Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook at a previous WWDC.

Preview: Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference

Every year thousands of Mac and iOS developers descend on San Francisco for Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, or WWDC. The conference takes place June 8-12, though the big news will come from the keynote presentation on Monday morning, June 8.

As someone who has attended every Apple developer conference since the late 20th century, here's what to expect from the week.

It's not a fan event.

A lot of people will probably describe the week as a gathering of fans. And while many Apple developers are also Apple fans, this is not a rock concert--or the fan event Macworld Expo. The people who go to WWDC have paid $1599 per ticket to gain access not just to hear Tim Cook unveil products in the keynote, but to sit in code-heavy presentations and get access to Apple engineers in developer labs.

Apple rarely uses WWDC to launch new hardware.

While occasionally it happens, it's rare for Apple to use its developer conference to announce new hardware. The iPhone and iPad get announced in the fall at special media events called by Apple. We just saw the Apple Watch release and the new MacBook both announced at one such event.

Sometimes Apple will use the stage at WWDC to roll out a new piece of hardware, but even then the products are often of the nerdier variety. The new Mac Pro was announced at WWDC, as was the first Retina MacBook Pro. Sometimes slightly faster variations on old hardware will be released in conjunction with the event, usually with only a press release to mark the change.

But this is a developer event, so the focus isn't on new hardware.

The Apple TV won't be getting an update.

Last week most people thought there would be some new hardware announced at WWDC, albeit hardware with a developer angle. A new version of its Apple TV streaming box was rumored to be on the way, featuring support for third-party apps, but a _New York Times report has dashed hopes of that.

I've lost track of how many times the rumors of a new Apple TV box have flared up, only to be smothered at the last minute. They might as well make the new Apple TV in the shape of a football, because I keep trying to kick it like I'm Charlie Brown.

New operating system versions are on the agenda.

For the last few years, Apple has been on an annual development cycle for its two major operating systems, OS X and iOS, and everyone expects this cycle to continue with the announcement of new versions at WWDC. Generally these versions are set to ship in the fall--usually September or October--and developers will get access to early beta versions of both in the days following the keynote.

This year's speculation is that Apple, much like Google's announcement of Android M at last month's Google I/O conference, will be spending this year focusing more attention on stability and bug fixes in both of its operating systems. Certainly Apple users have been asking for it, as there's a general perception that Apple's software is less reliable than it's been in a while.

High on my wish list is an overhaul of how iOS and OS X handle notifications. The current Notification Center has gotten awfully cluttered lately, and the arrival of Apple Watch seems to provide a good reason to add granularity from both the user and application sides of the relationship.

A new music streaming service is probably happening.

Apple spent a lot of money buying Beats last year, and while the company keeps churning out headphones, the most intriguing part of the purchase was the Beats Music streaming service. Apple's traditionally been an a la carte music seller via iTunes, and recently waded into streaming with a Pandora-like service called iTunes Radio.

But Beats Music is different. It's no Pandora, it's another Spotify or Rhapsody, with access to a huge on-demand music library and a whole bunch of curated playlists. It'll be interesting to see how (and if) Apple integrates this into their existing music offerings.

There will be a whole lot of Apple Watch talk.

Proving that you don't need a developer conference to launch a new development platform, Apple announced the Apple Watch at a media event and rolled out the first version of the WatchKit APIs via the Internet. There were thousands of Apple Watch apps available at launch.

However, I'd expect a whole lot of Apple Watch talk at WWDC. I think Apple will use the conference to launch the much-promised developer tools to create native Apple Watch apps. (Current Apple Watch apps are extremely limited and are largely powered by the same app running on the connected iPhone.)

We may get a preview of the next generation of Watch OS, the software that powers the Apple Watch. But the real question developers are asking now is, just how power can Apple Watch apps be? Overcast developer Marco Arment listed a bunch recently, and Apple's answers to his questions will go a long way to defining what sort of apps will be built for Apple Watch.

Today's Apple Watch apps are okay--at least some of them--but they're severely limited. A new generation of apps can make the Apple Watch a much more flexible, interesting product. It will be interesting to see how Apple describes the Apple Watch's launch and where the company is taking the product, its operating system, and its apps next.

Many tea leaves will be read about the iPad and iPhone.

While Apple waits until fall to announce new iPhones and iPads, Apple Kremlinologists will pay close attention to some of the new features announced in iOS 9. In the past, Apple's interest in seeing apps built with flexible layout approaches that supported various screen sizes was the first indication that larger-screened iPhones--the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus--were on the way.

There are lots of rumors out there, about large iPad screens, iPads that can run two apps in a split-screen mode, and iPhones with the same Force Touch technology that's found in the Apple Watch. Will there be hints in iOS 9 of those or other future product directions? We'll be watching closely.

But in the end, it's about the fall--and beyond.

Ultimately WWDC is about preparing app developers to get ready for the fall, when Apple rolls out new hardware and the final versions of its operating systems. You might think that Apple builds momentum for its platforms by calling huge media events and announcing new iPhones--and that's true.

But the story actually starts in June in San Francisco, when the developers who will be building the apps that show off the new features of those new iPhones get the first glimpse of the operating system those phones will be launching with. While the rest of us are at the beach this summer, those developers will be putting together shiny new apps to populate new iPhones this fall and winter. It may just be turning into summer in the northern hemisphere, but in San Francisco next week everyone's thoughts will already be on the mass of phones and apps sold during the holiday quarter.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish