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No cheap iPhones from Apple at WWDC

With just days to go before Apple executives take the stage at the company's annual developer conference, the rumor mill has gone into its usual last-minute overdrive, with speculation about everything from $99 iPhones to an appearance by CEO Steve Jobs serving as grist for the Apple mill.

Only next Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote will reveal what was only rumor, and what was spot on. But that didn't stop a pair of analysts — Van Baker of Gartner and Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research — from placing bets as to what will make the news June 8.

By and large, they were much more conservative than the aggregate pre-WWDC gossip, and took the line that while there will be much Apple will talk up, there will be less than the company faithful want.

New iPhones: Almost everyone, including Baker and Gottheil, are in agreement on new iPhone hardware. While Apple won't put new iPhones on sale Monday, it will certainly preview them, as now-absent CEO Steve Jobs did at last year's WWDC, they both said.

“They'll have new [iPhone] hardware, probably with a faster processor, likely with video capabilities, maybe with a few other new features,” said Baker.

Video, in fact, has been one of the ever-present rumors for the iPhone, with buzz about everything from video recording to video chat. Gottheil was on board for that one, too. “I won't be surprised if Apple adds a lot to the new iPhone, such as a compass, a microphone and speaker [for voice recording], a better [still] camera or a video camera,” he said.

Lots of iPhones: While some bloggers have reported on clues that Apple may unveil as many as four new iPhone models next week, including a 4GB device priced at $99, both analysts remain skeptical.

“I think the one thing they need to do is have a line of iPhones,” said Baker. “Apple needs more than a single point product to have a large installed base.” But he wouldn't go so far as to claim that Apple would issue a quartet of iPhone models on Monday. “What makes sense is not one, but two models, a low and a high. They might do that.”

Gottheil, though, countered. “I can't believe that they'd introduce a broad array of iPhones, or [introduce] a bottom-of-the-line one that has less functionality than the existing iPhone 3G,” he said, referring to rumors of a low-end $99 iPhone. “They may lower the price [of the existing $199 model] and introduce new ones above that, that's something that Apple does.”

Lower iPhone prices, lower-priced plans from AT&T: Talk of cheaper iPhones, cheaper data plans from AT&T — perhaps a $10 cut or a pay-as-you-go metered plan — has been bandied about by bloggers. Gottheil's not buying it.

“I think Apple and AT&T have reached the point where it's not the initial price of the iPhone that's a barrier,” he said. “I think it's a joint decision by the two companies to keep prices where they are, because of AT&T's network capacity.”

By Gottheil's reasoning, if Apple dramatically lowered the price of the iPhone and AT&T cut the cost of its plan, the result would be even more iPhones in use. “AT&T could probably increase total revenue, but can they sustain a far larger number of working iPhones? I don't think so.”

Apple's answer to netbooks: The aggressive market share gains by netbooks — the small, lightweight and inexpensive PC notebooks — has Apple on the outside of the sales shift. Chatter about how it will respond has been intense since last fall, and has picked up this year. Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, added his voice to the tablet concept two weeks ago, but pegged 2010 as the year Apple will make its move.

Neither Baker or Gottheil expect to see an Apple executive holding one overhead at WWDC's keynote. “I don't think we'll see a tablet or netbook of any flavor Monday,” said Baker.

“In the long term, Apple has to have some kind of entry between the iPhone and the Macs, and I've been hoping to see some kind of preview next week,” said Gottheil, who has long beaten the drum about a souped-up iPod Touch, a “Touch on steroids.”. “But I've realized in the last weeks that that's unlikely.”

Snow Leopard: A year ago, Jobs trumpeted Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard, the next version of Apple's operating system. At last June's WWDC, Apple said that the new OS would be ready “in about a year.”

That year is here, but Baker and Gottheil agreed that Apple won't launch the upgrade next week.

Not that Snow Leopard will be pushed into the background. “Snow Leopard will take center stage along with the iPhone,” said Baker. “I don't quite know what to expect, but I would think that there would be [previews] of some significant new features.”

Gottheil disagreed. “They might have some feature in their pocket,” Gottheil said, “but it's hard to believe that if they do, it hasn't leaked out.”

Instead, Gottheil's looking toward an “early fall” release date for Snow Leopard, and some slick demonstrations of the progress Apple has made in what the company has described as strictly a performance and stability upgrade. “They'll do some kind of side-by-side demo [with Leopard and Snow Leopard], maybe with video or image editing, to show how Snow Leopard goes considerably faster.”

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