Apple did the thing they never do: they pre-announced a highly anticipated announcement. Apple is also about to do the other thing they never do, or so everybody’s saying: they’re going to let a Spring and Summer come and go without launching a new iPhone. Of course, Apple is all about lulling us into a comfortable rhythm of “knowing what Apple does,” only to switch things up entirely without explanation or warning. It’s part of how they build hype, generate free publicity and keep competitors guessing and consumers on their toes. It’s smart business, frankly, for as long as it works.

Tuesday’s press release out of Cupertino announcing that Steve Jobs and his executive team will show off iOS 5 and iCloud, along with the previously previewed OS X 10.7 Lion, to open next Monday’s WWDC conference was as unexpected as it was hard to decipher. Like I said, Apple never pre-announces announcements. So the question was immediately begged: Are iOS 5 and iCloud so amazing that Jobs & Co. are happily laying all of their keynote cards on the table in order to set the stage for a game-changing show of software and services? Or, is there so much more in store for Monday morning that Apple’s PR team leaked the high-level stuff in order to leave room in the keynote for the juicy details? Details – if you believe the rumors – like system-level Twitter integration, cloud-based streaming iTunes for music, movies and TV shows, and a people finder to help you keep tabs on your family and friends’ whereabouts.

And what about the next iPhone? Apple could be transparently managing expectations by getting the word out ahead of time that WWDC ’11 is, in a return to form, all about developers (software previews, maybe some pro hardware upgrades) and not consumers (new iPhone). Or, they could be craftily setting the stage for one of those “One more thing…” product unveils that we’ve come to expect just about every time Steve Jobs shows up anywhere in public.

Here’s the latest crowdsourced wisdom regarding what Apple will have to say next Monday morning, along with a few dashes of my own “expert” analysis to boot. Whatever goes down at WWDC, we’ll bring it to you in real time on June 6th!

iOS 5 and Twitter … and Facebook? or Flickr? and OS X?

  • The big new rumor here surrounds system-level integration of Twitter in the next version of iOS. The more astute students of Apple rumor history among you will recall a video of a white iPhone 4 running a never-released version of iOS 4 that featured system-level Facebook integration. Now we’ve got somewhat similar reports of Apple cozying up to Twitter, in the form of “Send to Twitter” buttons popping up in all photo-related iOS 5 menus. As John Gruber points out, photo sharing would only be the tip of the iceberg should Apple and Twitter have indeed struck a deal for system-level integration of the social media service in Apple’s mobile OS.
  • If iOS is, in fact, going to the cloud in a big way, why stop at Twitter? Apple’s already integrated Facebook, Flickr and YouTube sharing into iPhoto for OS X (and iOS’ Camera app), so why not go full on with social media integration on iOS? I mean, just imagine a mobile phone that let you see contact info, photos and status updates from your social networks right there in your local address book? It’d be amazing! It’d be … just like Android 🙂 Seriously, though, the time is right for a full-on Apple assault on the world of socially connected devices. Apple likes to wait until bleeding edge technologies and trends go mainstream before they work them into their own offerings. Social media’s obviously here to stay (at least for this current bubble we’re in) and Ping hasn’t exactly taken off, so why not reinvent Apple as the connected platform of choice? That joke about making iOS just like Android when it comes to things like integrated address books is no joke – it’d be entirely within Apple’s historical M.O. for them to unveil an iOS 5 with very HTC Sense/webOS Synergy-like social networking integration and successfully sell it as the best thing to hit phones since the App Store.

  • Then there’s that new Photobucket-hosted photo service that Twitter just announced. The headless girl in the promo video above? Totally using an iPhone and MacBook to share her photos. Not saying that means anything, just sayin’. For real, though, Apple wasn’t about to roll out dual “Send to Twitter via TwitPic” and “Send to Twitter via Yfrog” buttons in iOS – Twitter needed an in-house photo service to do a deal like this.
  • And, oh yeah, Apple’s really got to do something about notifications in iOS 5. And possibly widgets, too. We’ve been over that before, but I’ll just say this: I’d love to see what widgets would look like on an iPad, but it’s very hard for me to imagine Apple throwing all sorts of info onto an iPhone’s home screen, let alone its lock screen. It just seems so antithetical to the whole clean, simple vibe of iOS. That said, widgets and better notifications are at the top of many an iOS user’s wish lists.

