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Here’s what could be coming from Apple at WWDC

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Updated: July 9, 2012 6:15AM

When Apple stopped delivering the keynote talk at the independently-run Macworld Expo every January, the opening keynote of their own summer Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco took its place. The old Macworld keynotes first existed to drum up, and then to maintain, consumer faith in what was once a sagging and boring brand. The purpose of the WWDC keynote is to motivate developers. This year’s WWDC keynote will take place at 10 a.m. Pacific time on Monday. And independent developers have never been more important to Apple’s continued good fortunes. Apple’s forward motion is powered by three driveshafts: their hardware designs, their operating systems, and the resources they provide to developers to create great software and services.

Apple’s competitors are only stymied by the third. Android and now Windows Phone hardware is often just as thoughtfully designed and well-built as an iPhone. Windows notebooks and desktops usually combine high build quality with greater functionality at a lower price. It’s unfair to compare Android tablets to the Titanic. History shows that the Titanic didn’t back away from the iceberg and then ram it again, twice. But apart from tablets, the wide range of options makes it tough to unilaterally declare Apple hardware to be superior.

MacOS and iOS continue to lead their respective packs. But Windows is now damned close that I think a consumer can reasonably be swayed by other considerations (such as: “This 11” MacBook Air comes with lifetime free service at any Apple Store” or “This Samsung notebook comes with a larger screen and longer battery life for the same price as the Apple).”

If I were forced to single out just one thing I love about my iOS devices, it’s the apps and services. Even there, we’re not talking about the hundreds of thousands of iOS-only apps. We’re talking about just 500 that really matter, and maybe 20 to 50 that I actually couldn’t do without.

So if a big chunk of Apple’s developers were to suddenly become just as excited about Windows 8 and Metro as they now are about MacOS and iOS...things could get really interesting. Right now, that seems impossible. In mobile space, iOS is where all of the money is. Any developer who wants to recoup their investment will build the iOS version of an app first. They’ll only think about making an Android edition if the iOS version makes beaucoup bucks.

Still, these are strange times. I can’t remember when the proud corps of independent Apple developers has seemed so discouraged and dispirited. This year’s headliner in Apple’s Festival of Developer Pain is “sandboxing.” From this month onward, all apps submitted to Apple for sale in the Mac App Store Store need to follow a strict new system in which all of the app’s assets are compartmentalized into a single bundle. And the app can only interact with other apps under the most draconian terms. The theoretical benefit of sandboxing is to maintain the Mac’s stability and security by eliminating inter-app fraternization. Another benefit: from the perspective of the OS, the behavior of apps becomes more predictable. Apple can conceivably make larger moves with MacOS without breaking quite so many apps in the process.

Swell, but many developers are finding that the new sandboxing guidelines aren’t so easy to work with. Some of the handiest and most popular Mac utilities are fundamentally incompatible, because they’re designed to enhance the operation of all apps everywhere. Even something as simple as a word processor that automatically syncs through Dropbox won’t pass Apple’s guidelines: a sandboxed app isn’t not allowed to peer at the file system beyond its own castle walls without the explicit direction of the user.

Many developers feel like their being forced to choose between three indelectable options: remove features from their apps so they can be sandboxed; sell their apps independently and turn their backs on the most lucrative marketplace for their work; or even get out of the Mac business entirely. I’ve had multiple conversations with developers that ended with the phrase “It’s just not worth it any more.”

That’s part of the scene that awaits Apple and thousands of developers next week at WWDC. Mostly, we’re all anticipating the annual ritual during which Apple lifts up the curtain of secrecy and reveals their future plans. They may or may not be planning to release an Apple-branded TV set in the near future. But if they are, they’re going to have to start teaching developers how to write software for it and thus WWDC is where these products will be announced.

Let’s just go around the horn on what we might expect Apple to announce on Monday:

Apple TV and AppleTV and Apple, TV

Sifting through the rumors...yeah, come to think of it, I did come across something or other about Apple producing their own-brand TV. I think it was...yes, every single time I’ve been at a party where someone found out that I write about technology and I cover Apple and wanted to know if the rumors were for real.I’ve been offering the same answer to those questions. I still can’t imagine what Apple might be planning that would necessitate having their own TV set. Which by no means mocks the basic concept. I don’t think anybody accurately predicted what the iPad would be like, either. Like the flavor of a pretzel covered in chocolate, the products that Apple releases are impossible to fully foresee and appreciate until they can be experienced.My difficulty is that Apple already has a lovely TV device. The $99 Apple TV is a tiny black box that plugs into whatever screen you already own, or whatever third-party screen fits your needs and your budget, via one cable. Could Apple choose a screen size and price point that would suit enough consumers to make the project worthwhile?

