Weekly output: WWDC, tech policy, Web chat, prepaid iPhones

Happy Father’s Day, everyone. When I became a dad almost two years ago, a friend welcomed me to that new title by calling it “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I think he was right. And next to that, my last seven days of occupational output seem small in comparison.

6/11/2012: Apple’s WWDC News: iOS Hits The Road, Discovery News

After all of the pre-conference hype about Apple unveiling its own mapping solution for iOS 6, I found the reality presented at its Worldwide Developers Conference Monday morning in San Francisco to be a tad underwhelming and so ranked it fifth on my list of top-five WWDC announcements. Note that I had to update this post a couple of days later to reflect for the fact that this app will, contrary to Apple’s initial silence on the issue, include walking directions. But transit navigation could still be decidedly inelegant.

(Also note that I watched the keynote as almost all of you did: by viewing it online after Apple posted it a few hours later, on account of Apple not issuing me a WWDC press pass. I did, however, get a few peeks at iOS 6 from WWDC attendees Monday night.)

6/15/2012: TPS Report: The Election’s Missing Tech-Policy Issues, CEA Digital Dialogue

After mulling over two days of enlightening banter at the Tech Policy Summit, I wrote up a summary of that conference for CEA that closed by remarking on the allergy some Silicon Valley types have to engaging with Washington in any sustained manner. I may have to explore that at greater length in a future story–along with some other topics discussed at TPS, such as a proposal to hand governance of some core Internet protocols to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union and the debate in Europe over mandating a “right to be forgotten” online.

6/15/2012: Mobile Minded (Web chat), CEA Digital Dialogue

The monthly Web chat focused almost entirely on smartphones and tablets, as it should have a week after WWDC and a week and change before Google’s I/O developer conference. The curiosity about iOS 6′s Maps and Passbook apps in particular struck me, so I know to focus on those when I review iOS 6 sometime this fall. I also got at least two questions that should work well for my USA Today Q&A, so that’s good as well.

Now, for a tech-support question of my own: CoverItLive, the DemandMedia site that provides the chat system we’ve used so far, is essentially doing away with its free option at the end of this month. CEA may elect to pay up, but there are alternatives to consider (see, for instance, Digital First Media journalist Mandy Jenkins’ list); if you have any recommendations, I’d like to know about them.

6/17/2012: Cricket or Virgin: What’s best iPhone deal?, USA Today

Not long after Cricket Wireless surprised me by announcing that it would start selling the iPhone, Sprint’s Virgin Mobile USA revealed that it, too, would sell Apple’s iPhone 4 and 4S at a higher cost but lower rates than Cricket. This post compares these two offerings–Virgin comes out ahead in coverage and pricing–and notes one difference left out of most stories on the topic: Cricket’s iPhone will be internationally unlocked for use on GSM services overseas, while Virgin’s can’t be switched to any other carrier. The column closes out with a reminder about taking better photos with a phone.

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Relationship status with Apple PR: It’s complicated

SAN FRANCISCO–I’d planned to spend this morning covering the keynote opening Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference here. But after getting some optimistic replies from Apple PR over the last two weeks, I was told last Wednesday that they were out of room.

Apple Sept. 2010 press pass

My press pass at Apple’s Sept. 2010 event to introduce the redesigned Apple TV

An e-mail reiterating my interest (in addition to Discovery News, I had a tentative assignment from a larger regional newspaper to write up the keynote) and asking if Apple had concerns with my coverage or the scope of my potential audience yielded the same answer: sorry, nothing personal, we’re out of space.

This was not a total surprise. With Apple, working for a big-name media property does not guarantee access–while I was at the Post, smaller news organizations and even some individual bloggers got review hardware days before I ever could. But it’s also possible for a site to get an advance look at one year’s highly-anticipated Apple gadget and then get left out the next year.

I have written some uncomplimentary things about Apple–this rant about App Store rules comes to mind–and, as a Mac user, gripe about OS X issues often enough on Twitter. But  while I haven’t gotten any review hardware or media-event invitations from Apple since leaving the Post (when I reviewed the new iPad, I elected not to deal with Apple PR and worked out an alternate loan arrangement), its reps still return my e-mails and phone calls reasonably quickly, especially in recent months.

