At WWDC, context matters for hardware announcements

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When trying to figure out just what Apple will announce at its Worldwide Developers Conference, it’s important to keep in mind just who’s in the audience for Monday’s keynote.

After all, when Tim Cook speaks to investors—as he did at a Goldman Sachs conference in February—he’s likely to focus on issues of concern to that audience like worker conditions in China and whether the iPad is cannibalizing Mac sales. When he appears at a conference aimed at digital technology movers and shakers—last month’s D Conference, for example—the talk is going to be about big-picture items, like Apple’s plans for digital content and strategic partnerships with the likes of Facebook. At either event, the Apple CEO is unlikely to pull a new iPod out of his pocket and start telling Wall Street titans and entertainment industry executives about its great music shuffling capabilities.

So when Tim Cook and a retinue of Apple executives appear on stage in front of thousands of Mac and iOS developers on Monday, you can bet that anything the company talks about is likely going to touch on topics that appeal to that crowd. It stands to reason then that any rumored hardware announcement should be viewed through the following filter: What does this mean for Apple’s developer community?

Find out what Apple announces at WWDC in our live blog of Monday's keynote

With rumors circulating that Apple plans some hardware announcements for this year’s WWDC—perhaps overhauling its entire Mac lineup—it’s important to keep the audience for Monday’s keynote in mind. Announcing new Mac hardware at a keynote is out of character for WWDC—and really, not in line with how Apple handles its Mac business these days. When the company has a Mac update to announce, more often than not, it does so by press release—especially, if what it has to roll out amounts to a processor bump, increased capacity, and maybe the addition of a Thunderbolt port or something similar.

If Apple has a similar kind of update in the works for one its Mac products, then, it seems unlikely that such an announcement would get any stage time at WWDC—not when there’s Mountain Lion and a likely update to iOS to discuss. Besides, Apple could hold off on announcing a modest-but-welcome update to one of its Mac products for a week or two after WWDC and be guaranteed coverage from an Apple-hungry press corps. Tacking on a laptop with a processor bump to whatever else Apple has planned for WWDC doesn’t really fit with the company’s way of doing things.

Which is not to say Apple won’t have any hardware to unveil at WWDC. It’s just that if the company does, you can bet it’s going to feature something that appeals to the multitude of developers on hand.

Take the Mac Pro, for example. That’s a machine that appeals to people who build software for a living, thanks to its multiple cores and processing oomph. (Apple’s Mac Pro marketing materials go so far as to highlight its appeal to developers.) That Mac Pro-programmer connection—coupled with the fact that we’re rapidly approaching the second anniversary of Apple’s last Mac Pro update—would make WWDC a perfectly logical setting to take the wraps off a new model.

Likewise, rumored features like Retina display-equipped Macs and USB 3.0 integration would be the sort of thing you’d unveil at a developer conference, as the ensuing sessions would give Apple engineers a chance to explain how software can take advantage of these hardware changes. In the case of Retina displays, for example, Mac applications would need to be rejiggered to take advantage of the higher-resolution screens; WWDC would be a great venue for Apple to show software makers what kind of work that requires.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee new hardware is on the agenda for Monday, just that any announcements made will be done with developers in mind.

To help you formulate predictions about what hardware is on Apple’s to-do list, here’s a handy chart that summarizes the last time Apple came out with new versions of its Macs, iPhones, iPods, and iPads. (We even threw in Apple’s hobby, the Apple TV.) The chart includes the major features of each upgrade, the venue Apple used to announce the new products, and a URL for more coverage of that particular announcement.

Apple's Last Hardware Updates

Product Line Date of Last Update Venue Announced Highlights More Coverage
Mac Pro July 27, 2010 Press release Xeon processors (Westmere), Turbo boost
iMac May 3, 2011 Press release Thunderbolt, Core processors
Mac mini July 20, 2011 Press release Thunderbolt, no optical drive, discrete graphics
MacBook Pro October 24, 2011 Press release Processor bump, capacity increase, new graphics card
MacBook Air July 20, 2011 Press release Thunderbolt, Core i5 processors
iPhone October 4, 2011 IOS press event Siri, improved camera
iPad March 7, 2012 iPad press event Retina display, improved camera, A5X processor
iPod touch October 4, 2011 IOS press event White model, price drop
iPod nano October 4, 2011 IOS press event Navigation changes
iPod shuffle September 1, 2010 Music press event New controls
iPod classic September 9, 2009 Music press event Capacity bump
Apple TV March 7, 2012 iPad press event 1080p support, new interface
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