SAN FRANCISCO – "How many developers does it take to change a lightbulb?"
With that geeky joke (the answer? "None, that's a hardware problem"), Apple's Siri voice-control system opened the company's annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. But the real star of the show was a razor-thin new MacBook Air that Apple called its most beautiful computer ever.
Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage after the warm-up jokes ended, to begin with a bit of hype about the popularity of software on Apple's gadgets. The App Store has some 650,000 apps and over 30 billion downloads to date, he said.
He quickly segued into the real highlights of the show: the updated Mac computers.
"Today we're announcing new changes in our notebook lineup, and new versions of our OS and iOS," Cook told the assembled programmers and enthusiasts from around the world who gathered at the Moscone conference center for what some called "the biggest event Apple has held in years."
New software isn't surprising: Apple has used its WWDC to announce new iPhone software for the past few years.More interesting is the next-generation MacBook Pro, unveiled by Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing.
"[It's] the most beautiful computer we've ever made," Schiller said. The MacBook Pro has a 15.4-inch high-definition Retina display, weighs 4.5 pounds, and comes with a new Intel chip. Prices will start at $2,199.
“There has never been a notebook this thin, this light, and this powerful. It's an engineering breakthrough,” Schiller said.
The Pro measures just 0.71 inches thick, the company said, putting it on a par with the Air. The company also showed smaller versions of the Pro starting at $1,000.
But speaking of the Macbook Air, Apple also showed a revamped version of the superthin laptop that was largely responsible for the ultrabook invasion currently sweeping out all the old, fat laptops and ushering in an era of envelope-slim notebooks.
The new Air comes with up to a 2.0-GHz dual-core i7 chip -- an ultrafast "Ivy Bridge" processor newly unveiled from CPU giant Intel -- as well as up to 8GB of 1,600-MHz memory. It also includes fast new USB 3.0 ports. The Air is on sale today, and sells for $999 to $1,499.
On the Mac software side, Apple already demonstrated most of the features of OS X 10.8 "Mountain Lion" in February and said it will go on sale late this summer, but developers can already download it. It narrows the gap between the PC and phone software packages, making Mac personal computers work more like iPhones.
Apple on Monday announced three new apps for Mountain Lion -- Messages, Reminders, and Notes -- as well as tighter integration with the iCloud online storage system and integrated voice control, though not through Siri.
Microsoft Corp., Apple's chief competitor in PC software, is on a parallel course. It's set to release Windows 8 later this year, bringing the look and user interface of Windows Phone to PCs.
Moutain Lion will sell for $19.99, the company said.
Finally, Scott Forstall took to the stage to discuss iOS 6, the next iteration of the software that powers the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The software will see over 200 enhancements, he declared, including "significant updates" to Siri.
Notably, the company announced deep integration with Facebook and that it is working with such car makers as GM, BMW, Mercedes and more to build a Siri access button directly into the steering wheel.
“We’re working with car manufacturers to include a button that will bring up Siri,” Forstall said -- a clever idea that shows Apple still knows how to innovate.
Finally, Apple announced a home-grown mapping feature, to replace the Google Maps service it has used since the iPhone was first released. It includes a 3D mapping feature, created from fly-overs of major metropolitan areas, and new mapping features including traffic, support for 100 million businesses, and turn-by-turn navigation.
Ask Siri "Are we there yet?" and she'll respond with the current status.
"Relax and enjoy the drive. You'll be there in 14 minutes."
iOS 6 will be available to developers in beta in a few days. Ordinary users will see it sometime in the Fall.
"The products we make, combined with the apps you make can fundamentally change the world," Cook told the assembled crowd of developers. "And really I can't think of a better reason for getting up in the morning."