Apple's Likely iPhone WWDC Debut Lacks Element of Surprise

Apple will likely debut the next generation of the iPhone at its 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference June 7. Possible details of the device have already leaked to the public, thanks to a high-profile breakdown of a "lost" prototype by tech blog Gizmodo, as well as a later leak on a Vietnamese online forum. Those leaks, combined with increased competition from rivals such as Google's Android smartphone operating system, suggest that Apple may need an additional announcement or other game-changer at the WWDC if it wants to maintain its perception as the strongest competitor in the smartphone space.

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs takes the stage at the company's 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco June 7, the general expectation is that he'll unveil the next-generation iPhone. Unlike previous Apple releases, however, some element of surprise has likely been lost, thanks to leaks of device prototypes earlier this year.

In April, tech blog Gizmodo posted images and video of what it called the next-generation iPhone prototype, which had supposedly been lost by an Apple engineer in a German beer garden in northern California. The prototype included a front-facing camera module, potentially for video conferencing, as well as a larger battery and high-definition screen.

A few weeks later, Vietnamese online forum Taoviet also posted video and images of a supposed next-generation iPhone prototype, which bore a number of similarities to the Gizmodo version.

That pair of leaks were particularly surprising, given Apple's long history of keeping a successful lockdown on devices ahead of their debut; despite the sheer amount of buzz surrounding the iPad, for example, Apple still managed to keep the majority of the tablet's key features out of public eye before its January unveiling.

But whatever the cause of the devices leaking to the media-Gizmodo's unit was supposedly "found" at that bar, and then sold to the blog's parent company for a sizable amount of money-the fact remains that Apple has long leveraged its tradition of secrecy to build anticipation for each new device's release. Lacking that element of surprise, the company may find itself in need of an additional feature or announcement-call it an X factor-to ensure this WWDC attracts the same level of buzz as previous events.

"If Apple comes out with a phone that is just a little bit better than the [iPhone] 3GS, people are going to feel Google is innovating quicker than Apple, which is what analysts are batting about right now," Michael Oh, president of Apple specialist Tech Superpowers, told eWEEK May 30. "If they come out with something revolutionary, something like what [Google mobile OS] Android is bringing to the table-wireless syncing-that could be huge."

This year's WWDC also opens at a time when competition within the smartphone market is reaching a fever pitch. The global smartphone business will double between 2010 and 2014, according to analysis firm iSuppli, with device shipments rising from 246.9 million units to 506 million units.

"Smart phones represent the hottest segment of the cell phone market, with unit shipment growth of 35.5 percent expected in 2010, compared with 11.3 percent for the overall mobile handset business," Tina Teng, an analyst with iSuppli, wrote in a June 7 research note. "Because of this, companies that are exclusively focused on this area, like Apple, have managed to move up to near the top tier of the global cell phone business. This shows that the smart phone is reshaping the competitive landscape of the wireless business."

In addition to the hardware device likely debuting on June 7, Apple has another armament against its competitors: the iPhone OS 4, which the company unveiled during an April 8 presentation at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. The new smartphone operating system's features include multitasking, which the iPhone has traditionally lacked, as well as the "iAd" platform, which allows developers to deliver mobile advertisements within apps themselves.

"We weren't the first to his party, but we're going to be the best," Jobs told the audience during that presentation, alluding to multitasking. Makers of Google Android devices, along with other competitors, have traditionally used the iPhone's lack of multitasking as a way to differentiate and market their own multitasking-happy products.

Whether that combination of hardware and software is enough for Apple to recapture public imagination, at a time when Android smartphones seem to be dominating a good deal of press attention, is something that'll likely be answered over the next few days.