Steve Jobs sure to spring WWDC surprises, says analyst

More up CEO's sleeve than next-gen iPhone

Apple CEO Steve Jobs will handle keynote duties at the company's annual developers conference in two weeks, Apple confirmed today.

Jobs, who missed last year's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) because he was still on medical leave after a liver transplant, will take the stage in San Francisco on June 7 to launch the five-day event.

"Jobs has enthusiastically returned to his spot as the best pitchman in the country," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "He seems to be enjoying that role again."

Apple's CEO returned to the public eye in September 2009, when he helped launch a refresh of the iPod line.

Almost everyone expects Apple's top executive to not only tout the new iPhone OS 4 -- WWDC will emphasize the mobile operating system -- but to also unveil the next-generation iPhone hardware.

But there will be fewer iPhone surprises this year than in the past. In the last four weeks, photographs of two prototypes have appeared on the Internet, including those taken by the Gizmodo technology blog, which purchased a preview model from a California man for $5,000. More recently, a Vietnamese forum posted photos of a what one hardware expert described as a production, or near-production iPhone.

That doesn't mean Jobs won't have some surprises up his sleeve when he takes the stage at WWDC, said Gottheil.

"There were some implications in the last earnings call, and other clues, such as the shutdown of Lala, that there could be some announcements related to online," said Gottheil. "The most likely is a subscription music or video streaming service."

Apple acquired Lala late last year, but will shutter the small music streaming service as of May 31.

While WWDC might not seem like the ideal platform to make such an announcement -- the event typically focuses on matters that directly relate to developers -- Gottheil sees an opening. "It wouldn't quite fit in [with WWDC] unless there was something to be programmed," acknowledged Gottheil. "But if Apple were to provide a platform that interacts with code on one or more of their mobile devices, and offers some APIs [application programming interfaces], it would make sense."

In Gottheil's reasoning, Apple might be ready to compete with Amazon and Google -- both of which offer code storing services for developers -- using the large datacenter it's built in North Carolina. "Apple hasn't gone into that world yet, but they'd like to keep iPhone and iPad developers' code in their ecosystem," Gottheil said.

Educational content, another long-time Apple area of emphasis, could also be housed at the datacenter, he speculated.

Another possible announcement that would involve both the iPhone and the North Carolina datacenter would involve the front-facing camera that the leaked iPhone prototypes contained. "Lots of people are using Skype for video calling, and a much smaller number is using high-end [technology] for video conferencing," said Gottheil. "There's a lot of potential in the middle."

Jobs could reveal still-secret video capabilities of the iPhone OS 4, including APIs that let developers hook into a cloud-based video platform. "Apple could say, 'Here's basic video chat,' then tell developers 'Here are the APIs you can use to add video chat to your iPhone games,'" Gottheil added.

The WWDC keynote will begin at 10. a.m. PT on June 7. Apple will not broadcast the keynote live on the Web.

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 gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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