Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference starts Monday. Here’s what to expect.

For most companies, a conference is a three-day snoozefest in a generic hotel ballroom with somebody droning about “leveraging best practices.” However, these things go down differently at Apple.

Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference starts today in San Francisco. The cost: about $1,600. First-come, first-served in previous years, tickets are now awarded by lottery.

The conference is a five-day annual meeting for people – about 5,000 of them – who help Apple invent new things. “WWDC is to Apple Developers as Coachella is to filthy hipsters: It’s the year’s must-attend event,” as Wired put it.  Last year, all 5,000 tickets were gone within two minutes.

It’s closely watched too by investors and consumers, and of course, by the news media, including a subset devoted exclusively to writing about Apple.

The event is almost as heavily covered by the media as a State of the Union Address. In fact, the agenda includes Apple’s own “Apple State of the Union” address, and people speculate for weeks about what will or won’t be unveiled.

Unlike the president’s annual chat with the nation, which is mostly leaked to the news media before it begins, Apple withholds the details. Much of the conference schedule is shrouded in secrecy. Often, nothing appears next to an event but a start time and a message such as “It’s Still Under Wraps” or “You’ll Never Guess This One.” And developers are sworn to secrecy on some presentations even after the conference is over.

But the cloak-and-dagger act is just the beginning. The conference is a chance for developers from all over the country to talk tech with Apple engineers. It’s also where Apple reveals new technology; an early glimpse can give developers a leg up on their competition.

The fact that the keynote address, set for 1 p.m. Eastern time Monday, will be live-streamed – a rarity – could signal a big announcement, John Martellaro of Mac Observer speculated.

Some would say it’s about darn time. Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been taken to task for bragging of big things to come and not delivering. Some investors worried Apple is losing its mojo because the company focused more on incremental changes than major innovations in the more than four years since it unveiled the iPad. After the company’s recent high-profile acquisition of Beats Electronics, Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Service, upped the stakes, claiming recently that Apple has the “best product pipeline” he’s seen in 25 years at the company.

Will Apple live up to the hype? Here’s what industry watchers expect to see at the conference this year:

New operating systems: Expect to see iOS updates for mobile and a new OS X for the desktop. “The changes are widely expected to be far more subtle than in years past,” CNN said of the IOS 8 update. “After last year’s complete makeover, iOS 8 is expected to include oft-requested fixes, such as an improved Maps app with transit directions, simplified notifications and a separate iTunes Radio app.” According to TechTimes, Siri will gain the ability to identify songs that it hears. TextEdit and Preview apps with iCloud integration might also be added, according to Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar. Version 10.10 of Apple’s desktop operating system, OS X, is expected to include an interface that looks much more like the iPhone and iPad.

Fitness tracking: According to 9to5mac.com, Apple will release Healthbook, a health and fitness tracking mobile app that works like Passbook, with the ability to track data points such as blood pressure, blood sugar (a big deal for diabetics), nutrition and sleep. To monitor fitness, the app can reportedly track steps taken, calories burned and miles walked.

Home automation: Apple is expected to unveil technology that turns the iPhone into a remote control for lights, security systems and other household appliances. Gigaom reported the technology will include voice control and easy Wi-Fi configuration, but this will all be part of an app, not new Apple software.

New Macs: Maybe. There are rumors that a cheaper iMac will be introduced at the conference. “The low-cost iMac will reportedly use improved panel laminations and casing yields to offset production costs,” TechTimes reported, citing an investor’s note from securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Kuo predicted it would boost iMac sales, which have been slowing down due to competition from PC manufacturers. However, veteran Apple watcher Jim Dalrymple shot those down on Wednesday with one word: “Nope.”

Cameo from Dr. Dre: Now that it has bought Beats Electronics and its streaming service, Beats Music, Apple may offer details on how it plans to incorporate the technology into its products. That could mean a cameo by Dr. Dre and partner Jimmy Iovine. Dre certainly gives Apple some street cred, while Iovine could take the helm of Apple’s content business, helping the company launch new products — if Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson’s predictions are correct.

What you won’t see this week: New hardware. The conference typically focuses on new software while the hardware that uses it isn’t usually announced until the fall. While an improved Apple TV and wearable technology (the iWatch) are both reportedly in the works, neither is expected to debut just yet.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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