WWDC 2010 Preview

Today, Apple will present several new products to its third party developer community…and through the tremendous press scrunity — not to mention what Steve Jobs recently called (an undesirable) “nation of bloggers” (ahem) — by extension the larger world of its users, enthusiasts and curious potential ‘switchers.’

Some of them will be software, some will be hardware, but most if not all will likely manage to attract their own little cyclonic orbits of controversy.

Here are some of the grapevine’s expectations; stay with us over the week ahead for post-event analysis and fresh dirt on what’s next from Infinite Loop.

Aside from any larger philosophical or strategic issues which Steve Jobs may personally decide to raise during his WWDC keynote address, here are the basic rumors in the run-up to the event, an amalgamation of grapevine consensus and a few tips from the usual suspects (those who’ve followed the site since its early days would know them as the “Bothans”) as well as ongoing projects we’ve been privy to for some time which may be brought into the public eye today:

iPhone “4”
Don’t count on 4G: Apple has been working on chipsets for supporting CDMA, LTE (4G) and many other new/next-generation cellular connectivity standards, for quite some time. But if there’s one mistake we’ve made most consistently in the past two years, it has been in not immediately recognizing a new trend in the company’s style of prototyping. Infinite Loop now prototypes 2-3+ generations out based on the cutting edge of currently available technologies, instead of 1-2 as in the past….because innovation and cost reductions are now coming even more slowly than we might have predicted due to the global economic crisis. As a result of all this, we don’t necessarily think that Apple’s exhaustive prototyping of 4G chipsets means that its final design for the 2010 iPhone will include one. Since extremely few users on most networks will get true 4G that is consistently faster than 3G until well into 2011, even if Apple opens its phones up to more cellular networks today…there is a certain wisdom in waiting another year to add this substantial extra cost to its product. In short: it could be done, at a price — but we’re not betting on it.

Opening up to more cellular providers: Well, we certainly hope so — and from what you’ve told us, so do an overwhelming number of you. Even those of us who might stick with AT&T, could hope for perhaps improved offerings under that scenario due to the benefits of competition. The recent announcements from AT&T regarding its usage-based cellular data bandwidth plans have given many of you reason to think that perhaps a backlash is coming from Apple and AT&T has reacted preemptively to something it knows is imminent. We would like to agree, but not everything we’re hearing from our sources in Cupertino is consistent with that notion. Let’s just say we have many reasons to be hopeful; something fundamental appears to have changed quite recently in Apple’s near-term plans for iPhone — but among other things, our understanding of the contracts between Apple and AT&T give us pause.

New enclosure/industrial design: If you haven’t seen pictures of the “leaked” iPhone 2010 (AKA iPhone 4) prototypes, you must have been living under a rock or in a very, very deep cave for the past several months. Although a certain indignation has motivated a few last-minute tweaks, the basic nature of Apple’s next-generation iPhone hasn’t changed dramatically in the past year — if you look back, we reported on a more square-edged design for the entire iDevice lineup long before the iPad became the first to sport that rugged look. Infinite Loop wants you to abandon your third-party case because you don’t need it anymore, and this new enclosure should be a step in that direction even though many users will press on with buying one regardless. Apple has also developed its own iPhone/iPod case, but we aren’t sure whether it will see the light of day or not.

Core Specs: We’ve certainly seen some very ambitious prototypes of various iDevices in the past year, but based on recent trends in Apple prototyping several generations at once rather than just one or two….we’re predicting something near the low end of what we’ve been told about by our sources. A safe bet would be a 1GHz A4 system-on-a-chip (SoC), very similar if not identical to that used in iPad, though many of even the most basic prototypes used an A4 variant with 512MB of RAM instead of 256MB so we have some hope that the new iPhone might be able to put that extra memory to use making the most of OS 4.0’s new multi-tasking features by allowing more “background” apps to remain cached in memory at once. Dramatic increases in Flash (SSD) storage size aren’t expected, but Apple has been playing with new chips from its suppliers that considerably improve storage performance (both latency and sustained transfer speeds). The biggest gains may have to wait for the 2011 iDevices, but a substantial bump isn’t out of the question.