And what could they built into a TV that couldn’t simply be added to the Apple TV box? It’s easy to imagine Apple wanting a camera and microphone for FaceTime chats and Siri voice control. Must those things be built into the bezel of the screen? Microsoft’s Kinect puts them into a separate component, with no complaints from anybody.

When I think about the ways that Apple might like to fix TV, the three problems that come to mind are searching for the programming you want, controlling and switching between multiple components, and the packaging of cable channels. Apple already has Siri and Spotlight technology to turn the English sentence “that episode of ‘Columbo’ where the guy from ‘The Great Escape’ plays a winemaker who kills his brother” into “‘Any Port In A Storm,’ 8 PM Thursday, Channel 288.” Controlling all of your HD gear with one centralized command system is easy if an all-in-one Apple TV screen is your only piece of kit (so that’s a point in favor of an all-in-one TV made by Apple). Otherwise: Apple can’t solve that one unless they up with a standard and convince the TV and cable industries to come on board.

(Sidebar: Steve Wozniak’s first major hardware project after leaving Apple was a universal remote. Not relevant...but interesting.)

Changing the way that cable channels deliver their content is the hardest problem of the three. I don’t know of anybody who wouldn’t rather purchase cable channels a la carte. Or even better, who wouldn’t rather purchase access to a channel’s entire monthly program schedule on demand? But these channels aren’t going to cheese off their bread-and-butter delivery partners to chase after a small initial payout...nor will they want to be burdened with all of the infrastructure necessary to deliver “Mad Man” on demand to tens of millions of iOS users.

Still, this is specifically a developers conference. And the Apple TV box is already out on the market. It’s possible that Apple will simply announce a new platform for developing apps for the Apple TV (and, by implication, future TV-like devices from Apple) and they’ll use WWDC to simply start explaining how these apps should be constructed.

New iPhone

We’ve come to expect Apple to announce a new iPhone during WWDC. Last year was the first exception to that pattern, when Apple released the iPhone 4S during the fall. I’m not 100 percent sure that Apple will formally release a new model next week. But a YouTube video posted by ETrade Supply this week suggests that there’s at least going to be some hardware for Apple to show off...and a reason why developers will need to see it ahead of its release date.

The video shows off a component, purportedly for an unannounced Apple iPhone. It’s roughly iPhone shaped, a flat rectangle with rounded corners, and is tub-shaped. It looks as though it’s ready to be filled with electronics and then closed up with a touchscreen.From the details in the video, we might suppose several things about the next iPhone:

1) Apple has rethought the famous “glass sandwich” design that debuted with the iPhone 4. The component doesn’t look like its iPhone 4S equivalent, which receives a glass panel at the back. The back of the component has a world-facing Apple logo and cutouts for a camera lens and LED flash.

2) The new iPhone will have a larger screen than the previous iPhone 4S, with a different aspect ratio. The width of this part is the same as the existing iPhone, but it’s a smidge longer, which supports longstanding rumors that Apple intends to upgrade the iPhone to a 4” screen simply by adopting a widescreen aspect ratio. This, incidentally, is why it would make sense for Apple to present this phone at WWDC, whether the company intends to release the phone immediately or not. The iPhone has always had the same aspect ratio. Any change would present at least an opportunity (if not an actual requirement) for developers to redesign their apps to fit the new layout.

3) The standard iPhone/iPad universal dock connector at the base of the phone is out, replaced by a much slimmer connector in that same position. That would be an interesting move. The new connector would be incompatible with all previous power and dock accessories. Would a new connector be just as ambitious as the old one, which delivers power, audio, and video? Either way, I’d expect it to still be a proprietary connector instead of an existing standard. Apple controls the development of iPhone-compatible hardware accessories by licensing the connector hardware.

4) The headphone jack has been moved to the bottom. Which would seem like an arbitrary choice, but it makes sense from a design standpoint. Why have wires streaming from both the top and the bottom of the phone, like a Christmas cracker? Might as well move the jack so that the headphone wires are pointing towards the user’s head when the phone is in his or her hand.

5) The part suggests that this new iPhone is marginally thinner than the iPhone 4S. If true, this lends weight to the argument that the new iPhone won’t support LTE networks. A thinner case means less room for a battery and less space for heat dissipation. These are two traditional issues for LTE chipsets. But “no LTE” is pure speculation.

6) I wonder if the new iPhone will be released next week. If I had to guess, I’d cautiously predict that it’ll be announced next week but won’t ship until later. The markings on the component that ETrade Supply intercepted, if genuine, look to me more like what you’d find on an engineering sample than what would fall into an outsider’s hands if millions of phones were already boxed and on barges. Mark this as another on in the “Oh, it’s fun to guess, isn’t it?” category.

