Apple's "Back To The Mac" Event Heralds OS X Improvements

Invitations are going out for Apple’s next event, and it’s looking to be all about the Mac, as opposed to the last few, which have been primarily iOS-related. The only clue we’re given is that we’ll “see what’s new for the Mac on October 20, including a sneak peek of the next major version of Mac OS X.” That doesn’t sound like a 7″ iPad to me.

Let’s take a look at the rumors and speculation of recent months and see whether we can’t predict what cards Apple is planning to lay down come the 20th.

iMac/MacBook Touch: this rumor has its origins in a patent filing by Apple for a “convertible” device that would switch between OS X and iOS. It was supercharged with rumors of 20+” capacitive touchscreens being shipped to Apple — rumors which were later denied by the company implicated. I don’t think they’d push such a major change to their lineup just before the holidays — if we do ever see this, I see it happening in the first half of next year.

New MacBook Air: it’s certainly due for an upgrade, and while few other laptops out there have comparable form factors, this is an area in which Apple would like to stay ahead of the game. I personally would like to see an 11″ version, as rumored, but the truth is that Apple might consider that a netbook form factor, one that would not adequately show off OS X. They’re in a tough spot here; they can’t push the form factor much smaller without compromising their stance on netbooks, and they can’t just keep making incremental improvements or tablets and other, cheaper ultraportables will overtake the Air. This one is anyone’s guess.

Processor bumps: It’s time to bring the plastic MacBooks up to date, perhaps with Core i3 processors. The rest of the lineup might get other improvements, like GPU upgrades, SD, maybe even USB 3.0.

NVIDIA Optimus: this hybrid graphics technology has seen some major improvements in the last year, and it offers real improvement to battery life. Apple has their own ideas about power management (they use NVIDIA graphics but not Optimus), but being able to dial the GPU up and down seamlessly is likely on their developer wish list.

New OS X: That looks like a lion to me. Whether it’s a specific kind of lion, I can’t say for sure. It’s definitely not a cave lion, and the Barbary lion is extinct, so I don’t think they’d use that. I’m going with “regular lion” for OS X 10.7. What will we see? I’m thinking deeper media integration (better internal renderers and such), improved iOS cross-compatibility (iOS dashboard replacing the actual dashboard), and perhaps even the long-awaited ZFS file system? We’ll find out soon, but I do expect a strong iOS component (more on that later). It’s a “sneak peek,” so it won’t be available until… I’m going to say January.

iPad news: there’s been a lot of chatter about a possible 7″ iPad, and I believe it, but Apple knows how to put on a presentation — and you don’t lessen the impact of practical things like processor bumps and OS X upgrades by throwing in a flashy product announcement. If they do have a 7″ iPad coming, they will want to announce it closer to the holidays with immediate availability, the better to take advantage of spendy tablet-lovers under the influence of the reality distortion field.

I’m going on the record saying that the future of OS X is convergence with iOS, and vice versa. Their mobile operating system is too valuable an asset to not leverage as part of their desktop and laptop properties, and the convertible iOS/OS X devices suggest they’ve been thinking about it for a while. Adding touch to Macs is inevitable, if only because the benefits of making iOS that much more ubiquitous are clear.

The trouble is that they can’t show one without implying the other. If Lion has an iOS Dashboard or something like it, the conclusion (touch-based Macs) is inescapable and sales of current non-touch Macs will drop or stagnate since people know what’s coming. It’s just a week away, so we won’t be in agony of expectation for long.