Since those steps don’t involve allocating scarce review hardware or seats in exhibit spaces, there’s always the ego-deflating possibility that my current outlets don’t promise enough exposure in Apple’s estimation. Or maybe it’s something else. With a company as set on keeping its own secrets as Apple, you never know.

At the same time, on a personal level the Apple publicists I’ve talked to have been among the nicer people I’ve met in my work. After I announced my exit from the Post, two of the first “good luck” e-mails I received came from people there. One wrote that he hoped our conversation at the iPad 2 introduction wouldn’t be the last time we met; I hope so too, but our next chat may take a while longer.

I’m not writing this to beg for sympathy or brag about my fierce journalistic independence. Apple has its job to do and I have mine, and most of that doesn’t require liveblogging product-launch events. Worst case, the money saved on three annual roundtrips to the Bay Area (for new-iPad, WWDC, and new-iPhone events) would more than cover buying all the Apple hardware or software I’d review in any year, even if I have to do the karma-denting move of returning a review iPhone to a carrier within two weeks to avoid getting stuck with a contract.

I am, however, writing this to document that covering this company involves a certain low-level angst I don’t get when dealing with some of its competitors. That imbalance amounts to another influence I need to factor out of my evaluations–customers don’t deal with Apple PR or anybody else’s. And now that I’ve talked about this issue instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, you’ll know to call me on it if you see it skewing my judgment.

How to follow a Stevenote

In an hour or so, a few hundred technology journalists–along with analysts, Apple employees and various invited guests–will stream into an auditorium in San Francisco’s Moscone West convention center. The occasion is the keynote opening Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

For once, the subjects of Steve Jobs’ keynote aren’t a mystery–Apple announced last week that it would cover iOS 5, the next version of the iPhone and the iPad’s operating system; Lion, the next release of Mac OS X; and its upcoming, still-undefined iCloud Web-based suite of services. But the style and content of the keynote (or “Stevenote” in the vernacular) shouldn’t be a mystery either.

Having covered more than few Stevenotes myself–for example, Macworld 2008, the introductions of the iPad and iPad 2, and last September’s relaunch of the Apple TV–I’ve gotten reasonably familiar with the genre. Here are a few things to watch for in coverage of today’s keynote, and in the video Apple will post on its site later today if it sticks to standard practice.

(To my fellow tech reporters covering it live: Good luck with the wireless! You’ll need it.)

  • The how-we’re-doing summary: Jobs keynotes often lead off with an upbeat recap of all the different ways that Apple has excelled, including data about iPhone sales, an update on the App Store’s inventory and sales, and a slide show of Apple’s recent store openings.
  • Trash-talking the competition: Next, you may see Jobs discussing how the competition has wasted its chance, building out a theme of “we may not be first to this market, but we’re going to be the best.” Watch this part and read any live coverage of it with great skepticism–it’s easy to filter out inconvenient statistics, and outright misquotes have been known to surface here.
  • Demo time: Jobs and a succession of product managers from Apple and other companies will show off how the new software or hardware looks and works. It’s easy to rig a demo–but because Apple refrains from showing off things it isn’t ready to ship, these are reasonably credible exhibits. But watch out if the WiFi melts down as it did in last year’s WWDC.
  • Promises of third-party support: The reality distortion field can get especially thick in this section, when Jobs and executives from Apple and other companies outline how the entire industry is coalescing around Apple’s new software, service or standard. But other firms can be stubborn, especially if they already fear Apple’s influence in a market sector: Nine months after the Apple TV debuted, in distinct contrast to early estimates from analysts, you don’t have a better selection of major networks renting shows on iTunes.
  • Optional nods to open standards or open source: Apple likes “openness” in principle, so it often touts that as a virtue in its products. Sometimes it’s for real: Apple not only built its Safari browser on the open-source foundation of KHTML, the company has since greatly improved its resulting WebKit open-source code base and brought it to smartphones–so if you use an Android, webOS or BlackBerry 6 phone, you can thank Apple for its browser. But at other times, the promises of openness in a Stevenote vanish in practice: A year after Jobs pledged to make FaceTime video calling an open standard, it remains closed.
  • Ship date and price: Unlike too many other tech companies, Apple doesn’t leave the audience guessing. Jobs will name a price and a date for the hardware, software or service being introduced. And the company almost always sticks to them (unless it’s the white iPhone we’re talking about).
  • Video break: Having outlined what a great product Apple has, Jobs will sometimes screen an ad or marketing video making the same points. If it’s an ad, he may even play it twice after saying something like “Wasn’t that great? Let’s watch it one more time.”
  • “One more thing”: Jobs loves to save one last surprise for the tail end of the keynote. My guess is that the odds of an OMT are a little higher this time around, since Apple has already outlined the main points of the keynote–why take all the fun out of the guessing game?

