Apple's developer show: Nothing to see here?

Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is coming up next week, and Steve Jobs will keynote with the enthusiasm one expects from a billionaire geek who's addressing the crowd responsible for his non-iPod wealth. Signups for the conference were high early on, thanks to the anticipated delivery of Leopard (which was subsequently delayed until October) and maybe a shot at grabbing an iPhone (which won't be available to conference-goers but will ship at the end of June). Does this leave Steve with nothing to brag about?

Portents indicate otherwise. Apple timed the introduction of new Apple TV features (larger hard drive, Internet-direct YouTube viewing) as well as the delivery of new MacBook Pro models to make a splash in the press before WWDC. That seems odd given that both would have made nifty keynote surprises that would have helped salve attendees' disappointment over Leopard and give the media a big basket of news to report from the show's opening day.

Putting on my strategic thinking cap, it seems to me that these "lesser" product introductions were intended to clear keynote time and to focus WWDC attendees and the media on iPhone. If I were putting Steve's slides together, I'd give developers take-aways from their week at WWDC that they can actually show off and talk about. As awesome as Leopard will be, Apple has sewn developers' lips shut regarding any Leopard details that aren't on Apple's Web site, including its rich and welcoming development environment.

Apple needs to focus on iPhone as a platform for custom applications.

Despite the fact that iPhone won't ship for a couple of weeks, Jobs could pull a deafening standing ovation out of the crowd by showing iPhone development tools, which will have to include a device simulator, at WWDC. If this is in the cards and Jobs hews to his crafty presentation style, attendees might see a demo of iPhone that is only revealed to be running in a simulator after the demo has been finished.

My hopes that Apple will make a huge fuss over iPhone development (I wish it would do the same for Apple TV, but Apple TV seems certain to get the closed iPod treatment) reflect a personal desire to get my hands deep into mobile OS X development. As I've said before, a serious push into mobile development also strikes me as a strategic necessity. That's precisely how Apple's key competitors see it, especially Microsoft.

I'm filing this column from Microsoft Tech-Ed, which is enterprise-heavy and has a quieter, but to me, more vital core of mobile and embedded development. Windows Mobile 6 is here in force, and tonight, I'm going to get my hands on a new .Net embedded platform based on Meridian, a new ultra-low-power microcontroller that runs .Net Micro Framework. In a ready-to-run configuration that includes a color LCD panel driver, Meridian will cost US$39. My IT-focused readers will find that a bit esoteric, but the ability to use dynamic languages and familiar development tools puts .Net developers in the catbird seat. Their skills now make them marketable for projects targeting everything from enterprise servers to the set-top boxes to sensors, and all stops in-between. Make no mistake: Mobile and embedded will turn out to be the green field, in terms of running room, power efficiency and revenue, for developers and commercial software. It's a cure for developer ennui, and commercially, mobile and embedded dwarf PCs in deployed units and the pace of evolution.

While a fair bit of the PR focus at WWDC may be Leopard versus Vista, I'm waiting to see how Apple responds to Microsoft's substantially raised ante in systems with no moving parts. Wooing developers away from Windows means making it worth Apple developers' time to learn the ways of the Mac platform and the smaller platforms, like Apple TV and iPhone, derived from it. The WWDC keynote will have developers and the media drooling over a demo of the finished iPhone, fresh demos of Leopard (which ought to benefit feature-wise from its delay) and the incredible Xcode 3.0 tool set. But to pull developers to the Mac and keep them there, Apple needs to give its coders an easily-crossed bridge to mobile and embedded that enhances the reach of their skills. If Apple fails to deliver, it will fail to attract Microsoft developer mind share and the rich array of platform-selling advanced applications that go with it.

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