Apple's secrecy is legendary, and it only fuels the intense speculation of what the company might announce at today's opening keynote at 1 p.m. EDT at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. So a more fruitful approach might be to focus on Apple's challenges and opportunities.
Apple is widely expected to release new MacBooks and MacBook Air models, thinner and lighter; many pundits are convinced that at least some of them will sport a Retina Display to rival the pixel density found on the iPad and iPhone. There's speculation that a revamped Apple TV OS is in the offing, and some insist that Apple is preparing its own television product.
Yet the lion's share, by far, of Apple's vast and fast growing revenues and profits, come from products that didn't exist five years ago: iPhone and iPad, coupled with revenue and profits from the App Store, and iTunes. Though Macs and the MacBook notebooks still show growth, the late Steve Jobs' mantra of the "post-PC world" clearly guides Apple's priorities.
Don't count on it. At this point, the consensus is that Apple will announce "iPhone 5" in September or October. There's ongoing speculation that it will have a new CPU, which may end up being a variation of the existing dual-core A5 chip (as was the new iPad's), and an elongated screen -- about 4 inches diagonally -- that maintains the Retina Display resolution, while a new 16:9 aspect ratio will let existing apps run unchanged with the characteristic black bars when seen in portrait mode.
But important changes may be in offing for the iPhone's operating system ...
WWDC is aimed at Apple software developers. And iOS is where the action is.
New photos clearly show "iOS 6" on recently installed banners at the WWDC's Moscone Center location, confirming the speculation that a new version of the mobile OS will be unveiled.
There's been intense speculation about specific features iOS 6 might offer.
A recent Wall Street Journal story noted that "Apple has quietly acquired at least three cutting-edge map companies, melding their technology with its own. Last fall, Apple took a first step in developing a proprietary mapping service with the virtually unnoticed release of a 'geocoder' -- the brains behind a mapping app that translates a phone's longitude and latitude into a point on a map, like an address. Before that, it relied on Google's geocoder."
BACKGROUND: What to expect in Apple's upcoming Maps app
Whether this is enough for Apple to drop Google Maps in the next iPhone is a matter of intense debate. On the one hand, Apple is working to render Google irrelevant in the mobile world. Its own maps solution would be part of that work, as Apple's Siri "voice assistant" promises eventually to do in the area of mobile search. But others point out that many iOS developers, and their apps, currently rely on Google Maps. These observers argue that Apple can't afford to leave them, and their users, as orphans: It's more likely, they say, that Apple will continue to support Google Maps, initially offering its own 3D mapping technology as an option.
Other rumored changes are a new color scheme or theme for the iPhone user interface, similar to the silver theme used for the iPad, though others think Apple will keep the UIs distinct; and deep integration with Facebook. While all of these have their partisans, their impact on the overall iOS mobile user experience is minimal.
Robert Falck, a freelance tech journalist and self-styled "Internet troublemaker," in a recent blog post, argued in effect that many of the changes sought in iOS 6 -- a user-accessible file system, onscreen widgets and so on -- miss the point of what Apple has introduced with iOS, and how that's been embraced by the vast majority of iOS users, who no longer think of information in terms of files and file cabinets. Instead, they think of photos, videos, documents and so on.
"As much as many of us who have been used to computers for some time might complain about the lack of interaction with the file system, for most people it's a better solution," Falck writes.
Passing information between applications more efficiently today is a challenge for iOS apps, he says, one that Palm's webOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone mobile operating systems have done effectively. In effect, Falck writes, that this is an opportunity for Apple, without reviving the file metaphor Apple decisively discarded in iOS 6. [For more on this see "iCloud" below.]
More significant for end users, compared to a change in color themes, is the expected expansion of the Siri voice assistant, which officially is still in beta. After almost 10 months, Apple may be set to announce Siri's production release, bring it to iPad and, most of all, release an API so that third-party software developers can incorporate Siri into their apps.
The real impact of iOS 6 may be felt in ways that are more important but less obvious than a change in the color scheme or a 3D mapping option. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Apple is readying a new way for iOS developers to track users, in order to serve ads and collect data as users move between applications. Apple announced last summer that it will no longer let developers use Unique Device Identifier (UDID), pinned to each device on a carrier's network, due to privacy concerns. So far, that ban hasn't been enforced, according to the Journal, but Apple also hasn't explained what will replace it. If a developer preview of iOS 6 is released at WWDC, developers may be get clues.
WWDC 2012 is the one-year anniversary of Apple's unveiling of iCloud, its network-based platform for services such as synchronization and storage. Apple has only scratched the surface here.
There may be a range of new features for end users unveiled. VentureBeat's Heather Kelly offers a summary of the speculation about these: improved photo sharing, with new "social features" to let people comment on your pictures; recasting Reminders and Notes as Web apps living in iCloud; synchronizing videos between your Apple devices.
But the real power of iCloud will start to be felt when developers are able to more easily integrate it with their own apps.
In January, MacStories' Federico Viticci looked at the "state of iCloud-enabled apps," about three months after iCloud went live.
"[I]t appears the majority of third-party developers are still considering whether or not iCloud is something worth investing their time -- and customers' money -- or not," Viticci concluded. "Those who have successfully implemented iCloud have done so in ways that require minimal user interaction, most of the times enabling sync capabilities through a single setting switch."
Those attempting more complex uses are "often having to come up with separate tools to enable iCloud." Another stumbling block for Mac developers is that only Mac apps sold via the Mac App Store can be directly integrated with iCloud, says Viticci. That means that developers wanting to sell through the Mac App Store and also on their website, have to maintain two code bases.
"Overall, there seems to be a shared trend among developers choosing to wait for Apple to clarify specific aspects of iCloud sync, improve the platform and fix some bugs that may prevent certain applications from being iCloud-enabled without requiring a major restructuring of the codebase on their end," Viticci points out. "Turning an iOS or Mac app into an iCloud-enabled app hasn't turned out to be the 1-click process many, including me, wrongfully assumed when iCloud was previewed at WWDC last year."
Apple could go a long way, or even a shorter way, in addressing these issues at WWDC this year. One hint of this was picked up by Matthew Panzarino, at The Next Web, and others, who noticed that Apple on May 30 quietly posted a notice to developers that the storage limit for the iCloud Key Value Store had been boosted from around 64KB to 1MB per app.
The Key Value Store is for storing small amounts of relatively static data associated with a document or other file kept on iCloud, such as user preferences or configuration information. As part of the brief notice, Apple also said that "Key Value Store also updates devices faster than ever."
Apple's documentation summarizes the implications:
"The key-value data store is similar conceptually to the local user defaults database that you use to store your app's preferences. The difference is that the keys in the iCloud store are shared by all of the instances of your app running on the user's other devices. So if one app changes the value of a key, the other apps see that change and can use it to update their configuration. For example, a magazine app might store the current issue and page number that the user is reading. That way, when the user opens the app on another device, that app can open the magazine to the same issue and page that the user was reading."
This is the kind of iCloud change that, although at first invisible to end users, can have a major impact on the user experience, as more developers exploit it to let their apps intelligently work with and share information stored in iCloud.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnww Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed
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