WWDC: Why this year is different

Apple did something really unusual this past week: It pre-announced what it’s going to talk about next week at its big Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). For many companies, talking up new products, technology roadmaps, earnings estimates and overall plans is standard operating procedure. For Apple, it’s unheard of. The company always keeps its plans quiet until they’re actually announced—even if most Apple watchers have some idea beforehand. That’s what allows Apple CEO Steve Jobs to offer up his signature “one more thing” when he speaks.

Why did Apple telegraph its plans and exactly what will Jobs and company announce on Monday?

No doubt, the company is looking to manage expectations. Apple events always create a lot of hype. This year, however, Apple wants to tamp down any expectations of a new iPhone or some other hardware. It’s also priming the pump a bit. While the iCloud streaming music service is something most Apple watchers have been expecting, iOS 5 hasn’t been on the radar—partly because Apple usually announces iOS updates in lockstep with new iPhones. And since Mac OS X 10.7 Lion is due out this summer, it’s a natural topic to highlight.

Apple could also be trying to simply remind everyone that WWDC isn't really about hardware. It’s a developer conference and training ground first and an Apple media event second. That means its real focus should be on operating system and software updates.

And certainly, it helps generate attention for the show to remind people that Jobs will be at the keynote. Yes, he is still on medical leave. But announcing that he’ll be at the event is tantamount to saying he’s still relatively healthy and involved. (Not surprisingly, Apple’s stock price ticked up on the news Tuesday.)

I think one of the biggest things to keep in mind about WWDC 2011 is that it is a developer event and that it has returned to its traditional focus after last year’s iOS-only approach. This means that there will be both Mac and iOS development tracks, as well as an enterprise technology track.

Yes, despite the assumption that Apple largely ignores the enterprise market, it does include some very in-depth Mac/iOS enterprise integration sessions at WWDC—and the fact that Apple has reinstated that track indicates that the company still has its eye on the enterprise even after canceling the Xserve.

Here’s what to look for from this week’s big show.

iCloud

The biggest buzz this year is about iCloud and how it will be a streaming iTunes service/locker like those already announced by Amazon and Google. The big difference is that Apple has been working to secure streaming agreements from the major music labels, while Amazon and Google pretty much gave up on doing so and launched their services without label approval or cooperation.

This difference frees Apple from the kind of legal battle with the labels and Recording Industry Association of America that Amazon and Google now likely face. More importantly, it will probably obviate the need for a service that is solely locker-based.

Both Amazon and Google require you to upload your existing music library. Without any license agreements, they have to do this because they can only share files that you already own. (Amazon will place a copy of new purchases into your locker automatically, however.) Most of us, however, have music libraries that are in the tens or hundreds of gigabytes in size. That’s a lot to upload, something that could take days or weeks to do, depending on your Internet connection.

With label approval, Apple can just use a list of music that you own and stream files that already exist on its iTunes servers. Only your iTunes database needs to be uploaded. The various iTunes database and XML files on my Mac total around 20MB. That’s a much shorter upload, and Apple probably needs only the iTunes Music Library database and/or iTunes Music Library XML files. In fact, if you’ve turned on the iTunes Genius feature, Apple likely has all the data it needs to stream music from its servers.

Of course, that raises the question about music that didn’t come from the iTunes Store—songs that you ripped from your CD collection, acquired from other music stores, recorded yourself, or got from other legitimate sources. The labels probably won’t let Apple stream those titles. Apple could let you upload them to a locker for streaming or stream them directly from your Mac or PC using your home’s Internet connection.

I'm guessing it’ll be the latter, because I think the labels might object to the former and because a recent Apple patent essentially describes a system for streaming from Apple servers and your home computer.

That patent also includes a “partial sync” feature that indicates that iOS devices could gain the ability to sync some tracks to the device (for playback with no Internet connection) and stream the rest. That would be a great for iPod touch or Wi-Fi iPad users.

Whether the streaming features of iTunes/iCloud will eventually extend to movies and TV shows that are stored in your library isn’t clear. Apple has licensed streaming rentals for the second-generation Apple TV, but streaming purchases is likely to be a rather different matter and will likely require Apple to get the kind of buy-in from networks and studios that it has from the recording labels.

