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What to expect from Apple at WWDC 2017

Software updates may be the least important news this year.
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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As a rule, Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference is predictable: New versions of iOS, macOS and watchOS are the stars of the show, and anything else is gravy. WWDC 2017, however, is shaping up to be different. Although there hasn't been much talk about what the new software will entail, the rumor mill has kicked into high gear with word of new Macs, new iPads and even a smart speaker. All told, operating systems may actually be the least exciting part of Apple's keynote. But which products are likely to steal the spotlight, and which ones are just wishful thinking? That's what we're here to sort out.

A Siri speaker in your living room

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Here's something you haven't seen in a while: the prospect of Apple introducing a completely new device at its developer conference. Rumors are swirling of that the company will unveil a Siri-controlled speaker at WWDC, overshadowing virtually anything else Apple would otherwise discuss at the keynote. It might not ship until sometime later in the year (likely to give developers time to support it), but production may have already started.

As you might expect, the speaker would represent Apple's answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home. It would likely handle many of the tasks that Siri already does on your iPhone, such as checking the weather, playing music and controlling HomeKit gear -- you just wouldn't have to pick up a gadget to listen to songs or turn on your lights. The speaker could be particularly important if you want to control your household when you're away because you currently need to use an Apple TV or iPad as a hub to control your HomeKit-compatible devices remotely.

There hasn't been much discussion of the speaker's design, but Bloomberg believes it would stand out from the pack by focusing on audio quality. You'd enjoy louder, crisper sound than what you typically get from rivals like Echo or Home. It might also incorporate virtual surround sound that would provide a more immersive experience. There has even been talk of Apple including ambient noise sensors to adjust the volume when you're talking, but it's not clear that this feature made the cut before production began.

New MacBooks

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A speaker might not be the only hardware introduced on stage. Apple is rumored to be updating its laptop line at WWDC, possibly in an attempt to underscore its renewed support for the Mac. The most credible rumors, again from Bloomberg, suggest that these would mostly be under-the-hood updates. Both the MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook would jump to seventh-generation Intel Core (aka Kaby Lake) processors that promise both faster performance and longer battery life. They might support more memory, too. Customers have complained that the MacBook Pro's maximum 16GB of RAM isn't enough to handle heavy workloads, and there have been hints that the laptop will support as much as 32GB with its next refresh. The more diminutive MacBook might also support as much as 16GB, although that's clearly not as vital an upgrade given that it's only designed for basic tasks.

There's some tangible evidence to back up these claims. Apple recently delayed shipping times for 15-inch MacBook Pro orders, pushing their delivery to the day after the WWDC keynote. The Cupertino firm frequently stalls orders like this when it's clearing out inventory for an outgoing device, so that's as strong a sign as any that something is afoot.

Don't get your hopes up for a MacBook Air update, though. Although the same Bloomberg rumor had Apple considering an Air refresh, neither the filings nor other clues point to an imminent upgrade. If there is one, we'd expect it to fly under the radar. This would be a maintenance update that does just enough to keep Apple's most affordable system relevant in 2017 -- hardly something you'd want to crow about in a keynote. You might see a switch to seventh-gen Core processors but not much more than that.

A 10.5-inch iPad

While Apple's mainstream iPad just received an update in March, the iPad Pro is more than a little overdue. Neither Pro model has been touched for more than a year, and they're based on a design that hasn't changed much since the original iPad Air in 2013. Where's a truly new iPad, one that pushes the concept forward? Thankfully, it sounds like you might get it at WWDC -- there's mounting buzz that an update is right around the corner.

If you believe Bloomberg, it's the long-rumored 10.5-inch iPad Pro that many expect to replace the 9.7-inch edition. This would be more than just an upsized version of the slate you see today. Slimmer bezels would give it a footprint roughly comparable to its smaller sibling, so you wouldn't have to give up portability for the sake of a larger screen. The 10.5-inch tablet is likely to pack a faster processor (a souped-up version of the iPhone 7's chip, possibly called the "A10X"), and it might have a higher-resolution display to match. One IHS Markit analyst believes it could have a 2,224 x 1,668 LCD that slots in neatly between existing 9.7-inch iPads (2,048 x 1,536) and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2,732 x 2,048).

