WWDC's real news: Apple moves beyond iOS and OS X

A look at Apple's areas of focus reveals that the iPhone, iPad, and Mac are vessels for Apple's services strategy

At 10 a.m. Pacific time today, Apple will commence its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) dog-and-pony show announcing ... well, only Apple knows for sure, as usual. Apple has managed to keep its show more secret than ever this year, perhaps as a result of the damaging "iPhone 5" mania last summer; it won't even say whether CEO Tim Cook will speak (of course he will).

Still, there's broad agreement on what Apple will announce today, given not insider information or magical powers but the deliberate hints Apple has dropped and its consistent history of product announcements.

[ See what Apple unveiled at WWDC: iOS 6's features, new OS X Mountain Lion capabilities, Siri-enabled cars, and a thin MacBook Pro with Retina Display. ]

As I'll explain shortly, the real significance of WWDC will not be any product news but Apple's increased focus beyond OS X and iOS to common services for all Apple users. First, here are the likely product announcements:

  • New Mac Pros and MacBook Pros will be revealed. Apple normally unveils these computers earlier in the spring, but delays in Intel's new "Ivy Bridge" chip pushed back their availability to close after WWDC. In the past, when the WWDC and Mac schedules overlapped, Apple waited until WWDC to reveal the new Macs rather than have announcements back to back. In addition to supporting the "Ivy Bridge" CPU, Apple will likely jettison the DVD drive from the MacBook Pro, as it has on the MacBook Air and Mac Mini, to make a thinner version more like the Air. (Apple sells a $79 external DVD drive, which is easily shared among users when needed.) The new MacBooks may also use the same Retina display technology introduced in the iPad 2, which quadruples the number of pixels per square inch for a photo-realistic image; Apple's been updating some of its OS X application graphics to that resolution. The Mac Pro -- favored by video editors -- hasn't been updated for two years. What's on tap is unknown, though it's the only Mac not yet shipping with high-speed Thunderbolt ports.
  • New maps service. A couple years ago, Apple advertised for developers experienced with geoinformation and navigation, a sign it would develop its own mapping and navigation technology. Rumors have been flying since winter that the fruit of those hires will be unveiled at WWDC, letting Apple jettison the Google Maps app and Web service used in iOS and OS X. Given the enmity between the two companies, it's a sensible rumor, and it fits Apple's desire to be the provider of key services on its devices.
  • OS X Mountain Lion. This one's obvious: Apple released the developer preview of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion in February, taking the unusual step of giving selected publications public access as well. Apple says Mountain Lion will ship this summer, and the developer betas have been quite stable for several months. Of course, Apple will tout its capabilities, perhaps reveal a few new ones, and, at the developer-only sessions, explain how to work with its new features, which includes iCloud Documents, iCloud Tabs (tab syncing in Safari across multiple devices), iOS-style share sheets (to more easily send content from apps via Twitter, email, AirDrop, and likely Facebook), iOS-style notifications (with a do-not-distrun switch that iOS yet doesn't have), iOS-style display mirroring to an Apple TV, and support for Chinese search and social services -- Apple is clearly targeting China as its new engine of growth.
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