By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
May 25, 2010

Can he really “blow Google out of the water” with his WWDC keynote?

Steve Jobs may come to regret that widely re-posted e-mail promising an Apple (AAPL) loyalist that he won’t be “disappointed” by the announcements the company has lined up for the Worldwide Developers Conference, which begins in San Francisco in less than two weeks.

However, if the 5,000 developers gathering at Moscone West leave Jobs’ keynote underwhelmed — as it seems increasingly likely that they will — it won’t be the first time.

In 2007 they came hoping to get the tools to write native applications for the brand new iPhone and were told to be happy with second-rate Web apps. In 2009 they came to see a reinvigorated Steve Jobs; what they got instead was warmed-over Phil Schiller.

The stakes are higher this year. The iPhone is three years old and no longer light-years ahead of the competition. In many respects, Google’s (GOOG) Android has caught up to and, in some ways, surpassed Apple. Even the iPad — a huge hit by any measure — is vulnerable. It won’t take competitors long to come out with me-too products with all the features the iPad lacks.

So what can Jobs do on June 7 to put Apple back in the lead? His options are limited:

  • A new iPhone. If the 4th generation iPhone with its forward-facing camera is Jobs’ big one-more-thing surprise, it’s no surprise at all.
  • A new camera-equipped iPod touch. Ditto — and worse. If there’s a device that’s crying for a camera, it’s the iPad.
  • An iPhone price cut. If he was hoping to surprise us with a $99 iPhone 3GS, Wal-Mart has already beat him to the punch with a $97 model.
  • iPhone tethering. This feature — promised two years ago and delivered last year for everybody but AT&T customers — is too little too late. Google has already given tethering to Android users and it’s the Wi-Fi-only iPad that really needs it.
  • A Verizon iPhone. That would be a surprise — and big fat gift to the shareholders. But we’ve been burned so many times before, our disappointment is pre-baked.

Of course, Apple still has a lot of things going for it, chief among them an elegant, tightly integrated software environment, hundreds of thousands of apps, millions of credit card numbers, world-class industrial design and profit margins that are the envy of the industry.

But what we’ve been getting from Apple is mostly bad news. A prototype lost in a bar. Leaked photos from Vietnam. More seemingly arbitrary App Store decisions. Another suicide (the 9th this year, the 11th that we know of) among employees at Apple’s chief Chinese supplier.*

And worse still, given the many ways Google last week seems to have outfoxed Apple, the sense that Google CEO Eric Schmidt has played Jobs for a fool, soaking up company secrets for three years before Jobs finally realized that his biggest enemy was sitting in his board room.

What can he deliver at WWDC that will undo that damage? We’ll be in San Francisco June 7 to find out. Tune in here for our live blog.

*The suicides among the 420,000 employees at Foxconn’s Shenzhen facility can hardly be blamed on Apple. Besides, as several readers have pointed out, Foxconn’s suicide rate is considerably lower than that of the People’s Republic of China at large, which according to the WHO was 13.0 per 100,000 for men in 1999 and 14.8 for women.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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