Opinion: WWDC takes an iPhone-centric tack

All eyes will be watching for a second-generation version

On Monday, Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2008 gets under way in San Francisco amid a swirl of rumors. Though, as always, next week's show is shrouded in secrecy, the opening keynote by Apple CEO Steve Jobs will most likely present new information on the upcoming iPhone 2.0 and software development kit (SDK). As for new hardware or software announcements, well, that's the big guessing game, though odds seem solid for a new, 3G-enabled iPhone and possibly, as Jobs would say, one more thing: A look at Mac OS X 10.6.

Since it's aimed primarily at developers and IT professionals, WWDC keynotes have traditionally focused on technology issues such as changes to the underpinnings of Mac OS X, with those on hand covered by a tight nondisclosure agreement (NDA). Sneaking out info on future Apple tech would be a CIA-level operation. Since the demise of a summer edition of MacWorld Expo, however, Jobs has taken advantage of the WWDC spotlight to launch new products that have only peripheral connection to development, from new iPods to online services to new Power Macs. Anything is fair game now, which is what lay behind the vivid rumors circulating among the Mac faithful.

The expectation that there will be some sort of 3G iPhone is so great that the lack of such an announcement would be big news. Overseas telecom executives have mentioned such a beast, probably earning them eternal withering looks from the secrecy-loving Jobs, and developers have found controls for -- and references to -- 3G in current betas of the iPhone SDK.

In the past, Jobs has said that 3G support would compromise the iPhone's battery life and offer little advantage, as AT&T -- Apple's sole mobile partner in the U.S. -- did not have sufficient 3G coverage when the iPhone was released almost a year ago. Since then, AT&T has expanded its 3G network. And if anybody can gloss over a little bit of battery life -- if that indeed continues to be an issue -- it's Jobs.

Even if there's no new product ready for sale right away, there's certainly going to be major motion on the iPhone front. Apple's own promo materials for WWDC featured an image of two parallel bridges, which most unpack to symbolize the growing importance of the iPhone operating system. Perhaps that, rather than the long-hailed Mac OS X, is the future of Apple. After all, Jobs has said in the past that he foresees a day when Apple will no longer make computers.

For the first time, WWDC will feature a track dedicated to the iPhone operating system and SDK, with sessions on writing and optimizing applications for the devise (and the closely related iPod Touch); new user interface guidelines; wireless network access; and bandwidth issues. The iPhone operating system is closely related to Mac OS X but is based on what Apple calls Cocoa Touch (Cocoa is the major object-oriented API for OS X), which supports calls for the iPhone's unique user interface and multitouch gestures.

(Apple isn't alone when it comes to multitouch. Microsoft is now all about multitouch, too, based on what little the company has so far said about Windows 7. Nothing to see there yet, so we'll just move along.)

Perhaps the focus on the iPhone arises from the increased enterprise profile of the smart phone. What started out as clearly a consumer device quickly wound up in the hands of CEOs, CIOs and IT gurus -- many of whom started looking for ways to integrate it into their workplaces. Not surprisingly, when Apple first revealed the iPhone SDK in March, the company also detailed enterprise-specific features that will be part of the upcoming iPhone 2.0 update. These will include push e-mail, remote wiping of data, mass device configuration and support for Microsoft Exchange. In the near future, even freedom-loving iPhone owners can be tethered to always-on corporate becks and calls.

There's been a major enterprise vote of confidence in the iPhone from another direction. In March, the venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers announced the iFund, a $100 million investment fund targeted at helping developers start up third-party applications and projects for the iPhone and iPod Touch platform. Apple has demonstrated in public some of the new applications made possible by the iPhone 2.0 update, such as location-specific utilities, games and customized enterprise solutions.

On another front, until this week, it seemed unlikely there would be any big news about the Mac OS, as Mac OS X 10.5 was released last October and Jobs has said publicly that Apple plans to extend its operating system release cycle from once a year or so to every 18 months. But late-entry rumors are surfacing that Jobs might announce Mac OS 10.6 at this WWDC, though only in a very embryonic, and certainly not-for-public, form. No word from the grapevine on possible new features, but at least one site offered up an operating system name: Snow Leopard.

Even more exciting is the prospect that Apple might try tying together hardware and software, desktop and mobile via an overhaul of its online .Mac service. A combination of Web and e-mail hosting, remote sync and remote storage, .Mac never seemed to live up to its promise. Some features never quite reached far enough, like saving desktop states to "the cloud," and the service has continued to suffer outages and other issues.

Mac-centric sites have noticed that Apple registered the domain "me.com" and has placed references to a "Mobile Me Service" within the iPhone 2.0 SDK and deleted .Mac references in Mac OS X 10.5.3. This could be a simple rebranding, although I hope not. Really, "Me"? Wasn't there a DOA version of Windows called that? The mention of such a service in both the desktop and mobile versions of Mac OS X could hint at bringing enterprise-friendly features such as over-the-air Exchange support, push e-mail and a Windows-compatible client for synchronization. That way, even nonmobile Mac OS X users can be tethered virtually to their desks.

That's the WWDC scene three days out: Lots of iPhone sturm, some amount of Mac OS X drang and an overriding sense of anticipation that I haven't seen in, oh, a year -- the first time iPhonemania descended. Oh, as Jobs would say, one more thing: I'll be at WWDC, as will others from Computerworld. Check back Monday for our take on what's announced, what it means and where Apple goes from here.

Dan Turner has been writing about science and technology for over a decade at publications including Salon, eWEEK, MacWEEK and The New York Times.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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