In at least one respect, Apple's got it tough. It's the third of three big developer conferences, so some of the announcements today had a "been there, done that" feel to them. That said, now that Apple's announced where it's taking its different product lines, we have an idea of where the tech industry is steering our daily computing experience. Here are some of the takeaways when looking at this year's developer keynotes for Apple, Google and Microsoft.
VOICE-ACTIVATED ASSISTANTS ARE A BIG DEAL
Google has Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana and Apple has Siri. Today's announcements showed that Siri's coming to users' desktops, so making queries in the Finder can be something you shout at your computer, as opposed to muttering under your breath while you type.
Microsoft users have been able to talk to a desktop-based virtual assistant for some time, so this is old hat to them.
The bigger picture here is that companies are beginning to think about the age of post-keyboard computing. They are all experimenting with the best ways for users to convey their queries and their multi-step tasks using highly variable, natural language. Expect to see a lot of developer time and attention here to solve problems like using a voice-activated smart assistant in a noisy office or in public, managing multiple user permissions for a voice-activated assistant -- especially relevant for home appliances -- and dealing with speech impediments, non-standard accents and multilingual households.
DATA STORAGE AND ASSET MANAGEMENT: UNGLAMOROUS BUT VITAL
All three companies have finally realized that if you're going to push users into the cloud, you have to give users the tools to manage all those assets. Build stuck to Microsoft's core message, which is that it's very, very easy to move things from desktop to cloud account and back again. In this scenario, Dropbox is a user feature, not an application.
Google's IO keynote showed how tapping the cloud is something that users should be able to do unconsciously; its demonstration of pulling in Google Keep assets and lists during a video shows how it regards user data as a set of objects with situation-specific groupings. That's a smart way to think about why people save things and how they later collect and synthesize them.
Apple showed some signs of acknowledging this with the new features it's bringing to iCloud -- the ability to drop-and-drag things from your computer desktop, and improved management tools. It's nothing OneDrive users and Google Drive users don't already enjoy, but it's a positive for Mac platform faithful that they'll have another alternative for cloud-based storage. Of course, the tools to manage iCloud are still frustrating and opaque, so fingers crossed for WWDC 2017.
(Side note: We have a rigorous comparison of cloud-based storage options and how well they work with your usual desktop set-ups, and we assess both Microsoft's offerings and Google's.)
ONE COMPANY IS DOING SMART HOMES RIGHT(ISH)
Google may have previewed its smart-home appliance, but Apple showed that it understands a previously under-served segment of the smart home experience: users' phones.
A lot of smart-home tech -- from locks to humidifiers, alarms to thermostats, lighting to garage door openers -- tends to work on a model where there's the smart appliance, a user's smartphone and an app. As a consequence, your phone becomes clogged with a lot of apps.
Apple's fixing that with its Home app. Home will act as a dashboard for the assorted smart-home components someone has installed in their residence, so people only have to deal with one app and not dozens. And thanks to Apple's relationships with several major smart-home appliance vendors, there's built-in support for several off-the-shelf smarthome solutions.
This Home app is a great start. It's only a start, however, because today's keynote did not show whether Home tackles on one of the biggest problems in smart homes: restricting the flow of data and app use to one resident in the smarthome. Many households are made up of multiple people -- whether Home realizes that multiple people can call the same structure-plus-smart-appliances home is something we'll learn when the app rolls out.
ONE COMPANY IS FOCUSED ON HOW YOU WORK
What was striking about Apple's keynote was how little of it alluded to workplace productivity at all. Sure, the keynote speakers spoke about getting your work calls on your personal iPhone, and there were allusions to managing messages on your phone, but the tone of the Apple keynote was resolutely personal: computing as a system of tools around a user's wants and needs, not their job demands.
Google's keynote was very similar. With its stress on Google Home, the VR component, and the emphasis on the Assistant as a way to handle social interactions and shopping, very little in that keynote stressed a reality for a lot of people -- their primary computing tasks take place at work, and they need tools that can help them balance the demands of a fast-paced workplace against the demands of a full and rewarding life outside work.
It's unclear whether Google and Apple are ceding that ground to Microsoft or if Microsoft's just better at sending the message that it makes tools for the workplace. But the Build keynote stood out for how it demonstrated Cortana's integration with Outlook and Skype, and it reiterated how much of Microsoft's time and energy go into streamlining the myriad information-processing tasks people do daily.
Both Android and Apple may have some apps that help people work smarter, but Microsoft's got their eyes on redefining the tools that help information-processing workers do their jobs more efficiently.
THE DESKTOP IS ON THE DECLINE
If all three keynotes had one thing in common, it's that Microsoft, Google and Apple all assume that today's users are mobile to the point where their phone is their primary computing device they use whenever they want to and a desktop computer (or laptop computer) is what people use when they have to. It's a computing model that treats phones as the hubs and desktop computers as just one more appliance attached to the network around the hub.
This tweet from Jan Dawson breaks down the time allotted at the Apple WWDC keynote to different areas, including the desktop (encompassed by macOS this year) and the mobile computing efforts. It's a nearly four-to-one ratio of mobile computing to desktop computing.
Even the Windows 10 Anniversary edition is focusing on the ways Microsoft will bolster Cortana, boost its tablet-friendly features like Ink, and turn a cloud-based environment into your default desktop.
Mind you, it's going to be a long time before computer users give up on desktop or laptop computers. We have years of computing habit bolstering the case for a desktop computer (which was assisted in its adoption by its keyboard resemblance to a typewriter). But the companies who determine the direction of the general computing environment have begun moving to a 24/7 user-centric experience, and desktops are too cumbersome to come along for the ride. They'll become specialized equipment or social appliances in the home.
WEARABLES ARE COMING TO YOUR TECH ENVIRONMENT, WHETHER YOU WANT THEM OR NOT
Both Google and Apple spent a great deal of time on their watch offerings, with the companies offering nearly identical pitches: the watches are not merely fitness appliances, they're also communications hubs (on which you can now handwrite messages), productivity tools and the front line of security. Okay, so the last one might have come up more with Apple, which stressed that the watch can be used to securely pay for something with Apple Pay. But both Google and Apple are now taking steps to make sure some of their operating systems' more compelling features require a wearable for full use.
BIOMETRICS ARE BECOMING BOG-STANDARD FOR USERS
Microsoft was first out of the gate with this when it announced how it was giving developers the tools to integrate Windows Hello into different apps, and now Apple's using biometrics to ensure security with Apple Pay. The approach of pairing information with unique and un-replicable user identification is going to propagate in the face of rising user worries about their data security.