Techworld

WWDC 2012: What to expect

This year's nference, the first post-Steve Jobs, could be the biggest yet

On Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook will kick off Apple's World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. At its most basic, WWDC gives developers a rare chance to speak directly with Apple engineers about their coding efforts and learn about new features presented during the opening keynote.

But WWDC has become so much more than that, and this year's conference looks to be a bigger deal than usual. Not only does it allow Cook to highlight Apple's direction for the next year, but also lets him showcase new hardware, talk up OS X Mountain Lion and the next version of iOS and get developers enthused about the company's development platform.

Fueled by the increasing popularity of the iPhone, the iPad and Apple's laptop line-up, WWDC has become a hot ticket. Every year, the limited-capacity event fills even faster. Two years ago, it sold out in eight days. Last year, it sold out within twelve hours and scalpers pushed ticket prices to $4,600. This year, WWDC tickets were gone in two hours.

That shouldn't be a surprise: Apple's enormous user base continues to expand and those customers are eager to get their hands on the next great app -- and the hardware on which it runs. Apps like Angry Birds, Instagram and Instapaper all originated on Apple's platform. In fact, Flurry Analytics reports that seven out of every 10 mobile apps are designed for iOS. Developers follow the money, and, as of January, Apple had paid out a cool $4 billion to iOS developers. So it's no wonder there's strong demand for the chance to work with Apple engineers on developer issues.

This year's event, of course, is also the first without Apple's co-founder and longtime CEO Steve Jobs, who died in October, not long after relinquishing the title of CEO. While not the first Apple event run by Cook -- he most recently unveiled the new iPad on March 7 -- this year's WWDC has expectations running high, given how long it's been since Apple updated a number of its hardware products.

Here's a rundown of what Cook's expected to roll out and what it means for Apple.

Welcome iOS 6

Let's start with the obvious: We'll get a first look at iOS 6, the next version of the mobile OS that powers the iPhone/iPod touch and the iPad. iOS has been the focus of the last several WWDCs, and will be again this year. As polished as iOS 5 is, there's still room for new features and improvements. Most notably, I hope to see enhancements to Siri, the voice-activated "personal assistant" that arrived with the iPhone 4S last fall. In particular, it's time for third-party application support and the addition of Siri to the iPad. (The dictation feature on the iPad, limited as it is, certainly looks like a baby step in this direction. Time now for a bigger leap.)

Also expected, and welcome, will be deeper Facebook integration in iOS 6 -- much as Apple did with Twitter in iOS 5. Love it or hate it, Facebook is a reality, and Apple would be smart to make it even easier for iPhone/iPad users to post status updates, share photos and communicate with Facebook friends in as many ways and from as many apps as possible. Expect iOS 6 to get more social.

Something else you can almost certainly count on is a move by Apple away from Google services. After years of having Google provide the backend for many important iOS functions, like the Maps app and as the default web search provider, Apple is pulling back on it's reliance on Google and going its own way. It's already happened in iPhoto for iOS, when Apple engineers switched to their own in-house maps backend, and it'll happen here.

Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, has said he doesn't think the change will have much effect on Google, but I disagree. Nearly half of all U.S. users of Google's map service come from iOS. That's a lot of user data Google can collect and sell, most of which will be gone the moment the Maps backend is replaced with Apple's own solution. (There's a reason Google had its own Maps event last week to talk up its services: IT was looking to get ahead of the bad news at WWDC.

True, Google will still have apps available in Apple's App Store, allowing customer choice. But many iPhone/iPad users tend to stick with the default apps offered on their devices and won't bother to check the Store for alternatives. A bolstered Siri working in concert with an Apple-run Maps backend will certainly hit Google where it hurts.

A new iPhone?

So we'll see the new iOS at WWDC. But will we see a new iPhone? There's been a continuous gusher of rumors about an upcoming iPhone with a 4-in. screen. I initially ignored them but a recent video of some supposedly leaked parts look really convincing. From the taller dimensions and smaller dock connector to the relocated speaker jack (whose new location, like the iPod touch, is on the bottom right), the details are starting to add up.

