Apple announcement: What to expect at today’s event

The tech world turns its attention to San Francisco to see what Steve Jobs has up his sleeve

Photo: Philip Elmer-DeWitt

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was buzzing Tuesday afternoon with black-shirted Apple staffers hauling in electronics, heavy-set security  guys guarding the perimeter, TV satellite trucks jockeying for position and workers on a crane plastering the entrance way with the event’s signature paint-spattered logo.

The economy may be sputtering, Bin Laden may be threatening, Barack Obama may be speaking to Congress, but in the world of tech all anybody seems to care about is that Steve Jobs is coming to town and he’s packing a new gadget.

What can we expect on Wednesday, when Apple’s (AAPL) co-founder and CEO takes the stage?

Nobody outside of Cupertino knows for sure, but that hasn’t stopped anybody from making educated guesses. Assuming Jobs plans to save the best for last, here’s what we think may be coming:

  • iLife 2010. Apple usually updates its suite of applications for organizing, editing, and publishing photos, movies and music in January, so it would not be surprising, or particularly newsworthy, if they did it again this year.
  • iPhone 4. Apple has released a new iPhone every summer since 2007. With Google’s (GOOG) and Palm (PALM) racing to catch up, you can bet Apple has some surprises up its sleeve. The surprise most people want to hear is that Apple has terminated its exclusive deal with AT&T (T) and will now be making iPhones for Verizon (VZ), T-Mobile (DT) and Sprint (S). It’s a long shot, but it could happen Wednesday.
  • New MacBooks. It’s been 232 days since Apple updated the MacBook Pro — a machine it refreshes on average every 200 days.  The MacBook Air is also approaching the end of its product cycle. You might see these on Wednesday too.

One more thing … But what everybody is waiting for is the unveiling of the device Jobs is said to have been working on obsessively since he came back to the Apple campus last spring with a new liver. He has been heard to tell friends: “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Coming from the guy who brought the world the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod and the iPhone, that’s saying a lot.

So what is this thing that may be called the iSlate, the iPad, the iTablet or something else entirely? Here’s what we think we know:

  • It’s a thin, flat-paneled device with a 10- to 11-inch color multitouch screen that  can serve as a virtual keyboard but can also be controlled with a vocabulary of gestures that has been described as “surprising.”
  • It runs a version of iPhone OS, giving it access to at least some of the 130,000 plus apps developed for the iPhone and iPod touch.
  • It’s said to be designed for sharing among family member and for social networking, Internet gaming and the like. Game developers — among them Electronic Arts (ERTS) — are said to be preparing whiz bang demos for Wednesday’s event.
  • It’s been shopped around publishers row with some success as a new platform for newspapers, books, magazines and textbooks.  Struggling print publications are clinging to the hope that selling their content through Apple’s iTunes store will be the business model that keeps them alive.
  • It’s been shopped with less success to Hollywood as a new venue for movies and TV shows. Apple has been working on a $30 per month “best of TV” subscription service, but it’s not clear if Hollywood’s embattled moguls will be willing to give Steve Jobs that much control over their content.
  • It’s reported to be in mass production for sale in March or June, depending whom you believe.
  • It will be priced, according to various reports, anywhere from $600 to $1,000, depending on whether it is subsidized by a cellular carrier.

Have we got your interest? Tune in here to find out how much of this is true. The gods of Wi-Fi permitting, we — along with half the tech press — will be live-blogging from inside the Yerba Buena auditorium. The event is scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET). We’ve been asked to arrive an hour early.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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