A new “radio subsystem” may bolster the 2010 iPhone’s wireless capabilities dramatically in a few areas: better reception in more places thanks to a new cellular chip and improved antennas made possible by the new enclosure, 802.11n Wi-Fi for ~5X the bandwidth of 802.11g, Bluetooth 3.0 (new high-performance mode, power savings), and perhaps even a new FM radio tuner (despite an expectation that Apple would rather its customers get music from native apps like Pandora, if not iTunes). Apple can’t do much to fix problems with AT&T’s network in those areas where issues have proven chronic, but it has worked hard to do everything it can to attack the problem though better cellular antennas and an improved cellular chip in the new iPhone.

An upgraded graphics chip, more powerful than those used in 2009 iDevices or the iPad, is questionable because that would require a considerable variance from the A4 reference design and Apple doesn’t appear ready to bring the A5 (Cortex 9 dual core ARM CPU, 1.2-2.0GHz, 512MB-1GB+ RAM, high performance PowerVR GPU, new DSPs/coprocessors to take strain off the general purpose CPU, several major enhancements to the entire chip thanks to Infinite Loop’s recent acquisition of ARM specialist company Intrinsity) to market. We have hope, but don’t have any firm predictions in this area.

Display: We’ve reported for years on Apple’s efforts to squeeze a higher-resolution, 16:9 display into the iPhone/iPod form factor without making the overall outline much bigger — mostly via shrinking the amount of space on the top and bottom of the enclosure, and various tweaks such as a smaller and wider/more rectangular Home button. Eventually, it seems, Apple pushed this to the side and has focused on a change that is easier for developers to manage: simply double the resolution of the existing ~3:2 (almost but not quite 16:10) display to 960×640, enough to display 480P HD (720×480) video. No change of interface designs is required; simply double the pixels, or scale up an existing app using the same engine that the iPad uses to make iPhone/iPod apps fill the screen. Many have suggested that this will be an IPS (In-Plane Switching), similar to those employed by the latest Macs, and we concur that this is likely.

Does that mean this will be called iPhone HD? Quite possibly. That title has been bandied about at Infinite Loop….but then again, so was the moniker “iPortal” for what we now know as the iPad, among many other far more outlandish names. Marketing and timing of announcements are two of the toughest areas to get a good reliable read on in the Apple rumormongering business, so we are hesitant to make predictions as to the new iPhone’s full name — in part because “HD” doesn’t fully describe all its new capabilities, and there are considerable doubts as to whether “4G” will be a part of the equation.

Cameras: A new front-facing camera for low-resolution pictures and video (some prototypes had CMOS imagers similar to the iSight, delivering 720P, but 640×480 is a safer bet) will be backed up by a rear-mounted high resolution CMOS imager. 5 Megapixels is a fairly safe prediction, though many prototypes were in the 8MP range. Apple’s new videoconferencing technology is very cool, and we think people will be talking about it quite a bit in the future. Yes…there is an LED flash on the rear-facing camera! At last! No word on whether it will be possible to keep it on for recording video in the dark, though prototypes had this ability….it was said to be quite a drain on the battery, despite the energy-efficient LED.

Audio: New and considerably improved built-in stereo speakers. The built-in microphones in every prototype we have been privy to included a new, second noise-canceling mic similar to that in the HTC Nexus One, and also had improvements specifically for “speakerphone” mode which do great things for the audio quality when videoconferencing.

Battery life: The new enclosure allows for a substantially larger battery, hence the breathing room for a faster 1GHz ARM CPU. Despite the more power-hungry processor, battery life should be substantially longer than any previous iPhone.

AppleTV

For some time, we’ve seen the convergence between the current Intel-based AppleTV and the “App Store” (ARM) iDevices in Apple’s prototypes and software development for a device that Steve Jobs just recently once again called a “hobby.” It just might be time to show off that new ARM-based AppleTV, with the ability to run the full range of App Store apps on any TV. WWDC would be a logical place to do this, since the multiple resolutions that are possible with TVs (NSTC, PAL, 480P, 720P, and possibly soon 1080P in the new generation AppleTV) present a unique challenge to interface development as compared with existing iDevices that have kept display resolutions very consistent over the years and are only now themselves beginning to diverge. Developers will need time to adapt.

