June 7, 2013 at 5:37 PM ET
There will always be Apple fanboys and Apple haters, but both factions — and everyone in between — can sense that Apple is at a turning point. Like other companies that have achieved monster profits through innovation, and then pivoted to protect those profits, Apple appears a bit stalled. Sales are actually up, but excitement is down. And with no iPhone redesign this year, people are looking to something else, something even bigger, to bring the drool factor back to Apple products: A totally redesigned iOS.
On Monday, Apple executives will kick off the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. The biggest news of the day will revolve around the seventh version of the iOS mobile operating system — plus an update to the increasingly second-fiddle OS X that powers Mac computers. There may be some hardware goodies (upgraded MacBook Air models are the current best guess) but this show is all about interface.
"The funny thing is that everyone talks about hardware, but the operating system is what they engage with the most," Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, tells NBC News.
Just think of how many people will be affected by Monday's iOS 7 reveal. Apple sold over 140 million iPhones and over 70 million iPads in the last year alone. Not only will the free OS upgrade apply to every one of those devices, it will also likely apply to another 100 million or so earlier devices still in use. More than 300 million devices potentially getting a free overhaul? Yeah, that matters. Big time.
So what'll it look like?
Thin, minimalist, clean. Those are the buzz words for the iPhone's coming aesthetic revolution. It shouldn't be a surprise, given that Apple's software development is now overseen by Sir Jony Ive, the same guy who's been responsible for Apple's thin, minimalist and clean hardware designs for the last 15 years.
"The bar is pretty high, because Jony Ive is perceived as the best mind in industrial design," Munster says. "There's a lot of optimism that he can do something that is really going to appeal to people — something that'll keep Android in check."
iOS 7 will be "black, white and flat all over," according to sources cited by 9to5Mac's Mark Gurman. Gone is the "gloss, shine and skeuomorphism," a nerdy word for all that fake leather, wood grain and yellow notebook paper found in the current iOS.
Besides getting a cleaner look, Gurman reported that the iOS 7 update will give iPhones the ability to reveal more information at a glance, a trait praised in Android and Windows Phone, and notably lacking on Apple products. The iOS interface can get cluttered "with screens and screens of icons," Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, told NBC News, saying that iOS needs an improved "top interface layer" like the ones found on the screens of the competition.
But will iOS 7 do more?
Apple watchers believe that it's not just the look and feel that will change.
Rubin says there's a "big opportunity" for devices to communicate directly with one another. "On Mac, there's a technology called AirDrop, which allows you to send files from one Mac to another, but it doesn't work with an iPad," he said. "Meanwhile, Samsung devices can engage in a lot of communication ... you can tap the devices to exchange different kinds of content."
Munster says that iOS 7 will also lay the foundations for new hardware, such as a phone that can handle payments. "It's not gonna get announced next week, but the next thing is that your phone is gonna become your wallet." After all, he said, "it's already your camera."
What else is up Apple's sleeve?
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently remarked that Apple will explore "new product categories" which it will "introduce this fall and throughout 2014." So perhaps we shouldn't set our expectations too high for Monday's event and instead daydream about what the slightly more distant future holds.
There are very persistent rumors that Apple will launch a radio-like music streaming service. Bloomberg's Adam Satariano has sources suggesting that this service will be ad-supported, relying on Apple's own iAd network. It could be a direct competitor to Pandora. As timely as that would be, as iTunes just turned 10 and is starting to show its age, observers think that the so-called "iRadio" launch likely won't happen until the fall.
"The music service ... that seems more likely for September," Munster said, citing the company's more music-focused "iPod" events.
The same would go for any new iPhones, iPads and iPods, all of which are currently on a fall update schedule — and most Macs have been refreshed quite recently as well. The craziest rumors have swirled around an iWatch, while expectations for Apple's past-due iTV linger as well. Neither will be revealed Monday, though. If they are, one of us will eat a hat. On camera.
So while you can't expect too much in the hardware department except maybe a new laptop or two, what you should be eager to watch for are images and details of iOS 7. Because if that doesn't point to the future of Apple, we don't really know what will.