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Monday, December 17, 2007, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Piper sees iTunes rentals, new breed of Apple touch games in 08

For Apple, 2007 may in some ways represent the very beginning of a new standard in innovation, with 2008 likely giving way to a slew of new Mac models in addition to fresh initiatives like an iTunes movie rental service and a new class of touch-based games, according to investment bank Piper Jaffray.

Joining fellow analysts at UBS and American Technology Research who also published updates on Apple on Monday, analyst Gene Munster issued his own Macworld preview in a research note to clients.

Sharing sentiments first expressed by AppleInsider last month, the analyst said his checks lead him to believe that come January, Apple will 'put the Mac back in Macworld.'

"We believe the timing is right for Apple to update most of its Macs. Some models may only see minor specification upgrades to newer, faster Intel processors. The Mac Pro, for example, will likely benefit from the launch of the new Penryn-based Xeon processors," Munster wrote. "The MacBook may see minor upgrades to its storage capacity and/or processor speed, and the MacBook Pro may also receive minor specification upgrades, but we also expect Apple to expand the MacBook lineup with one new model."

That one new model is expected to be the company's "smallest portable ever," according to the analyst. While he was initially expecting an ultra-portable device with an 8- to 11-inch screen, he said his latest round of checks now leads him to believe the device will sport a display of approximately 11- to 13-inches.

"That said, we continue to expect the 'ultra-portable' MacBook to be Apple's thinnest and lightest ever. While it may not be as small as we originally expected, we believe this could be the most consumer-friendly way to expand its current lineup of MacBook portables," Munster told clients. "It will likely be priced between the $1,099 consumer level MacBook and the $1,999 MacBook Pro."

One contributor to the smaller form factor could be the use of NAND-based solid state storage, the analyst added. He noted that in November, Samsung introduced a 64GB drive which he believes Apple would consider large enough to include in a new portable.

"Finally, there are reports that the new portable may include a unique touchpad, possibly using the same multitouch technology used in the iPhone and iPod touch," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Munster and his team also expect Apple to announce new content partnerships with one or more movie studios, which may involve the launch of iTunes movie rentals.

"If Apple begins renting movie downloads on iTunes, we expect a related software update to the Apple TV enabling movie rentals direct to the Apple TV. In fact, the Apple TV software currently includes 'iTunes Store settings' in its settings menu, but the option is essentially inactive," he wrote. "We expect this setting to be activated soon; users will likely be able to log into their iTunes accounts directly from the Apple TV and browse movie rentals, then download them directly to their Apple TV."

Though admittedly short on hard evidence to support his theory, Munster said it seems as if Apple is delaying the use of the iTunes setting — and the feature in general — until it has secured rental deals with enough movie studios. He said Apple may announce such a deal with one or more movie studios at Macworld, and may simultaneously announce movie rentals on iTunes and the Apple TV.

"Indeed, we have been expecting iTunes movie rentals for nearly 1 year, but due to pricing disagreements and DRM-related issues, the studios and Apple have not yet come to an agreement," he explained.

Another possibility for Macworld is the announcement of iPhone and iPod touch games, according to the analyst. He says it's likely that Apple will make games available on those multi-touch devices as it has with the original iPods, but the timing of the initiative is not clear.

"Rather than simply porting iPod games over to the touchscreen devices and making them available for purchase in the iTunes Store, we believe Apple is developing a new class of games that will make special use of the touchscreens," Munster told clients. "While such an announcement would be relatively insignificant, on a high level it is important to keep in mind that the iPhone has many capabilities that are not being fully utilized, and unique touch-based games are one example."

The Piper Jaffray analyst expects Apple will regularly update the iPhone with new features every few months, including an important update in February when the iPhone is opened to third-party applications. "At this time we also expect Apple to introduce contextual searching on the iPhone similar to Spotlight in Leopard," he wrote.

Munster, who does not expect any news of a 3G iPhone or Mac tablet at Macworld, maintained his Buy rating and $250 price target on shares of Apple.