WWDC Predictions

There's something a little distasteful about writing an Apple predictions post. Practically, what I'm doing right now is giving one of the richest, best-known companies in the world some free advertising, and at the same time taking an opportunity to feel better about myself by dropping a David-is-Right bomb onto this unsuspecting blog-ulace, a passive-aggressive tic that may explain why I don't have many friends and my fiancée sighs a lot.

So why do it?

Because in addition to being a successful maker of consumer products, Apple are also the leading designers of software user experiences in the world. In every iOS version, and every now and then in Mac OS X, Apple introduces some new structure or flow for working with our digital bits that influences everything that comes after it, and thereby our expectation of how such structures should work. Unlike the last few WWDCs where new software has had to share a stage with a major iPhone hardware refresh, tomorrow's keynote is going to cover only software, and that's really exciting.

We're in the middle of a fundamental shift in how human culture works, and with each new generation of software, mobile user interfaces, and Web-based ones to a lesser extent, shape and will continue to shape our cognitive model of the world and each other. (As for desktop user interfaces, they're still important if only in that they're how the mobile and web-based ones get made.)

Anyway, prediction time. Now that iOS devices have multitasking, there are only two areas where any other mobile platform have a feature advantage: notifications and over-the-air updates. I predict both of these will get serious attention in iOS 5.

Of the three products being talked about today, iCloud (a "new cloud services offering") is the most mysterious. My hunch is that in a nutshell, iCloud will mean 'over-the-air everything'. In John Gruber's predictions write-up, he says his sources are saying iCloud is "the new iTunes", in that instead of syncing with the iTunes app on your computer, for some things you'll be able to sync with iCloud instead. Today you can download apps and books over the air, but have to go back to your PC to update music, videos, podcasts, ringtones, or iOS itself. iCloud won't be able to cloud-sync everything (videos, for example — Apple wasn't able to make a deal for those yet), but it'll cover most people's daily syncing needs, including backing up your data and updating iOS itself.

Once or twice a year a friend sends an email or text asking everyone to send them their phone numbers again, because their phone 'died' or 'broke' or 'fell in the toilet'. Some of those lost phones were even iPhones, which is how I learned many (most?) iOS users never sync their phones. Today you can sync your contacts over the air if you have MobileMe (but no one wants to pay $100 for that), or know how to set up Google Sync (which no normal person even knows it exists).

If iCloud can make backing up and restoring data effortless enough for ordinary folks to use it, that would be a huge win. But I'm really hoping that Apple will also expose iCloud services to developers, basically giving anyone developing an app access to a scalable cloud-syncing platform.

Apple generally does not follow a dot-commy "build it, then find a revenue stream" kind of strategy. Some parts of iCloud, like the music locker, will carry a price tag. The question will be which parts, and whether MobileMe will continue as a separate paid service (as it exists today), or be folded into iCloud. My guess is that the parts of MobileMe related to storage and syncing, such as iDisk, will be folded into iCloud, while the email service and stuff related to publishing and sharing content (photos, iWeb sites) will stick around for a while under the MobileMe banner. But I also think Apple has no illusions about being able to compete with Google, Yahoo, or Facebook: this new MobileMe will need to be either free, or essentially deprecated in favor of third-party services.

Speaking of which, another thing iCloud could provide: social networks as a system-level service. In iOS 4, developers can embed the system's email or SMS-sending functions into their apps very easily. Imagine if your iCloud account on Apple's servers could be hooked into your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and instead of logging in and authorizing every app that wants to post a tweet or photo individually you could just use a social update-posting controller built into the core OS.

Even if that's way too crazy an idea, it seems natural for Apple to add Facebook, Twitter and Flickr photo sharing to the Photos app.

Next, I expect Apple will fucking finally have a new way of dealing with notifications on iOS. Michael Lopp wrote eloquently over the weekend on why notifications matter and how iOS's current handling of them falls short. But if you own an iPhone you already know, because you've probably had to stand there punching one 'OK' or 'Dismiss' button after another, going through every notification you've received in the last few minutes. Or you've had the opposite experience, where you miss a notification without realizing it because iOS offers no way to review more than a couple of missed alerts at a time. I have no opinion or expectation for how Apple will fix this, only that it's time for it to get fixed.

As for things not covered above, I have no strong opinions. There will be cool new stuff, we'll all get excited, some of us will be upset or feel like Apple is doing it wrong, and all of it will ship when it's ready to ship. Lion will be shown off, perhaps in even more detail than when it was announced back in November, and I'm sure some iCloud goodness will have been sprinkled on in the interim. I believe the rumor about new, iCloud-connected AirPort/Time Capsule routers, and I'm curious to hear what they do and how they work. Not that this needs covering at a big developer event, but I'm really hoping they announce iBooks for Mac, to ship alongside Lion. There are some books coming out I'd love to read on a nice, big screen. An update to iWork for Mac — with autosaving and full-screen niceness — would be great, but that's probably out of scope for today's keynote.

When I was in high school in 1996, most of my relationship with my first girlfriend was conducted over AIM, which was a lot weirder then than it is now. We had dial-up modems and it felt like checking email more than once a day was excessive. Today's high-schoolers (and middle-schoolers, and some even younger than that) rely on networked communication in ways that folks like me could never have predicted. This is possible today because everyone has a little computer in their pocket, powered by software interfaces easy enough for anyone to use. The future of interaction is being developed today, in increments, and whatever Apple shows off today will be part of that. If today's announcements do include a comprehensive platform for hooking iOS devices up to the cloud, it'll be a pretty big part.

Time to get excited and make things.