With only a couple of weeks until Apple's big developer event, the company has to match Google's feature-heavy Android and app updates from I/O, Microsoft's new media-friendly Xbox One and keep generating hardware magic in what is becoming a highly predictable market.
Exploring Those Unknown Unknowns
Beyond what is likely to happen, there's always the chance Apple could drop a surprise or two at the upcoming WWDC developer event. We wonder if Microsoft's unveiling of the Xbox One will encourage Apple to get a move on with its own iTV/HDTV project? Microsoft is making a massive play for TV, interactive TV and streaming media content with its new console, and since Xbox is the Redmond company's only real consumer success, poses a direct threat to Apple's plans for the living room.
A Microsoft exec says Apple hopes to sell between 400 million to a billion Xbox Ones, potentially putting a major crimp in other home media players' ambitions. Whatever Apple's device/platform is, perhaps WWDC isn't the place to show it, but Apple might want to let the world know that it has major customer experience plans ahead of June's major E3 trade show. That's where Microsoft and Sony will really start trumpeting the new Xbox and PlayStation, generating a tidal wave of consumer interest for the consoles later this year.
Outside the living room, Apple will looking to shoehorn its iOS devices into more cars through better integration, something BlackBerry was keen to show off at its BBLive developer event recently. With improved road awareness, local and traffic information a big deal for commuters, Apple has a chance to reinvigorate its Maps offering with improved navigation that is more aware and interactive (cheaper petrol at this station, child-friendly area there, avoid the slow convoy that folks are moaning about on Twitter here) than the standard turn-by turn approach.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with Google, Microsoft and even Yahoo gradually crafting impressive cloud content services, Apple has to is overdue in producing a credible update to iCloud to make it something worth shouting about. Deep integration into iTunes, Game Center, users' photos and video and other areas are all needed. Perhaps this is the critical area where Apple will focus on this year?
And The Known Unknowns
Apple heads into WWDC with updates for OS-X among the tricks already firmly up its sleeve. Websites are already seeing hits from devices running iOS 7, and there's been plenty of news on Jony Ive's efforts to drive simplicity back into the design. Just how long Apple can keep all that information under wraps (better Flickr integration is supposed to be one of the features) before something leaks is just part of the usual game.
Then there's the new iPhone 5S and retina iPad mini devices, assuming Apple decides to reveal them at a developer event, and not at a specific media frenzy later. With Google deciding not to reveal any new hardware (bar the stock Android Galaxy S4), perhaps Apple will follow suit and let its software do the talking. In which case it will need sparkling new apps, features and coding tricks in the OSs and WebKit to excite developers and the wider audience.
Apple often shows off some new Mac hardware at WWDC, and faces notionally increasing competition from Google's ChromeBook Pixel outside the Windows Ultrabook market. The MacBook Air is due for a refresh, which might be a highlight. What are the odds on Apple producing a combi-MacBook Air that's a super-size 11" iPad when detached? That would get quite some attention, despite Apple's stated reticence for merging devices.
Talking the Talk
Finally, Apple could use the keynote (scheduled for the opening Monday) to reiterate a few things that should put a shine back on its mildly tarnished image. There's the 50 billionth app download to celebrate, the fact that its one of the few device companies making any money, despite, Android's huge market share, only Apple and Samsung are really profiting from hardware. Recent launches by rivals Nokia, BlackBerry and others are resulting in modest sales at best.
It can also hammer home the message that profit, not market share is the important metric. Apple's last quarter number proved how robust its market is, and loyal its users are, something the company is likely to want to celebrate. Of course, Apple being Apple, it could throw any number of surprises at the show, what would you like to see most?