle's consisted of a steady stream of internal tweaks, with every other year including a full-scale overhaul. The iPhone 4 was the last such big change to Apple's iPhone design formula, with the 4S getting speedier guts.
Yet before the 4S launched, the rumors were hot and heavy with Apple pushing out a drastic design change. That device never materialized, putting all bets on it arriving next year.
So what features will it have? The big thing to expect is a larger screen. The traditional 3.5-inch displays have served Apple well, but other manufacturers have bumped up to the 4-inch range, with some going bigger. Other things to put on that list include a jump to 4G networking, near-field communications (NFC) for transferring information between devices, and of course the usual tweaks to the camera and processor.