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Apple’s (AAPL) biggest showcase event of the year opens in San Francisco on Monday and it could go one of two ways.

  • WWDC 2009 could be precisely what Apple’s press release said it would be: a conference designed to bring developers up to speed on the company’s two most important software platforms — Mac OS X Snow Leopard and iPhone 3.0.
  • Or it could be what the speculators who have run up Apple’s stock this week are anticipating: the second coming of CEO Steve Jobs — returned to health and Apple’s helm after a six-month medical leave — to take the stage and unveil the latest iPhone.

The smart money is betting …

… well, the truth is the smart money doesn’t know. For every plugged-in analyst and media bigfoot who implies that he’s been tipped off that Jobs and the new iPhone will be there on Monday there’s another who says Jobs is as likely to wait a few weeks until his scheduled return at the end of June.

If the thousands of developers and Apple watchers headed for San Francisco’s Moscone Center are feeling a little manipulated right now, maybe that’s because they are.

I sense the heavy hand of Steve Jobs behind all this. Nobody plays the expectations game — and the press — more deliberately than he. And I suspect he’s been keeping his options open.

It could be that he doesn’t want to distract attention from the new software platforms. Or that he wants to clear some more old iPhones out of inventory before releasing the new. Or that he has come to prefer introducing new products at single-purpose special events.

My guess is that Jobs is watching the launch of the Palm (PALM) Pre — a device financed, designed and promoted by former Apple execs — and waiting for his cue.

If he thinks it serves his purpose, he’ll send Phil Schiller, his marketing vice president and perennial second banana, out on stage to give a keynote that he knows will disappoint.

Or he could seize the moment — and the captive audience — and step once more into the bright hot center of the reality distortion field.

To find out which it is, tune in here on Monday. We’ll be covering the World Wide Developers Conference keynote live starting at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT).

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