Will Cook really unveil a new iPhone now? If recent history is any indicator, the next iPhone will be unveiled at an event this fall, along with a new iPod and iPod touch. A new iPhone hasn't been announced at WWDC since the iPhone 4 arrived two years ago, but there's no better place to give your developers a head start on updating their apps to support a new resolution then to announce it at WWDC.

The catch? Announcing a new iPhone would extinguish current iPhone 4S demand overnight. Unless Apple plans to ship the iPhone within the next few weeks I'm dubious of any announcement. Anything different would kill iPhone sales as everyone waits for the new one, hitting Apple's bottom line for the quarter.

My prediction? Despite the rumors, Apple will leave any future iPhone hardware announcement for this fall. (This is one time I wouldn't mind being wrong, though.)

More about Mountain Lion

Also on tap: More information about the next-generation Mac OS -- OS X Mountain Lion. Much is already known about the major Mountain Lion features, but there are a few tricks likely to be detailed at WWDC, such as support for a pixel-dense screen Apple would likely market as a Retina Display for laptops.

Speculation about new slimmed-down MacBook Pro and updated MacBook Air laptops has been rampant for months, and analysts expected they'd be rolled out last month. Obviously that didn't happen, meaning they're a virtual lock to be unveiled at WWDC. Bolstering that view: Apple is now accepting apps in the Mac App Store that tout "Retina graphics." What remains to be seen is which models will carry the new display, which offers super-high resolutions like those seen on the iPhone and the latest iPad.

In the past, Apple has offered different options for notebook screens, from glossy or matte finishes to slightly higher resolutions. Will a Retina Display grace only the highest end of the notebook line? Or will Apple use the Retina Display across the entire line-up as a major differentiator from the competition? Not many companies have the clout -- or the will -- to push such an expensive initiative, but bold moves would help Apple stay ahead of copy-cat competition. My expectation is that a Retina Display will be available as a standard feature on all but the base models, and they'll cost more than existing laptops.

As long as Apple is bringing over high-end displays to its portables, I'd like to see it add Siri functionality to OS X. While I'm skeptical that Siri -- still officially in beta on the iPhone 4S -- will make its debut in Mountain Lion, I'm hoping dictation will. Currently, OS X is capable of speech recognition for limited voice commands, courtesy of the Speakable Items service. It's been a part of the Mac OS since the mid-1990s, and mostly ignored for just as long.

New hardware

Given that iMacs are overdue for updates, watch for a move to Intel's Ivy Bridge processors. Even more in need of an upgrade is the Mac Pro line, which hasn't seen major changes in two years. (AppleInsider last week published a document listing leaked parts numbers. The best news there: Apple appears to already be shipping the hardware to stores, meaning it'll be available right away.)

Apple is also likely to talk up iCloud, though it's less clear exactly what features Cook may have up his sleeve for Apple's cloud/syncing service. (One possibility: the ability to include videos in photo streaming.) Also unclear -- and this is the biggest question mark to me -- is the future of AppleTV.

I'm not talking an actual Apple TV. No one knows when or whether Apple will ever produce such a device. But Cook could begin laying the groundwork now. If there's ever going to be a TV from Apple, it makes sense for the company to introduce a software development kit (SDK) sooner rather than later. An SDK would help developers build an army of apps for existing AppleTV devices so that an Apple-branded TV would arrive with a thriving app ecosystem. So, while a bona fide Apple TV will be a no-show, there's a decent possibility for an AppleTV SDK -- especially since Apple is expected to show off a new OS for the current device.

Oh, and, as Jobs used to say, one more thing: About all the chatter of a new 7-in. iPad? Stop it. No. Not happening.

Regardless of the specifics, this year's WWDC presents Tim Cook with his best opportunity yet to show that Apple in the post-Jobs ever is as vital and relevant as ever. You don't need a crystal ball to see that that's just what he plans to do.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

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