On that note, here’s this post’s “one more thing”: Remember that Apple isn’t always as big on incremental upgrades as other companies. You could consider that a downside of its intent on showing off new releases in a finished state. But either way, don’t buy its latest iThing thinking that subsequent maintenance releasees will quickly  fix what’s missing from it. Apple might grant your wishes in the next major yearly update–but that’s a long time to wait. And by then, you’ll have a new Stevenote to tantalize you.

Update, 5:39 p.m. You can watch the nearly two-hour keynote on Apple’s site if you have its QuickTime software installed. I’ve also fixed some spellcheck-proof typos in the first version.

How to react to Apple’s iCloud news: Remember that Apple isn’t Google

Apple did something ridiculous this morning: It outlined what it would announce at next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference. In a press release, it both quieted months of speculation by listing the products it plans to introduce at WWDC:

Lion, the eighth major release of Mac OS® X; iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s advanced mobile operating system which powers the iPad®, iPhone® and iPod touch®; and iCloud®, Apple’s upcoming cloud services offering.

Telling people what you’re going to talk about may be how most other tech companies operate, but not Apple. The Cupertino, Calif., company would rather play it coy–it asked journalists to witness the iPad’s unveiling on eight days’ notice in an e-mail vaguely headlined “Come see our latest creation.”

Knowing what Steve Jobs will show off during Monday’s keynote takes some of the drama out of the enterprise, but at the same time it also frees people to speculate even more about these particular products.

There’s the least mystery overall about Lion: Apple described its features last fall. The iOS 5 software for the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod touch shouldn’t involve too much guessing, since it ought to be obvious what Apple needs to fix: its notification system and its now-obsolete maps app, for starters. (Rumors also suggest that Apple will do the smart thing and offer some iOS equivalent of the widgets that let Android users tap into features of their applications from the home screens of their devices.)

But then there’s iCloud. Over the last few years–and especially since news emerged of the massive data center Apple has been building in North Carolina–this Web-based service has been seen as a 2.0 version of Apple’s $99-a-year MobileMe contacts/calendar/e-mail service, an overdue fix for data transfer between a Mac and an iPad, Apple’s response to the cloud-based music-streaming services of Amazon and others or, at its most ambitious, an ambitious suite of free and paid services that could finally give Apple an answer to Google’s array of Internet-hosted services and apps.

Any or all of those things could be true. But before you start daydreaming about the prospect of Apple taking on Google, remember that Apple isn’t Google.

I don’t mean that as an insult. Where Google often launches things in an unfinished state–as advertised with its usual “beta” label–Apple ships completed products. You usually don’t have to hope for the 1.1, 1.2 or 1.5 release that will bring the thing to fruition.

But at the same time, Apple products are less likely to improve over time than Google’s. There’s no better case for that than iCloud’s predecessor MobileMe: Although Apple tackled the reliability problems that made it unusable at its debut, it’s ignored numerous other opportunities to upgrade that service. Three years later, it has: no increase in its stingy 20 gigabytes of online storage; no mobile site to let you view your MobileMe data on a non-Apple phone; no Dropbox-elegant file synchronization; no sync tools to let you connect contacts or calendar apps besides Apple’s own Address Book and iCal and Microsoft’s Outlook; no options for third-party developers to write their own.

Apple’s other recent venture into Web services, the underwhelming iTunes Ping, has also quickly gone stale.

This represents a distinct contrast to the steady stream of iterative improvements you see in such Google Web apps as its mapping service and software–and in how Apple has built on each new advance in Mac OS X, its computers and its mobile devices. Apple’s inattention to MobileMe reminds me a lot more of how Yahoo has squandered the potential of its Flickr photo-sharing service.

I fully expect that, when spotlighted in a Steve Jobs keynote, iCloud will look great. It may even wow a lot of users when they can sign up from home. But unless there’s been a major change to Apple’s developmental DNA, that may be as good as iCloud will get for a long time.