What else might we guess about a new iPhone? Well, I’m guessing it’ll be called The New iPhone, just as the new iPad is The New iPad. And when handicapping the next generation of iPhone hardware it’s always safe to assume that Apple figured out a way to improve the camera. Apple, more than any other phone maker, sees photography as a top-tier feature. Taking terrific photos with the iPhone is just as important to their engineers as great connectivity and an ultra-sharp screen.New Operating Systems

Summer’s also the time when Apple shows off the next iteration of the iPhone and iPad operating system, and administers a reality check on the release of the next edition of the Mac OS. I’m hoping that we’ll see some greater clarity on the delivery of iCloud services to all Apple devices. iCloud remains a service with tremendous promise. But not all of it works as smoothly as it ought to...and it won’t fully achieve liftoff until my desktop docs join in the party.

I’m also hoping to see some news on Siri. Is Apple nearly ready to stop calling it a “beta”? Mmm...probably not. But I reckon we’ll see some new Siri features, and greater accuracy.

Siri on the iPad? I’m not so sure. Apple seems to feel as though Siri is philosophically aligned with pocket devices, not tablet ones. My feeling is that Siri will hit the iPad at about the same time it arrives for MacOS. But I bet we’ll see iPad-style speech-to-text dictation arrive in a new developer build of Mac OS X 10.8.It certainly seems as though Apple is going to cut ties with Google for its mapping resources. Mapping is a core feature of mobile devices and Apple isn’t one to depend on an outside product for a core feature.

Persistent rumors claim that Apple will demonstrate a major new rev to iOS’ Maps app, featuring their own 3D mapping technology. Perhaps we’ll also see a peek at that “crowdsourced map and traffic database” that Apple’s been building for a while.Best confirmation of this rumor comes from Apple’s big grudge partner, Google. This week, of all possible weeks, the company took the wraps off of their own major 3D upgrade to Google Maps, while also stressing that all of their mapping products will continue to be offered on all popular platforms, including iOS.CEO Tim Cook has already indicated that Apple’s about to offer greater Facebook integration. I expect that service to soon have rough parity with Twitter. Macs, Macs, and More Macs

It seems certain that the whole Mac line will receive updates. Expect upgraded displays -- perhaps ultra-high-definition Retina-grade screens for certain models, following the success of the huge Retina iPad -- new Ivy Bridge processors for the consumer and midrange Macs, and 8-core higher-power CPUs for the long-neglected Mac Pro tower.

It’d be fairly surprising if the MacBook Airs, Pros, and iMacs didn’t receive USB 3.0; the new Ivy Bridge CPUs deliver USB 3.0 “for free,” so to speak. Leaving it off would be like if your sister sent individual party invitations to your husband and your two children and not to you. One would be forced to assume that you still haven’t been forgiven for giving her Barbie a Cyndi Lauper buzz cut.

Will Apple slim down the MacBooks? Is that even possible, with the MacBook Air? There’s reasonable opportunity to flatten the high-end MacBook Pro line, but that provokes thoughts about how far Apple might be willing to go to shave a few millimeters.

The two thickest ports on my current (for now) generation MacBook Pro are the FireWire and Ethernet ports. I would expect Apple to axe FireWire, given that high-speed data is covered by Thunderbolt and also (if rumors play out) USB 3.0. Would they also kill the Ethernet port? Hmm. Will they also remove the optical drive? Another good question. Apple could defend both choices. Viz: “Very few users hook into copper networks...those who do, can buy a dongle” and “Oh for the love of God...if anytime in the next five years you buy a piece of music or software on DVD, Tim Cook himself will drive to your house with a USB DVD drive and install it on your hard drive personally. Offer not valid to time-travelers from 2001.”

iTunes Payments

I’m throwing this one out there only because I’ve already gone over 2000 words with this and I might as well just say something I’ve been thinking for a while. Apple has at least 200,000,000 iTunes users who’ve registered their credit cards for Store payments. That’s the number that Steve Jobs used during the iPad 2 keynote last year; he said that iTunes was likely the largest retailer with credit card numbers on file. Surely that number has gone way up in the past year.

There have been a lot of rumors about phones with near field communications chips that allow for electronic payments at brick-and-mortar retailers. I’m not sure if Apple’s ready to put that hardware inside the iPhone. But how long until Apple expands the use of iTunes payments into meatspace?

The move makes sense to me because retail payments seem like exactly the sort of inefficient Edwardian-era technology that drives Apple engineers nuts. If you walk into an Apple Store with an iPhone, you can pretty much walk out with the product you came for without talking to anybody in a bright blue tee shirt who wants to help you. iPads are already replacing POS terminals at many stores and restaurants. Apple could introduce iTunes Payments as a specific, standalone service, with its own set of APIs that allow any app to handle electronic transactions.

I’ll be right about this someday, I’m sure of it. Just as I’m sure that I’m right about a lot of the other predictions I’ve made. It’s a lovely scam: make enough predictions about a wide enough range of things and ultimately, Oprah will put you on TV and certify that you can speak to the dead.

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