iTunes, iCloud and that Data Center

  • Apple officially announced iCloud earlier this week, saying only that they’d be talking about “their upcoming cloud services offering” during the WWDC keynote. iCloud will no doubt replace the ill-fated MobileMe service that currently offers wireless syncing of contacts, calendars, photos and other personal information between the cloud and various iOS, OS X, and PC devices.  Speculation abounds that iCloud will tie together all sorts of currently existing integration between iOS/OS X and online services, ranging from photo sharing to a Dropbox-style file sharing service perhaps tied into the “Airdrop” feature already announced for OS X Lion. What’s known for sure is that Steve Jobs has long been dissatisfied (to put it mildly) with the version of MobileMe current available, so if he’s going to be involved in the launch of a new cloud offering, it’s bound to be a drastically revamped take on what Apple’s currently got.
  • Two quickie iCloud rumors that make sense to me: 1. A people finder service similar to Find my iPhone that lets iCloud users track the whereabouts of other participating iCloud users like family members and Facebook friends … and for finding lost MacBooks, too! and; 2. A related, much-enhanced version of Gallery that brings together iPhoto’s existing maps functionality with real-time social networking information to create a living scrapbook of text/photo/video memories tagged according to time, location, and people involved. Think Path. Or, heck, think Kin Studio. Whatever Kin’s massive failings, Kin Studio was a pretty cool idea.
  • It’s been widely reported that Apple is on the verge of signing deals with at least three of the four major music labels that would allow them to start offering a streaming, or cloud-based, version of iTunes. Apple’s system will reportedly outdo similar offerings from Amazon and Google in that users won’t have to manually upload their own music files to an online locker; instead, Apple would host a repository of music themselves and stream tracks to match what’s in users’ local iTunes libraries. The upshot here is that Apple’s service would be easier to use than their competitors, thus allowing the company to charge for it. One hurdle still to be cleared: Apple needs to get music publishers to sign up alongside the labels to gain all of the necessary licenses to run this sort of service.
  • Less publicized reports have Apple in hot-and-heavy 11th hour discussions with TV and Movie studios to get them in the iTunes Cloud, too. CNET and TechCrunch have more in-depth analysis around this, but the jist is similar to the music model: Store your entertainment content on Apple’s servers, not your own hardware, and access it wirelessly when you want it. As TC’s MG Siegler points out, this could be more important for TV and movies than music simply because video files take up so much room on local hard drives. A season’s worth of a TV show in 720p HD will eat up that iPhone’s internal storage right quick; stream that same bunch of shows from the iCloud and you’ve got tons more room for apps on your device.
  • Apple’s massive North Carolina data center also just started showing up in Google satellite images (see photo above). Everyone and his mom has long speculated that said data center was being built – at a cost of $1 Billion – primarily to handle the massive data needs of a cloud-based iTunes service. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt wonders how they were able to keep it off of Google Maps until after iCloud was officially announced earlier this week. Conspiracy theories, anyone? Conspiracy theorists, don’t forget that Google’s Eric Schmidt casually mentioned Monday night that Google and Apple have renewed their Maps agreement.

One More Thing …

  • I doubt we’ll see new hardware announced at WWDC. If we do, I’m betting it’ll be some kind of hardcore workstation/server offering, and not something so consumery as new iPhones. What I think we will see is a price and a ship date for OS X Lion, perhaps along with iCloud (though I’m thinking that’ll roll out alongside iOS 5 and iPhone 4S/5 in September). Rumors have Apple pricing Lion “aggressively,” so likely somewhere between the rock bottom $29 they asked for Snow Leopard and the usual $129 for a major OS upgrade. Same rumors also have iCloud being thrown in for free with purchase of a Lion license. Well, an iTunes-less version of iCloud would be free. Adding Apple’s new streaming music service to your cloud would run you a bit more. Makes sense to me.
  • And oh yeah, maybe a shipping version of the new Final Cut Pro? I’m pretty geeked out over that one myself.

And you? Look into your apple-scented bowl and read the tea leaves – what are they predicting for Monday’s WWDC keynote?

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