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Apple's Next Big Thing Is...Wait For It...

News out of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference this year was a bit of a letdown.

OK, Apple can't be expected to be a game changer all the time. We've become a bit spoiled over the years with the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod, the MacBook, iTunes, the Retina Display, Siri and the way it all works together.

But to be honest it feels like Apple's WWDC 2012, the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, is a bit of a snoozer. Product news at the conference, which in the past has sometimes stirred great excitement around the keynote, can be boiled down to: a new version of Apple's mobile operating system is coming this fall (presumably with the iPhone 5), the MacBook Pro is being revamped to bring it up to date, and the MacBook Air line is getting spec upgrades and a price cut.

The price drop should tell us something. Apple avoids them like the plague, usually preferring to upgrade the specs on a product and differentiate it ("make it sexy") enough that people are more than willing to pay a premium over rival products. The MacBooks have been good example of that, offering cutting-edge features like solid-state drives, "Thunderbolt" ports and svelte, minimalist designs that set them apart, Apple has been able to get a several-hundred dollar premium for them in comparison to similar laptops.

Alas, this year, with the introduction and heavy promotion of innovative Intel-designed Ultrabooks by competitors that not only match the MacBook Air line but best it in some cases, we could hope that Apple would rise to the challenge and push the envelope a bit. Instead, better specs and a $100 price cut on three of the four models. The last time Apple cut prices like that was the middle of 2009, when the country was suffering from the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

The MacBook Pro got a more significant revamp, including the first Retina Display on a traditional computer. Truth be told, the burden of making a Retina Display work is almost more trouble than it's worth.

Programs have to be rewritten to accommodate the display, and if not they most often appear worse  than before. Apple marketing guru Phil Schiller, in defending the move, points out that surfing the web "can be like print quality" in Safari, Apple's web browser, although at this point not in other browsers. Other advantages seem to be along the lines of HD-quality thumbnails alongside a full-HD video, all on one screen. Nice to have, but...worth several-hundred dollars? Some reviewers already say no.

Partly to blame for the letdown is the Apple rumor mill, which constantly works overtime. This year the great hope was for a peek at what's to come in a possible Apple ultra-smart TV, but there was no such offering.

The upgrade to Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 6, includes significant changes but nothing like Siri or FaceTime or multitasking or folders. Instead, the biggest change has more to do with Apple seeking a bigger piece of the pie than being a true improvement, that being the introduction of Apple Maps to displace Google Maps.

Apple is touting things like flyovers, spoken turn-by-turn navigation and crowd-sourced traffic information in Apple Maps. But in fact the first two will only be available on the iPhone 4S and new iPad. And Google already uses crowd-sourced traffic. Really, the only reasons for the map change are that Apple and Google are at war over Google's Android, and Apple wants the advertising dollars.

PassBook, too, seems more like a money grab than a true improvement, something to possibly compete with Google Wallet down the line. The ability to keep movie ticket and airline ticket information in one place is so trivial that similar functionality is included as a "gimme" in utility programs like AppBox.

The rest? Meh. Facebook integration sounds nice to have, the separate logins everywhere are annoying. FaceTime over 3G cellular will be nice to have.

Compare these moves with recently, or the radically different Windows 8 that attempts to bridge the gap between tablets and traditional PCs. Microsoft looks like a positively innovative risk-taker in comparison.

Of all the Apple news, the most exciting to me was Amazon's announcement that it now has a Cloud Player for iOS, to go along with its Android and Web versions—the first complete cross-platform solution to storing and streaming your music from the cloud anywhere.

That's progress.

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