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.

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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.