WWDC 2009 Predictions

What I know, don’t know, and know I don’t know about tomorrow’s WWDC announcements. As usual, please, no wagering.

iPhone 3GS

Everything I wrote about last month in “The Next iPhone” still stands. I expect Apple to announce updated iPhones with significantly faster processors, twice the RAM, and twice the storage. I expected prices to remain the same as the current lineup: $199/299 for 16/32 GB, respectively. The video camera is going to be a major selling point.

One additional tidbit I’ve heard is the new hardware’s code name: iPhone 3GS. I’m not certain that’s what it’ll be officially named, but my hunch is yes. I have no idea what the S stands for.1

The other new tidbit is battery life: 15-20 percent longer than the iPhone 3G.

As for form factor, I believe the 3GS will have the same or very similar dimensions as the 3G; the screen size is unchanged and existing cases might fit the 3GS. I assume that the new models must look different — newer, cooler — in some way, but I don’t know how.

Lower-Priced iPhones

There are pervasive rumors that Apple is also set to announce lower price points for the iPhone. The Financial Times, citing anonymous sources “familiar with the initiative”, reported it as fact.

I believe this is true, and the new price will be $99. But since I expect the new top-of-the-line iPhone 3GS to start at $199, that means the $99 iPhone must be something else. I see two possibilities: (a) a new device, something that is to the iPhone what the iPod Mini was to the original iPod; or (b) the existing 8 GB iPhone 3G, unchanged but reduced in price.

I would wager heavily on (b) — that the new iPhone 3GS models will not replace the 3G, but rather assume the flagship position while the year-old 3G slides down to the second spot in the product lineup. I believe Apple will eventually create an iPhone Mini or Nano or Junior — something that is smaller and thinner, in an array of colors but with fewer features and lower tech specs, at lower prices. And when they do, they will promote it heavily in a major play for raw mobile phone market share.

I don’t think that time is now, though, which is why I believe the imminent $99 iPhone will simply be the existing 3G at a reduced price. I’m not even sure this $99 iPhone will be announced at WWDC — Apple may well wait until the new iPhones are available for sale to announce it. In fact, if I’m right that the $99 iPhone will simply be a reduced-price 3G, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were something Apple sold only through its own stores, and perhaps only for a limited time until their stock of old 3G models is gone.

iPhone Tethering

It’s no secret that iPhone OS 3.0 supports tethering: sharing the phone’s 3G internet connection with your computer. What we don’t know yet is how this will work with Apple’s various carrier partners around the world. It’d be nice if it just worked, with no additional charge over the current data plan. But “it’d be nice” seldom happens with phone carriers. So I expect we’ll be charged for this feature; the question is how much.

At a fair price and assuming the feature works well, iPhone tethering could obviate the need for something like Verizon’s MiFi. I look forward to never paying for hotel or airport Wi-Fi service again.

Snow Leopard

The big question with Snow Leopard isn’t with regard to technical details, but its marketing. Starting with version 10.2, previous major updates to Mac OS X have sold for $129, and were marketed almost entirely based on their new features. Apple has explicitly made clear that with Snow Leopard its focus was not on adding new features but rather on improving and optimizing existing ones — shoring up the foundation of the core OS shared by the Mac, iPhone, Apple TV, and future products to be named later. I think this was a great idea. OS X is here for the long haul — it is the foundation of Apple’s entire business for the foreseeable future.

But how do they sell Mac OS X 10.6 to consumers if it doesn’t bring major new features? Here are the options I see:

  1. Sell it for $129, just like previous major updates. Advertise it as faster and better. If it doesn’t sell as well as 10.5 Leopard did, well, so what? Slow uptake would be an irritation for developers who want to ship software that depends on 10.6-specific APIs, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And who knows? Apple has never tried selling a full-priced OS update based on something other than new features — it might sell as well or better than 10.5 did. Maybe it’s not true that people only pay for features upgrades.

  2. Sell it for a lower price, say $59.

  3. Sell it for a nominal price, say $19. I think free is out of the question, if only because of Apple’s interpretation of U.S. accounting regulations. They give iPhone owners free OS updates because they use subscription-based accounting for iPhones. They charge iPod Touch owners for the same OS updates, because iPod Touches aren’t accounted for on a subscription basis. The Mac is like the iPod Touch in this regard, so I think a free Snow Leopard isn’t possible.

The risk with options 2 and 3 is that it might make it more difficult for Apple to go back to charging $129 for 10.7 and beyond. But Apple is not Microsoft. OS upgrade revenue is a nice extra for Apple, not a core part of its business.

The wildcard with Snow Leopard would be if Apple were set to unveil some sort of heretofore secret new features, features which they could then use as the basis for an advertising campaign and the regular $129 price. But from everything I’ve heard, Snow Leopard development is winding down — they’re tying off loose ends and fixing bugs.

I have no idea how Apple is going to play this.

Marble

The other X-factor is “Marble”, the rumored redesign of the entire OS’s visual appearance. Could that be the secret Snow Leopard “feature”? Six months ago that’s what I was expecting: that from an engineering point of view, Snow Leopard’s changes would be low-level, but that by making everything look all-new, Apple would have an obvious way to sell it to consumers as something worth paying for. If it looks new it is new, from a normal person’s perspective.

But while I am convinced that “Marble” is a real design project at Apple, I no longer believe it is slated for Snow Leopard. A new visual appearance isn’t something Apple can spring on third-party developers at the last moment. If they plan to ship Snow Leopard soon — say, by the end of August — that just isn’t enough time to allow developers to update their software to look good under a new UI theme. (There’s also the problem of creating software that looks good under both the new and old themes.)

So my hunch is no Marble for Snow Leopard — that it’s now a 10.7 thing. But I’d never bet too much money on the side of Apple accommodating the needs of third-party developers.

The Tablet

I’m completely convinced that the tablet is real. But I am almost just as convinced that it is not ready to be announced. Patience on this one.

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