Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference kicks off early Monday morning in San Francisco. It's the company's annual tradition of gathering its developers to provide training sessions, networking opportunities, and most importantly--introduce new products and services.
This year's edition is no different, except for the fact that Apple has already played its hand. Earlier this week, the company announced that CEO Steve Jobs would be taking the wraps off iCloud, a new "cloud services offering," as well as new versions of the Mac OS and iOS. By comparison Apple merely said that Jobs was keynoting last year's show.
Even with that information, there's still a long list of things we don't know heading into next week. Here are five big ones:
1. Can Apple wow with its iCloud?
The launch of MobileMe was marked by numerous missteps, including downtime of its various services, data loss, and issues with synchronization--it's headlining feature. The internal fallout from the launch was said to be so bad it moved Jobs to hold a meeting with the entire MobileMe team to reorganize who was in charge and chide everyone for tarnishing the company's brand and letting one another down. Based on that, you can imagine how important it is for Apple to launch iCloud as something that is polished.
More importantly, with iCloud, Apple needs to prove that it's offering something that can't be had elsewhere, or at least can be had better on its service versus those of competitors. One of the biggest knocks against MobileMe is that many of the things it offers users can be found in other places and free of charge. Apple added ammo to that argument when it made the "Find My iPhone" feature free as part of an iOS update. Now Apple faces a similar threat from the get go with competitors like Amazon and Google beating the company to the punch with cloud-based services that cater to media. Will customers be wowed enough to get on board?
2. How will iCloud fit into Apple's existing services?
Unlike Lion and iOS 5, iCloud is not being positioned as a sequel. One of the biggest questions then is how it's going to fit into Apple's existing services if it's not replacing them entirely. Given the cloud storage component of the service, what happens to Apple's current cloud storage tool iDisk, which is bundled as part of MobileMe? And if there's music streaming, will it end up tied to Apple's iTunes, a piece of software that many would argue is already trying to do too many things, or will it go through the browser instead?
And perhaps most importantly how much will it all cost? A report by the Los Angeles Times yesterday said Apple would offer it free at first, going to $25 a year later on down the road. By comparison, Apple's MobileMe currently costs $99 a year and bundles together a number of services like e-mail, file storage, Web hosting, and synchronization tools. If iCloud overtakes that, is Apple really giving up that subscription revenue that brings in four times as much a year?
3. Will there be new hardware?
By positioning Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud as headliners, Apple's made it pretty clear that this show is all about the software. But that doesn't mean some existing hardware couldn't make an appearance for an update or two.
Reports from earlier this week pointed to Apple having a Time Capsule update on the horizon, a move that would make sense if it brings features that are specifically tailored to work with Lion and iCloud (which signs have pointed to). A story from 9to5mac yesterday suggested Apple was working on a caching feature that would let the Wi-Fi router-meets-wireless hard drive grab software updates and sync up to Apple's iCloud.
There's also the MacBook Air, which is expected to get an update to Intel's Sandybridge processors and Thunderbolt I/O technology this month. Apple could be saving that to coincide with the release of Final Cut Pro X, which is due this month and could really take advantage of the Thunderbolt port. But given that the current generation of that notebook made its debut alongside Lion back in October, it would be fitting for it to get some face time along with the OS if it's released the day of the show.
Then there's the dark horse: a new iPhone. The iPhone has historically played an integral part to new releases of iOS, and last year's WWDC made for the debut of the iPhone 4. So far, all the rumors have pointed to Apple releasing the iPhone 4's follow-up in the Fall with a device that sports some incremental improvements, though nowhere near the leap that was the 3GS to the 4.
So can Apple really debut a new version of iOS, without adding some hardware-specific features that only the latest and the greatest will be able to do? Based on Apple's unveiling of iOS 4 two months ahead of last year's WWDC, that certainly seems to be the case. Perhaps just like it did with FaceTime, Apple will save those secret features for a later date.
4. When will these three things arrive?
In years past, Apple's used WWDC as the demo ground for new versions of OS X, but this year things have been turned around. The company took the wraps off Lion at a press event back in October, and since then, there have been several developer preview releases, the kind that would usually come post-WWDC, and on the way to a consumer release later this year. Apple could have fine-tuned many of the bugs by now, enough to the point that OS X is now ready to hit store shelves. The big question then is if that's happening the same day as the show.
As for iOS 5, Apple has a long tradition of doing several developer betas ahead of a public release to work out any kinks. Since Monday's the first time the company is showing it off, it's safe to assume it won't be available to consumers just yet. Apple is likely to take a similar approach to what it's done with Mac OS X and previous iOS releases, giving developers a preview build or two to work on making their applications compatible with new features and updated APIs.
That leaves iCloud, which is the biggest question mark and entirely more complex. Despite the problems with MobileMe, Apple launched the overhaul of .Mac the same day it was announced. Apple did a same-day launch a year later with its iWork.com office suite. Yet the the features that iCloud promises to provide may not all be there when the product is launched. As my CNET colleague Greg Sandoval wrote yesterday, streaming won't be available from the get go, and any music that's stored needs to be an iTunes purchase, with other songs from a user's collection being able to be added later on in the service's lifetime.
5. Can the price of Lion go lower?
The price of Apple's Mac OS took a dramatic drop in the most recent version, with Snow Leopard coming in as a $29 upgrade to users of 10.5 "Leopard." Leopard itself cost $129 for Tiger upgraders. Some argue that price tag was so low because Snow Leopard was housekeeping update of sorts, adding a handful of new features, but leaving most of the major upgrades behind the scenes.
In some ways, Lion has been positioned in the same way, with a number of tweaks to the Mac OS X visual style, along with existing features including app juggling, file security, system back-up and restore.
One thing that could affect the price is how it's distributed. A report from Apple Insider last month said that Apple planned to offer the software as a direct download through the Mac App Store, a place where Apple's put software it's sold on discs at a much lower price. Proof of that is Aperture, the company's pro photo editing software. If you want to buy it on a disc, you can pay Apple $199. Or you can fire up the Mac App Store and pay $79.99 for the digital download.
Would Apple do something like that for a full-fledged system software update? The fact that the company's been delivering previews of the software to developers through the Mac App Store is certainly a good sign. It's also a very sneaky, but smart way to get people to start making purchases through Apple's digital software store, a door buster that could pay dividends down the line.
CNET will be live on the scene for Monday's keynote. Stay tuned for details on when and where you can catch our live blog.