Mac OS X 10.7

Usually referred to as “Lion” by Infinite Loop’s programmers, OS X 10.7 seems on first glance like a natural shoo-in for WWDC. It’s been nine months since the release of 10.6, and two years since Snow Leopard was first previewed at WWDC. Usage at the Loop has gone up substantially; so much so that many web sites have begun to notice a significant number of users running 10.7 visiting their sites, with several abrupt spikes in the numbers over the course of this year so far as new wide-distribution internal builds were adopted by ever larger numbers of employees. However, many on the grapevine are skeptical — understandably so — that now is the right time for Apple to preview its new Mac operating system. Many developers are still working to fully adopt 10.6-era technologies, and 10.7’s main emphasis has been on big changes to the user experience rather than core improvements of interest to developers. As far as we’re concerned, it’s very possible that we’ll hear something about 10.7 today — but it is highly debatable just how much that will be, if anything.

We’ll be getting into more detail about Mac OS X 10.7 either way in the next week, since several related embargoes expire after the WWDC keynote regardless of what is announced. We’ve talked about this in some detail in the past, though several early projects have been axed since our last report on project “Lion.” To summarize: a few under the hood upgrades, including a complete Cocoa-based overhaul of iTunes, from Snow Leopard have been carried over….but the main emphasis, as we’ve said before, on 10.7 is visible user experience improvements and further touch-input optimization of Mac OS X. Today’s large touchpads and the Magic Mouse will be the entering wedge for these interface technologies, but full-blown touchscreens and “realtime air-gestures” (using an iSight as an input device by tracking hand/arm/body movements) will be their full fruition. Much of what we’ve heard about, you have to see to believe…and much of it is still under embargo until after the keynote, so we’ll just have to wait and see whether Infinite Loop is ready to preview 10.7 for the public or not.

New cloud-based services

Apple has been working on a major new datacenter in North Carolina, the centerpiece of a global initiative to expand its cloud computing muscle and content-delivery bandwidth ahead of major Internet product announcements. These include new offerings from iTunes, including iTunes.com, a completely web-accessible version of the service which also duplicates a number of the application’s functionalities and is intended to make it possible for users to access content without having to run the native iTunes application or even be on a computer that supports iTunes.app at all. All that is required is any popular web browser, though full functionality may demand a high degree of HTML5 compliance.

Also part of the “cloud” announcements may be MobileMe and several other key Apple software products. There may be some tie-ins with new HTML5 authoring tools that Apple plans to bring to market soon.

Other new software

Among other software related murmurings, we’ve been following source reports for some time about powerful new HTML5 authoring tools that will form a new professional-level web development toolset bridging iWeb with Xcode. Both will be enhanced to this effect, and a separate professional authoring app that has been under development for roughly nine months may be announced today along with it….if not now, then fairly soon.

iPhone OS 4.0 isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, but the latest version — likely Beta 5 — will undoubtedly be previewed, and Mac OS X 10.6.4 may be released alongside several other pieces of interrelated software including Safari 5, iTunes 9.2 (iTunes 10 seems reserved for a much more dramatic overhaul as part of Mac OS X 10.7) and a new version of Xcode.

Mac hardware?

One set of rumors that has received somewhat less attention than all the iPhone and software buzz is that of new Macs. We’re still waiting on updates to the Mac Pro, Macbook Air, Mac Mini and Apple’s display lineup which are all fairly dramatic: powerful new Core i-Series processors/chipsets, next-gen ATi and NVIDIA graphics, 16:9 LED-backlit IPS displays at better pricing, all fairly exciting stuff to potential buyers. A solid leap forward in value, particularly on the Mac Pro which should see some great new entry-level options and the Macbook Air which should see a big jump in performance.

All of these updates are ready to roll in terms of Infinite Loop’s end; the real question is whether Steve Jobs and his army of marketroids think that now is the right time to announce them, and whether suppliers have proven that they can meet Apple’s exceedingly stringent release-readiness requirements. Nobody in Cupertino is willing to risk a repeat of the “G4 Fiasco.” How likely to we think this is? Fairly, but there are no guarantees by any means. Developers certainly do need to see Apple adopting more cores (both physical and logical) as impetus to utilize related software technologies like Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL….but there isn’t much downside for Apple to wait another week or two and save time in the WWDC keynote for announcements more of more direct import to developers and the company’s future.

Stay tuned to Rumors for all the latest on WWDC and some very exciting dirt on what’s next from Apple in the coming months….if you’d like to join the discussion or ask a question, you can find us on Twitter, send us an email, or submit a comment using the form below.


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