Mac hardware figures to be MIA at WWDC

If you expect the team of Apple executives presenting the keynote at the Worldwide Developer Conference to pull back the curtain on some game-changing piece of Mac hardware, you’re likely to wind up disappointed on Monday. At least if the history of WWDC announcements is anything to go by.

To be sure, Apple has used its annual gathering of Mac developers to lift the lid on new hardware. But those announcements have been few and far between, especially compared to that other launch pad for big Apple unveilings, Macworld Expo.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the highlights of the last 10 WWDC keynotes, pulled from Macworld archives and my Wikipedia-aided memory. For easy reference, I’ve put the hardware announcements in bold.

  • 2008 WWDC keynote: iPhone 3G, recaps of the iPhone SDK and App Store announcements from March 2008, MobileMe
  • 2007 WWDC keynote: OS X 10.5 demo, iPhone launch date, Safari 3 for Mac and Windows
  • 2006 WWDC keynote: Mac Pro, Xserve, OS X 10.5 preview
  • 2005 WWDC keynote: Intel transition, podcast support for iTunes
  • 2004 WWDC keynote: New displays, OS X 10.4 preview
  • 2003 WWDC keynote: Power Mac G5, Panther preview, Safari, iChat, iSight
  • 2002 WWDC keynote: OS X 10.2, QuickTime 6
  • 2001: WWDC keynote: OS X Server
  • 2000 WWDC keynote: OS X progress report
  • 1999 WWDC keynote: Darwin, OpenGL, Cocoa

By my count, that’s fivesix hardware unveilings (including the iSight, which I omitted originally) in a decade’s worth of WWDC keynotes. (We’re not including the Intel transition in that total, since Apple didn’t actually announce a shipping product at the 2005 conference.) That doesn’t exactly establish WWDC as a hardware lover’s paradise.

And look at the types of hardware that were announced. Typically, we’re talking about high-end desktops, servers, and displays—the sort of thing that appeals to a roomful of developers and programmers, but not the sort of thing that sets the hearts of general-interest consumers a-flutter—Last year’s iPhone 3G unveiling being the exception that proves the rule.

So if you’re hoping that the 2009 keynote has some sort of laptop overhaul in store, those dreams of new MacBooks and MacBook Pros run counter to Apple’s WWDC m.o. Expecting Apple to leap into the netbook game Monday? Seems unlikely from this perspective. Think the time is right to roll out that new Mac tablet everyone keeps gassing on about? All signs point to no, at least so far as this year’s WWDC is concerned. Apple has been quite pointed in its comments that this year’s developer conference will focus on two thingsthe iPhone 3.0 update and Snow Leopard. I think we can pretty much take the company at its word.

Which is not to say that there won’t be any hardware whatsoever unveiled on Monday. Heck, I wouldn’t put it past Apple to announce any of the things I just dismissed for the express purpose of making me look silly. But if I were a betting man—and the fact that I’m financially solvent suggests that I am not—any hardware announcement planned for this week probably has something to do with either (or both) of the two main items in the agenda. With iPhone 3.0 slated to get a lot of attention, that likely means a new iPhone.

After all, if you’ve managed to assemble enough developers to fill the Moscone West convention center and they’re all set to build things for the iPhone platform, why not show them the hardware they’ll be developing for, whether it’s got more capacity, a front-facing camera, or whatever other doodad you plan to introduce? If the new iPhone OS is going to have any features that take advantage of new hardware, then now’s the time to let developers (and by extension, the rest of the world) in on the secret. (Reported shortages of iPhone 3Gs on store shelves also suggests that now might be a good time to unveil a new model.)

Will that be enough to satisfy the chattering classes? Probably not—Apple can roll out a new phone, disclose a few more iPhone 3.0 details (like, say, a release), and give us a good look at Mac OS X 10.6, and someone, somewhere, will likely snivel about how underwhelming the WWDC announcements will be—an attitude that says more about those commenters’ inability to grasp the purpose of a developer conference than it says about the significance of Apple’s announcements.

Whatever Apple has in store—hardware, software, or otherwise—we’ll have all the details in Macworld’s live WWDC keynote coverage, starting at 10 a.m. on Monday.

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