Apple WWDC Keynote, iPhone3G, and Snow Leopard

Steve Jobs can do what he damn well pleases, thank you very much. If he -- and team Apple -- demonstrated anything in yesterday's WWDC Keynote address, it's that. Because frankly, they took their stage time yesterday to demonstrate a whole lot of old news, and they buried the hidden gems.

WWDC Keynote Snooze

Part of the challenge was all about bad timing. In a special event months ago, Jobs took the stage and told the world that the iPhone SDK was coming, that all developer prayers would be answered, that they would have access to the iPhone core API's, allowing the masses to write apps just like Apple does. They would just have to wait. Be patient. It's coming.

Then, they seeded the developers. Certain developers. OK, not very many developers. Still, the applications that were teased out of the process looked good. Really good. The world was getting excited.

June. WWDC. iPhone3G has been leaked. The furor and frenzy about this next gen device is at an all time high. Devs are counting on Apple to deliver. The public is paying more attention to this developer conference than ever before. They're tracking secret shipping manifests for boxes on the way to Apple stores. They're lining up at the retail locations for this product that has not been announced. It's a drumroll of a million crazed fetishists at terminal speeds.

It was an announcement for an announcement. The iPhone3G isn't coming for another month. iPhone 2.0 firmware, another month. App Store, another month.

This challenge of timing is non-trivial, and most likely not an accident either. From the lay perspective, the market expected a punchline to this long-running joke; a release to the flood of expectation. What was announced yesterday underdelivered on those counts.

First, the next-gen phone is less than the market expected. Yes, we knew it was going to be 3G. Yes, we knew it would have GPS. Yes, we knew it would cost less. But Apple has a history of delivering so much more than expectation, of blowing away the market with things no one has thought of yet. The iPhone 3G satisfies the market. It does not blow it away. Where is the forward facing camera for handset video conferencing, for example? How did that rumor get so out of control? Where is the 32 GB model? 16 GB has been around a while in the iPhone, after all.

Second, the App Store. The keynote languished on and on and on with demos of software we'd seen, tools that developers had been discussing for months. Screenshots had been leaked. Apps are already running on millions of hacked phones. And we had to suffer through nearly an hour of old news from a platform stage architected to deliver WOW. There was no wow. (To be completely fair, the gaming apps are amazing. You should take a look at the keynote just to see what's coming -- cell phone manufacturers have been trying to reach this level of quality for a long, long time).

Third, OS X. The next version of OS X, 10.6, will be called Snow Leopard, and it's likely the most interesting of the big WWDC 2008 stories so far. The news? No new features.

OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: Hidden Gem

Which, of course, is not true at all. According to Jobs, it's an opportunity for Apple to take a step back, to focus on efficiency and security, and to build in some core evolution to the OS, while keeping on a one-release-per-year schedule. It's a truly interesting strategy, actually, and bucks a pretty well accepted gestalt that for public consumption, there must be eye-candy. Apple is betting they can change the course of things with Snow Leopard.

And actually, they're in a great position to do it. Look at Vista, for example. Microsoft took five years to build XP's successor and where the OS has received it's greatest criticism is in usability. The reason for the so-called XP Downgrade Program is because the company has put so much effort into making XP actually function over the years that it does meet user expectation at this point. If you go back in time 6-7 years, you can see Microsoft faced with the same question of direction in OS development that Apple took a stand on yesterday.

  1. Focus work on XP and deliver core refinements that make the OS better, more stable, more expandable, more cooperative with more hardware, and increase performance and security... OR

  2. Do everything in option 1, plus take several years to re-jigger the interface and add a bunch of eye-candy to the mix, completely changing the way users interact tactilely and visually with the OS, because then we'll actually have something to talk about.

Vista, as it turns out, is the result of choosing option 2.

Leopard, on the other hand, is both widely accepted as structurally excellent, and functionally elegant. Users like to use it. They aren't actually screaming for new features. They're content with letting Apple define what it is they need to be excited about. Exposé. Dashboard. Bells. Whistles. Whatever. Apple is banking that they can cash in on this wide-eyed enthusiasm for the OS and take a break from delivering the bells and whistles, breathe deep and focus on building something truly next gen for the Mac platform.

While they're at it, they'll do something really special: they'll get the consumer public excited about core OS technology. 64-bit. Multi-threading. Multicore. OpenCL. Javascript. They'll have people using these terms, driving discussion they don't really understand, and setting an expectation around OS excellence in a way that others will have to emulate to address. Again.

Apple has a recent history of defining a market dialog. Yesterday, they did it again. The keynote may have been a snoozer, but the hidden gems are special. In the coming months, watch how the company frames their discussion on core technology. Watch how they make it special, interesting, compelling for all-comers.

For the record, I'll be buying a new iPhone. I don't care about the 3G. I don't really care about the GPS -- the current system actually works quite well for me. I need the memory. And my wife needs an iPhone of her own. When Jobs made the announcement for the first iPhone, he said they'd targeted 10 Million phones by the end of 2008. Given the announcements yesterday, I don't think 10 million is even in the cards -- they'll top 10 million before 10/1/08.