What’s new for Apple in 2008?

Probably little or nothing at this year’s MacWorld Expo, today through Jan. 18 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, can top last year’s introduction of the Apple iPhone.

The iPhone sold nearly 1.4 million units in the first three months after its June release, mainly due to excitement generated almost six months earlier at the annual trade show.

With the convention capable of creating that kind of momentum, consumers and investors are scrambling to discover what revelations this year might bring, and which could be the hit product of 2008.

The convention is expected to attract more than 50,000 attendees during the week, and nearly 450 exhibitors have signed to showcase their programs or services atthe festival — many of them set to debut new products or enhancements.

Market analysts have said the conference is likely to boost the Cupertino-based company’s stock. Bloomberg News reported that Apple’s share prices rose an average of 5 percent between mid-December and the Expo’s opening weekend in each of the last three years.

While there remains time for Apple CEO Steve Jobs, whose keynote address is scheduled Tuesday at 9 a.m., to reveal something completely unexpected, observers agree the company seems poised for at least one product innovation: a slimmer and more durable “sub-notebook” in the line of Apple’s MacBook Pro.

The new design is expected to include a 13-inch screen and aluminum frame, making the computer almost half as light as earlier models, with ports for external devices like optical drives so the machine can be more portable than ever, according to industry publications.

But with no new product quite the groundbreaking equivalent of the iPhone, many analysts are convinced Apple’s biggest news will center on services and upgrades. According to reports, Apple also reached agreements with a handful of large-distribution movie studios to enable iTunes customers to download film “rentals” to their computers, iPods or iPhones. Another rumor popular among bloggers has former Def Jam CEO Jay-Z partnering with Apple on a new record label, now that Apple Inc. has settled its lawsuit in British courts with the Beatles’ record company Apple, Corp.

The other hardware innovation expected is a Mac Pro, running on two Intel Xeon 5400 processors at 3.2 GHz, with up to 4 TB of storage.

MacWorld 2008 has a hard act to follow after last year’s iPhone

At last year’s MacWorld Expo, Steve Jobs famously introduced the world to the iPhone during a 1½-hour presentation during which he played a movie, listened to oldies, ordered coffee and checked Apple’s stock price (up, of course, while Blackberry creator Research in Motion’s stock fell) — all on the new device.

“The next day’s papers heralded the news like Apple had designed the last gadget any human would ever need,” the Ryerson Review of Journalism reported.

In 2001 the MacWorld revelation was the now-ubiquitous iPod. In 1998, it was the iMac, Apple’s desktop unit with processor, drives and monitor all self-contained.

Other meaningful releases previewed at the show included the PowerMac G4 Cube, introduced in 2000’s summer convention in New York City when the Expo was biannual, and 2006’s announcement of an iMac built with longtime PC stalwart Intel’s Pentium M processor.

But on occasion MacWorld’s biggest proclamations have flopped, or worked against Apple.

In 1999, a year after the National Macintosh Gaming Championship had been an attraction, Bungie Software introduced its Halo battle game series at MacWorld. Halo became a best-seller, but only after Microsoft bought Bungie and the game came out exclusively on the Apple competitor’s Xbox console.

More recently, in 2005, IDG — MacWorld magazine’s publisher and producer of the expo — attempted to initiate a MacWorld national tour that never materialized.

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