Although Apple today announced that its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) will begin June 6, analysts are starting to question whether the company will introduce its next iPhone at the event.
WWDC, which will run June 6-10, was expected during that stretch because of Apple's practice of holding the conference in early June the past several years. Last month, San Francisco's Moscone Center, the WWDC venue since 2003, listed an event on its schedule that hinted at Apple's annual developers confab.
But today analysts struggled to parse Apple's statement that it will preview the next version of iOS at WWDC.
According to a Monday press release, Apple plans "to unveil the future of iOS and Mac OS" at WWDC.
That's being interpreted by some pundits as meaning Apple will not preview the next version of iOS -- likely dubbed iOS 5 -- before WWDC, which would be a departure for the company and may mean a new edition won't be available this summer.
Apple has previewed the next generation of iOS in March or April the last three years, giving developers time to work new features into their apps before the operating system launched several months later around the time of the newest iPhone's debut.
Last year, Apple took the wraps off iOS 4 and released an SDK (software developer kit) in early April, more than two months before it and the iPhone 4 shipped in late June. In 2008 and 2009, Apple previewed the next version of the operating system in March, again months before reaching the public and being loaded into the newest iPhones.
According to Jim Dalrymple, a former editor at Macworld -- like Computerworld, an IDG publication -- and who now writes The Loop blog, Apple will not announce new hardware, including the next iPhone, at this year's WWDC.
Apple has used the WWDC platform three years running to roll out its newest iPhone, and started shipping the new smartphone several weeks after the conference.
But that doesn't mean Apple can't mix it up.
"People have gotten a little too used to Apple doing certain things at a certain time of the year," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner Research. "There's nothing that says Apple has to make journalists' or analysts' lives easier by keeping to a pattern. Sometimes they don't."
Gartenberg read Apple's WWDC announcement as an indication that the event will focus on software, and eschew what he called "this bit or that bit of shiny new hardware."
Other experts saw the tea leaves differently.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said that the supply chain problems caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, may have prompted Apple to push back the launch of the next iPhone as well as iOS 5.
"The Japan story changes things," argued Gottheil. "We just don't know what is on the critical path for the iPhone that's sourced out of Japan."
According to analysts at IHS iSuppli, a significant amount of the world's silicon wafer production comes out of Japanese factories, as well as an overwhelming majority of the material used to make printed circuit boards.
"There's a possibility that we will see some delay in availability of the iPhone 5," said Gottheil, referring to the muddled situation in Japan.
Brian Marshall, an analyst with Gleacher & Co., didn't buy that. "Apple will still launch the next iPhone in June or July," Marshall said today, talking about the usual summer window Apple has used.
But the picture becomes even cloudier if Apple doesn't deliver iOS 5 alongside the iPhone 5. Would Apple still launch a new iPhone even if it doesn't have a new operating system?
Gottheil thought so. "If the new iPhone is just lighter and faster, and with a better antenna, there's no OS requirement for that," he said.
"And it's software, man. Stuff happens," Gottheil said, talking about a possible delay of iOS 5 due to technical issues.
Apple has pushed back software releases before. In 2007, it delayed Mac OS X 10.5, aka Leopard, from a mid-summer to an October launch, saying that it needed to divert engineering resources from its OS X team to keep the first iPhone's ship date on track.
Gartenberg also said it was possible that Apple will launch a new iPhone sans an updated iOS. "Apple has built up a lot of components in the supply chain so that they don't get hit by situations like [Japan]," he noted.
If the iPhone 5's release is pushed back, it won't have much of an impact on sales, said Marshall. "I don't anticipate that [a delay] will be the case, but if it is, it won't have any material change on sales," he said. Instead, sales will simply be shoved into following quarters.
Gottheil agreed. "They are on such an upslope that a delay from the usual June launch would be hard to detect over the course of the year," said Gottheil. "I don't think there would be a net effect unless the entire supply chain is disrupted."
Apple has priced entry to WWDC at $1,599, the same as last year when it sold out the conference within eight days of opening registration.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.