Not just about music

All the iCloud hype has focused on music, but I’ll bet money that it offers much broader features—and not just because of the details listed in Apple’s European trademark application for iCloud. It will almost certainly include the feature set of Apple’s MobileMe service: push e-mail and wireless sync of calendar and contacts for iOS devices, the ability to sync a large range of settings and data among multiple Macs, and Apple’s existing iDisk storage feature.

Most of the value of MobileMe has been superseded by free services like Dropbox, Google Docs, contacts and calendar sync with Gmail and Yahoo Mail, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter. If Apple doesn’t integrate and significantly improve on the MobileMe feature set, I’ll be shocked.

Then there's the long-languishing iWork.com. Launched with iWork ’09, the service allows you to publish iWork documents to the Web. It has the somewhat nifty feature of allowing others to view the files online or download them in iWork, Office or PDF formats, and it allows others to comment on documents. When I reviewed the service in 2009, I admired its ease of export and overall interface, but even then it seemed anemic as a cloud service because it didn't support online editing by the original author, let alone any real collaboration.

I think it’s almost certain that Apple will bring MobileMe and iWork.com together, merging them into an online storage and document collaboration service that supports multiple users and multiuser online editing.

The current version of the MobileMe Web site includes tools that are practically identical to Mail, iCal and Address Book on a Mac. It’s easy to picture Apple doing the same thing with the iWork apps. The resulting service could offer a better user experience than Google Docs and integrate seamlessly with iWork on a Mac or iOS device. (This may be one reason Apple made the iWork apps iPhone/iPod touch compatible this week.) And it would be useful for consumers and small businesses, Apple’s core markets.

Parts of MobileMe might, however, disappear completely. The Galleries feature and much of the iWeb Web site features have largely been left in the dust as users turn to social networks to share photos, videos and other digital tidbits. And Apple’s Ping social network could evolve into something less music-specific or perhaps integrate with popular services like Twitter or Facebook.

Lion begins to roar

Apple has been talking about Lion since last fall, when Jobs first unveiled it. The next version of Mac OS X will borrow a lot of features from iOS in addition to adding some unique features of its own.

We’ve gotten a lengthy list of new features in Lion already and I expect plenty of demos during the keynote—particularly on features that Apple hasn’t really shown off publicly. Those features include:

  • Mission Control, which combines full-screen apps, a new app launcher called Launchpad, and the existing Dashboard, Expose, and Spaces features.
  • Autosave and the new Versions feature that maintains copies of each version of a document that you can browse through in an interface similar to Time Machine.
  • Resume, which allows your Mac to return to its existing state (with all open applications, folders, and documents) when restarted.
  • Mail (the new version).
  • AirDrop, the new system for sharing files between Macs securely without having to worry about file sharing settings.

I have no doubt we’ll see some demos of additional new features that are related to iCloud. This will almost certainly include an updated version of iTunes as well as common collaborative tools that stand to get more cloud-like, including Address Book and iCal. I’m also looking for talk about how developers can leverage iCloud in their applications.

One interesting capability would be the ability to log into any Lion-based Mac using your iCloud account. This idea has shown up around the Web periodically and would be an extension of some of the capabilities already supported by Mac OS X Server.

Speaking of Mac OS X Server, I expect that Lion Server, which is now a free option for any Mac running Lion, will also get some attention. Mac OS X Server has historically not been featured in the public WWDC keynote, but since Apple is billing it as a feature of Lion, I expect to see at least some mention of it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see some demos of Lion Server and its capabilities.

Since Mac OS X Server is perfect for small businesses and offers the core server needs of file/print, email, Web and wiki, shared calendaring and contacts, and multi-system backup, Apple could use this to really push Lion as a business solution. Lion Server is also slated to allow for easy management of Macs and iOS devices and to offer a document sharing service for iWork on iOS devices. Since most Mac users aren’t familiar with Mac OS X Server at all, this is a prime time to introduce both its capabilities and its ease of setup and administration.

Along similar lines, I expect Apple to highlight enterprise-integration features such as support for Active Directory and Exchange as well as a few curveballs. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to store a user account and home directory on a portable drive? Or see some native support for Google Apps accounts? Apple might even introduce an enterprise version of the Mac App Store as a software deployment solution.

