FAQ: Speculation swells as Apple's WWDC '08 nears

Tight lips don't mean no tips; chatter starts with 3G and ends with Me

You're shocked, we're sure, that speculation surrounds Apple and its plans.

Yes, we know. You're shocked that rumors swirl, hearsay happens and scuttlebutt flows freely.

It is, after all, the season when Apple gossip grows to gargantuan proportions, with one of the company's major annual events -- its Worldwide Developers Conference -- set to kick off on Monday, June 9. And to launch the event, CEO Steve Jobs will take the stage and do...what, exactly?

That's the first and foremost question technology watchers and Apple enthusiasts -- developers included -- have been asking since even before the company's last big-time show, January's Macworld.

So, what will Jobs strut? Naturally, we could be as off base as a medium running the hokiest-ever séance. On the other hand, it won't be long before the truth will be out. With that caveat in mind, these are our best guesses.

And then, once WWDC ends next Friday, the rumors can begin anew as we look down the road to Macworld '09.

Will Apple roll out a 3G iPhone? If it doesn't, it'll be the biggest technology letdown of the year. For months, nearly every pundit, analyst and blogger has been wearing off his fingertips writing about the 3G iPhone. And although the hype hasn't reached the level seen last year before the iPhone went on sale, it's darn close.

"A 3G iPhone is almost a certainty," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. (TBR).

Some of the best indicators that 3G will be front and center on Monday come from the announcements by mobile carriers that they've inked deals to sell the iPhone -- and more specifically, from the pace of those announcements. The most recent, made yesterday, added Japan, a market that Apple holds dear because sales last quarter there amounted to nearly half a billion dollars. But the past month has seen more than 50 countries appended to the "we sell iPhone" list, which numbered just five in 2007.

Count this one as a done deal, more or less.

What will the new iPhone include? People have been taking stabs at that most of this year and part of last, but other than 3G capability, there's no clear consensus. Some observers, like TBR's Gottheil, figure that the new iPhone models will be slightly larger to accommodate a bigger battery added to the design to match battery longevity in the current iPhone. The faster data access promised by 3G is expected to bring with it a bigger appetite for juice.

Others, including us, have opined that the iPhone 2.0 will sport integrated GPS technology or will be painted black or will come with a better camera.

Apple is the Angelina Jolie of technology firms when it comes to attracting rumors, so there's no way to separate the wheat from the chaff until Jobs whips out the new iPhone from behind his back. (And yes, Computerworld will be in the audience.)

How much will the new iPhone cost? More money than you want to pay -- and less than Apple wants to make, we're betting.

Until it ran out of stock not too long ago, Apple charged $399 for an 8GB iPhone and $499 for a 16GB model. Practically speaking, it could slot new models into those same price points.

But there has been talk this spring that iPhone prices will drop, perhaps to $199, as carriers begin to subsidize the purchase of the smart phone, as they do with most handsets when customers sign up (or re-up) for multiyear service contracts.

On the other end of the price pole, we've also heard chatter that Apple will push the top-end price as high as $699. Before you gasp and grab your wallet, remember that when Apple launched the iPhone last year, it priced the 8GB model -- then top of the line -- at just $100 less than that. A couple of months later, of course, Apple dropped prices by $200, putting the once-$599 iPhone at $399 -- and leaving a lot of early adopters annoyed. Apple soothed ruffled feathers by offering iPhone owners a $100 gift coupon, redeemable at the Apple store.

What news of iPhone 2.0? Look for something, certainly, if only because of the big show Apple offered up in March when it introduced the firmware upgrade and the software development kits for building third-party applications and synchronizing the gizmo with Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange server.

Whether Apple unveils the App Store -- its online mart for selling or giving away iPhone applications -- next week or later this month, however, is a toss-up. Talk seems evenly split between the two time frames at this point.

We think it's a good bet that Jobs will either cede the stage at some point next Monday or throw up a screen or two, for a quick glance at some third-party applications that will launch when the App Store debuts.

iPhone, iPhone, iPhone...is that all there is to WWDC? No, though the device will surely grab the biggest and brightest part of the spotlight, Jobs will probably spend time talking up other new stuff.

A late arrival on Mac-centric sites is word that Mac OS X 10.6, the next version of Apple's operating system, will likely make an appearance. That's according to the usual sources, such as TUAW and Ars Technica, two technology sites that just this week touted talk of the upgrade.

Those sites said Apple would demo what it may call Snow Leopard, or even hand over early editions to developers. Among the most intriguing tidbits on the street is that the new OS would be the first Intel-only version, meaning that owners of PowerPC-equipped Macs would be staring at Leopard as their last-possible OS. Unless, of course, they buy new hardware.

If you're thinking that it's too soon after the launch of Mac OX 10.5, Leopard, to worry about a successor, join the crowd. But also keep in mind that historically, the average time between versions of Mac OS X is just under 16 months. If 10.6 does arrive next January, as those sites speculated, it would put the Leopard-to-what's-next span at around 15 months.

"Remember, Leopard was late," said TBR's Gottheil. "I can see Apple wanting to move forward quickly on the next OS."

What else? There's got to be more. Probably. Our bet is on a recasting of Apple's .Mac online service and a recrafting of its online strategy. Although some have concentrated on the branding -- blogger John Gruber last Sunday first raised "Me.com" as a possible new domain -- others, including Gottheil, kept to the bigger picture.

"I think we'll see something that shows an enhanced Web presence for Apple," said Gottheil on Thursday. Among the features he hopes Apple will debut as part of a new service would be a connection between Leopard's Time Machine backup-and-restore app -- and maybe the sold-separately Time Capsule router-cum-storage device -- and online storage. "That's the next logical step for Time Machine," he added.

A new service, particularly one with the "me" moniker rather than the platform-specific "Mac," would also let Apple integrate the iPhone, and pull in customers who -- gasp -- don't own, or plan to own, a MacBook or iMac anytime soon.

On that front, the new service might provide the backbone for untethered syncing of e-mail, contacts and appointments to the iPhone, just as enterprises can do using the Exchange sync scheduled to debut with iPhone 2.0.

Hey, no new Macs? A refresh of the MacBook -- currently the oldest of Apple's lines -- could be the "one more thing" that Jobs pulls out at the last moment. But with the lack of rumors, don't bet on it.

Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at JupiterResearch, said WWDC's not the right stage for a MacBook revamp. "The focus will be on developer-centric news," said Gartenberg, who went on to dismiss talk of new systems showing up on stage. "Apple has gotten away from announcing products at just its two or three main events each year. It's not uncommon now for Apple to do something [like WWDC], then a few weeks later, say, 'There are a few more things we want to talk about'."

Apple did exactly that last year. In early August, about five weeks after it started selling the iPhone and eight weeks after WWDC, the company trotted out redesigned 20- and 24-in. iMacs in a stand-alone event hosted at its Cupertino, Calif., HQ.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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