WWDC: In the shadow of iPhone

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Eighteen days. The number hung over the auditorium like fog on a cold San Francisco day. Although Steve Jobs spent most of his time during his keynote address discussing the next version of Mac OS X, the impending release of the iPhone colored every aspect of the presentation.

It didn’t help that Mac OS X Leopard was introduced at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, making large parts of this year’s session feel like we’d stepped into Leopard’s Time Machine and emerged 12 months earlier. At one point this year’s conference was meant to be a coming-out party for Leopard, but Apple’s mad rush to ready the iPhone for its June 29 date with destiny meant that Leopard would have to wait until October.

Yes, Apple did unveil more new Leopard features, some of which weren’t even part of the company’s intellectual property a year ago. Cover Flow, which last year was a clever iTunes add-on by a programmer named Jonathan del Strother, is now a wholly owned part of not only iTunes, but also one of the four standard view options in the new Leopard-edition Finder.

There’s no doubt that Leopard will be, in many ways, the biggest overhaul of the Mac OS X interface since it was first launched. Apple appears to have settled on a single window style — the one in iTunes 7 — and that choice alone will provide some delightful consistency to the Mac interface. The addition of Stacks to the Dock threatens to make the Dock a pivotal part of the Mac interface, rather than a minor tool for application launching and switching.

I’m a little less sold on the new semi-transparent menu bar, which Apple insists will adapt to be legible no matter what backdrop image you place on your desktop. I don’t mind my menu bar being opaque, and I do prefer to actually be able to read the text on it. Likewise, the “glass shelf” that the new Dock sits on looks pretty, but I’m not sure I won’t be driven insane by the ridiculously processing intensive reflection effects when you move a window next to it.

But the fact remains that the bulk of the Leopard announcements made during Jobs’ address were features we’d already heard about before — although not always with quite the same spin. Take Boot Camp, a Leopard feature that’s been available in beta form for 14 months. It hasn’t changed much, and its one notable new feature — the ability to put your Mac in a “safe sleep” mode so that you can switch back and forth between operating systems without a full restart — was apparently listed on Apple’s web site by mistake and removed.

Even without that potentially snazzy new feature, Steve Jobs spent some time discussing Boot Camp, mostly to emphasize what it wasn’t: a killer of Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion. Those two programs, both of which let you run Windows side by side with your Mac, have always had a bit of a dark cloud hanging over them: there’s always been the possibility that some future version of Boot Camp might offer the same feature, for free, as a part of Mac OS X. But Jobs gave Parallels and VMWare a big verbal hug, calling Boot Camp “a great complement” to those programs. It wasn’t exactly a new feature, but it was news.

In any event, as nice as it was to get a few more tidbits about Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X was not remotely the hot topic of discussion in the halls at Moscone West after Jobs’s address. It was that device that was due exactly 18 days after the keynote, the iPhone.

The iPhone runs a version of Mac OS X. And since the day it was announced, Mac developers have wondered: will there be a way for them to write software that runs on the iPhone, much as they do for the Mac?

Apple’s approach to the subject has evolved over time. In January, it all sounded quite unlikely. By early May, the company was “wrestling” with the matter. By the end of May, Steve Jobs was suggesting that Apple would find a way to let developers write software for the iPhone by the end of the year.

In that encouraging context, the announcement that Jobs made Monday at WWDC went over like a lead balloon. To be fair, the suggestion that anxious would-be iPhone developers can write snazzy Web applications that would work on the phone’s built-in Safari web browser isn’t a bad one — it’s actually a clever workaround that most developers would have suggested themselves if they had gotten the chance.

No, the problem is that as snazzy as Web applications can be these days, they’re still not a replacement for the real thing. If they were, why would Apple bother writing full-blown programs for the iPhone? Why convert Mail to run on the iPhone if Google Mail in a browser will work just as well? Because it won’t.

There’s no denying that 18 days before the iPhone ships is not the ideal time for Apple to provide developers with a complete road map of how to write software for this brand-new device. Apple’s clearly been sprinting for six months just to get the iPhone ready for the world to see. And I have little doubt that, in a few months, the company will be ready to talk to developers about ways of writing more robust software to run on its new baby.

Apple’s a company that often has impeccable timing. Unfortunately for them, the confluence of WWDC, the iPhone’s release, and the delay of Leopard has resulted in a muddled message to developers this week. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that when we look back on this month in a year or two, nobody will remember the WWDC 2007 keynote. Instead, it will be what happened on June 29 that will — for good or bad — define Apple’s year.

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