While there will almost certainly be new Lion tidbits, the big news will be the announcement of pricing and a ship date. Apple has said only that Lion will ship this summer. Given the frequency of developer preview builds and the details about them from various Apple-centric sites, I wouldn't be surprised to see it ship sooner rather than later (perhaps even by the end of June).

iOS 5

Typically, Apple rolls out new iOS versions around the same time, if not on the same day, as new iPhones. Whether Apple will keep that policy with iOS 5 remains to be seen. The company may simply preview iOS 5 and announce that it will ship later this year, along with the next iPhone. Or it could announce an earlier ship date for existing iOS devices. In either case, it makes perfect sense for Apple to introduce iOS 5 at WWDC so developers can gain insights about new technologies they can bring to their apps.

What can we expect in iOS 5?

Speculation has so far focused on two major features. One involves Twitter integration, something that arose as an option for sharing files directly from a device, presumably with Twitter’s upcoming baked-in photo sharing. If Twitter integration is built into the Camera and Photos apps, it will likely be at a system API level that could allow developers to take advantage of it in any photo or camera-related app. Integration could even go deeper, with new Twitter-related options in other apps like Safari or third-party apps.

The second, and more interesting, hoped-for feature is a new homescreen addition that expands on the multitasking capabilities in iOS 4. Video out of Vietnam suggests that Apple is planning to add a specialized screen (similar to the existing search screen) that includes thumbnails of every running application. That would allow a user to switch between them more seamlessly and could allow applications to perform a wider variety of tasks in the background.

Apple has always been critical of full PC-like multitasking, though, because of its effect on processing power and battery life. But the company may be changing its tune on the concept now that it’s designing its own processors.

Another, similar idea is for a new homescreen similar to the Mac OS X Dashboard, something that shows a handful of widgets that require only basic processing power and display data directly on the homescreen—much like widgets on Android phones.

Both of these possibilities would be attractive additions to iOS. One major criticism of Apple’s mobile OS—especially compared to almost every other mobile platform—is that it still relies on a static array of icons as its primary interface. That forces users to launch or switch to each app in order to view any useful information or perform any actions.

With Android, webOS and Windows Phone 7 all pioneering a way of getting real-time data directly from the homescreen, Apple’s approach has begun to look outdated. So, I think we’ll be seeing some changes along these lines.

Even if Apple chooses not to go whole hog with multitasking, it’s almost certainly going to have to expand what apps can do in the background. That could mean support for additional background tasks, an improved task completion as its found in iOS 4, expansion of the Apple notification service available to developers, or a combination of them all.

Apple certainly needs to make some serious improvements to the iOS notification system; its options haven’t changed since the first iPhone arrived in 2007. Any incoming notification (be it from a third-party app or some built-in function like a text message or voicemail) can trigger only three actions: make a sound, add a badge number to the associated app's icon, or display an alert in the middle of a device's display.

That’s pretty limited. Worse yet, alerts tend to layer over each other and only offer users the option to immediately respond, which typically launches the related app, or to ignore, in which case the alert disappears from view, never to be seen again. That makes alerts almost pointless.

Apple needs to overhaul the system. If nothing else, there needs to be a mechanism for collecting alerts for later review similar to webOS. In my opinion, webOS has a much better alert system than Android, with its notification bar on handsets—though the notification setup on Android tablets is much more functional.

I’m not certain which direction Apple will go, but I'm assuming something’s coming—partly because it’s desperately needed and partly because last year, Apple hired Rich Dellinger, the creator of the notification system used in webOS.

I’m sure we’re going to get some enterprise news for iOS as well. iPads and iPhones have been marching into workplaces of all shapes and sizes. Apple will want to highlight that and will no doubt talk about the mobile device management features built into iOS 4 and the range of management consoles now on the market. We'll likely see some advances in this area as well.

Of course iOS 5 will also take advantage of all the iCloud goodness Apple has been building. This will be huge for music, of course, but also useful for any additional sync capabilities and access to new cloud features.

Ironically, given the popularity of the iPhone and iPad, iOS 5 may turn out to be one of the lesser parts from this year’s keynote, particularly if it won’t ship for some time.

Bottom line

In general, I think this is going to be a pretty major event for Apple—I expect to see the company leapfrog its way into the cloud computing arena with some serious and polished offerings. While Lion and iOS 5 are going to be major points, iCloud is clearly going to be the showstopper as a service and a core component of each of Apple's platforms.

And I still wouldn’t be surprised if there’s “one more thing” no one has anticipated.

[Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009).]

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