There isn't much else to know about the specs at this point, but we have found a few clues. Case leaks from Twitter's @ShaiMizrachi point to a familiar layout for the 10.5-inch iPad, including the stereo speakers you've seen on all Pro models so far. Also, Consomac has found Eurasian Economic Commission filings for four previously unknown iPad models split into two families. It's easy to guess that these may be WiFi and cellular versions of both the 10.5-inch Pro and another iPad, possibly a refreshed 12.9-inch model.

Just don't expect the iPad mini to get any attention at the same time. Apple only recently doubled the storage for the iPad mini 4, so it's doubtful that you'll see a more substantial upgrade a few months later. In fact, a BGR rumor claims that Apple might drop the mini in the long run. This tiniest of iPads reportedly doesn't sell well compared to its larger counterparts, and the iPhone 7 Plus is close enough for some buyers. Bigger iPads are the future, and WWDC could reflect that.

Software: iOS, macOS and Siri's future

Apple's software plans would normally take center stage in one of our WWDC previews. This is a developer conference, after all. But thus far, there have been precious few credible hints as to what Apple will announce. This isn't to say that this year's updates will be low-key -- it's just that Apple may be keeping a lid on secrets this year.

In a Bloomberg interview, Apple's Jimmy Iovine mentioned that iOS 11 would include a new Music app that does a better job with videos. Projects like Carpool Karaoke might fit better into the app, something that'll help Apple push more exclusive video content going forward. Also, there are longstanding rumors of improved iPad support across all of iOS. You could use the Pencil to annotate all kinds of content, such as websites or email messages. This certainly makes sense if there's a 10.5-inch iPad in the works, since Apple has been keen to demonstrate that iPads can serve as PC replacements. And Apple has been dropping hints that iOS 11 may go 64-bit only, such as warnings that 32-bit apps will stop working in "future versions" of iOS.

When it comes to the Mac, there's even less to say -- we're practically limited to speculation. One theory is plausible, though: Given that Apple File System launched on mobile devices with iOS 10.3, it stands to reason that macOS is next in line. If so, you could expect speedier, more secure storage that's better-optimized for Macs with solid-state drives.

We haven't heard anything about new versions of watchOS or tvOS, so any big features will come as surprises.

Instead, the greater focus might be on a common thread for all of Apple's software: AI. It's no secret that Apple has been making heavy investments in AI, and WWDC could be an ideal venue to showcase improvements, whether they apply to Siri or individual apps. Some of Apple's acquisitions may indicate what's on deck. Turi, for example, helps detect patterns and personalize content. Siri might be better at understanding your requests by recognizing what you tend to look for while iOS might be more proactive when suggesting photos or music.

Improvements to Siri could be particularly crucial this year. If there really is a Siri speaker, its success could hinge on high-quality AI; it has to answer common requests as well as an Echo or Home. And few would doubt that rivals like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana have distinct advantages over Siri on any device, such as Google's access to its powerful search engine. Although we wouldn't expect a total revolution in Siri's abilities, it probably can't remain as-is for much longer.

Wildcards: Mac Pros and iMacs

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You can never completely rule out surprises at Apple events, even if WWDC's focus limits the kind of introductions you're likely to see. And there are certainly a few candidates this year.

One such possibility is a very early preview of the redesigned Mac Pro. Apple revealed the current workstation's design at WWDC 2013, months ahead of its release, and it wouldn't be shocking if there were a repeat showing as the company reassures developers worried about the fate of pro Mac desktops. But the new Mac Pro is still a long ways away (it's not expected until sometime in 2018), and there may not be much point to showing it off if Apple isn't ready to provide the finished specs.

Augmented reality might also show up, since Apple has been very open about its interest in AR technology. With that said, there aren't any believable rumors of Apple having something it can show at WWDC. We've heard that it could be testing AR glasses, but they might not ship until 2018, if not later. At best, you'll get a sneak peek.

If there's a relatively realistic wild card, it might be the pro iMacs that Apple confirmed back in April. The company was only willing to commit to a "later in 2017" release at the time, but some of the hardware needed to make this all-in-one is available now. Notice how Intel's new Core i9 chips have the abundance of cores that pros crave? No, they're not Xeons, but they could easily fit the bill if you need to compile code or edit 4K videos. It may just be a matter of whether or not Apple is willing and able to use these parts quickly. We wouldn't be surprised if these high-performance iMacs weren't unveiled until the fall.

Image credits: Reuters/Stephen Lam; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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