WWDC 2106: The Merits of Playing Catch-Up

WWDC 2106: The Merits of Playing Catch-Up

Any critics or analysts who were looking forward to Apple dropping one giant, category-defining, show-stopping product today would have been sorely disappointed. Today's keynote -- delivered in less than two hours at a breakneck pace -- was packed with lots of incremental changes and tweaks. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Let's unpack what Apple announced and why it could matter in the months ahead.

The Apple Watch is getting a lot of improvements -- and at least two show an awareness of a customer base outside the usual early adopters. In a world of wearables that offer all sorts of perks at all sorts of price points, the $300-and-up Apple Watch is a very tough sell. (And it's not even waterproof, a pet peeve for swimmers and kayakers like me.) But Apple released a raft of improvements today that suggest it's playing a long game here:

  • There's SOS, an emergency feature that lets you quickly contact emergency services (provided your phone is near you or you're on WiFi) and flash your ICE, i.e. your In Case of Emergency contact and any medical information. SOS is not confined to the United States, a smart move.
  • There's also a new wheelchair feature coming, which will let users measure their activity rates more accurately. Apple partnered with the Lakeshore Foundation of Birmingham, Alabama, and the Challenged Athletes Foundation of San Diego to do the testing and development of the features. 
  • The Apple Watch team had noticed that users often switch watch faces depending on what they were doing, and it's made it easier for users to customize their watch faces.
  • App performance will improve dramatically. More importantly, apps will have a dock-type interface on the phone for easy accessibility.
  • Users will be able to Scribble, i.e. write with a fingertip, to send messages or manage lists. Scribble works with either English or Chinese, as of now.
  • Finally, Apple is moving into the growing mindfulness market with its new Breathe app, which guides watch wearers through deep breathing exercises. No word yet on whether the watch can remind you to deep-breathe or if it can launch the app in response to biometric feeback like a suddenly-raised heart rate.

OS X is no more. We now have macOS. The naming convention is changing, ostensibly to bring it in line with Apple's three other dev environments -- iOS, tvOS and watchOS -- but mostly to begin conditioning people to think of their computer as just one appliance in a computing consortium, not the hub of a personal computing experience.

macOS is bringing Siri to the desktop. Again, having a voice-activated assistant on the desktop is no big deal with Windows 10 users, who have been hanging out with Cortana for months now. But now Mac users can use Siri commands to find files on their desktop -- no more figuring out how to type Boolean syntax for very specific searches -- and send messages, search the Web or open apps.

Apple is throwing more weight behind Apple Pay. The really big deal here is the authentication: instead of repeatedly typing in credit card details, which has its own set of problems on Web-based transactions, Apple Pay will use TouchID through a user's iPhone or Apple Watch. This is a new way to try and guarantee secure transactions on the Web while reducing the "friction" (i.e. pain-in-the-neck factor) for users.

Instead of redesigning iTunes on the desktop, which desperately needs it, Apple chose to completely redesign Music. This move asserts that the iPhone is the primary musical appliance for most computer users -- which makes sense, given how reluctant people can be to download their music libraries to a work computer they may not have for that long. Another reason for the redesign? With improved music discovery tools like playlists custom-tailored to user tastes, Apple seems to be gunning for other streaming music services -- and it will take advantage of owning the OS to make sure the app is optimized for integration and performance.

Apple is opening the Maps API, redesigning Maps and coming to cars. By opening up the API, Apple's positioning itself as the go-to for directions within your ride-sharing, classified-ads listing, food-ordering or ticket-buying apps. This is a "we're coming for you, Google Maps" move.

(It's also useful for activists who might want to pair a data set with a specific app, or offer directions to specific resources or locations.)

Maps is coming to Apple's CarPlay feature (available on phones), where it can offer navigation and alternate routes on a car's display.

tvOS is showing how a television will become one more appliance in your personal computing network. The three most noteworthy developments out of the tvOS segment: Siri can romp through the Apple TV offerings and YouTube -- "Siri, find me videos of sneezing pandas!" is a thing you can actually shout at your media center now; you have single sign-in, which will be delightful for Apple TV users who also have Netflix accounts, Amazon Prime accounts, Hulu accounts and/or HBO Go accounts; there are stronger tie-ins between the phone and the TV, including an Apple TV remote app you can use on your phone.

Apple's approach to the smart home will not be appliance-based, but app-based. The company stressed the many partnerships it's made with smart home appliance developers, as well as house building concerns in the U.S. and China, and announced a new Home application, which will allow users to move from the many-apps-to-control-the-home experience to a total home-control dashboard.

Apple actually acknowledges data privacy as a user concern. One of the recurring themes in most tech keynotes is how companies are turning software into a virtuous feedback loop: the more data you give the app, the better it performs. One of the unaddressed concerns in this approach is exactly what the companies are doing with all this data they're logging and analyzing for your ostensible benefit. Where are they storing it? To whom are they selling it? To which governments are they sending it? How much is attached to your user profile? Today, Tim Cook reassured the audience that Apple uses "differential privacy," which is a way of analyzing data without associating it with specific users. He also said that any AI analysis made on a user's Apple device stayed on that device and was not uploaded to a cloud account.

Let's all agree not to talk about Messages. Seriously -- it's like someone had a bad case of MySpace nostalgia and a creeping suspicion that they didn't quite get SnapChat. This has the software feel of when Apple rolled out floral-patterned iMacs. 

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So, overall there weren't that many swing-for-the-fences products. But taken in the aggregate, what begins to emerge is the case that Apple is committed to making user experiences frictionless, and it's shifting a lot of its effort to a portable-computing model that centers around the stuff people do when they're not at work. Smoother experiences among activities people already do could go a long way toward winning developer and user hearts and minds -- or at least build a platform for future WWDCs so Apple's no longer playing catch-up.

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