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WWDC 2011: A Competitive Analysis of Apple's Platforms

I've been a bit preoccupied lately with all the Windows 8 news and Microsoft's suddenly cohesive strategy to apply a consistent user experience across all its core products for individuals. But I wanted to at least address the keynote at this week's WWDC 2011, the Apple developer show. Why? Because Apple, like Google and, to a less extent, other competitors like RIM, is busy shoring up its own comprehensive platform of the future, one that now spans devices, Macs, and the cloud. Ansurd when one thinks of Microsoft's main competitors, Apple is right at the top of the list.

This year's WWDC focused on three core platforms: Mac OS X, iOS, and iCloud, the latter of which is billed as being new but is really just an evolution of the previous (and lamentably bad) MobileMe. Microsoft uses the phrase "three screens and the cloud," but this strategy sound bite could equally apply to Apple, whose three screens include Mac/iPad (PC), iPhone (phone), and Apple TV (television). And on that note, I'm surprised no one else seemed to notice that Apple's strategy going forward pretty closely mimics Microsoft's.

And yes, Google, too, has its own version of the "three screens" strategy: Chrome/Chrome OS (PC), Android (phone), and Google TV (television). Coincidence? No, of course not. Computing is no longer just about traditional PCs. It also encompasses portable devices, like phones, and living room/HDTV. This is common to all the major players.

Anyway, WWDC.

No discussion of a modern day Apple event can occur without at least some passing mention of Steve Jobs, who now both looks and sounds like he's dying. I'm sorry to have to write that, and I know people get freaked whenever anyone has the temerity to even mention it, but come on. Aside from the weird psychological needs of a guy who feels he needs to market the hell out of products before an adoring crowd even though he is clearly--and literally--a shadow of his former self, the whole thing is just sad. Suffice to say I'm really pulling for the guy. But I am afraid for him.

Mac OS X Lion

Apple first discussed Lion, its next minor upgrade to Mac OS X, which it once again bills as a major release, last October. Back then, I wrote up an article called What Microsoft Can Learn From Mac OS X Lion in which I described some of the forward-leaning concepts in Lion, and where I thought Microsoft might draw inspiration from its competition. The relevant word I see in there most frequently, however, is "simpler," but looking at Lion today, I see little in the way of simplicity. It's just the same tired OS X desktop, virtually unchanged in a decade, as Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller was nice enough to point out this week. "It was a revolution in its day," he said. While I don't agree with that, it's certainly been nothing but evolution ever since.

Apple is fond of statistics, especially in markets in which it is doing well. So on the Mac front, Schiller reported that the Mac now has "over 54 million active users around the world." Given the most conservative possible estimate of PC users (1 billion), that means that the Mac now accounts for 5 percent of all active personal computer users, a number that, despite Apple's hyper growth claims, hasn't exactly changed much over the years. (In fact, it's actually lower than 5 percent. No matter.)

Schiller also reported that almost three quarters of the Mac user base--about 73 percent--were using portable computers instead of desktop machines. Given the incredible high price of Apple's desktop computers--its cheapest desktop is a display-less, keyboard-less, and mouse-less Mac mini, running a two-generation-old microprocessor, and starting at a whopping $700--this is no surprise. Mac users aren't so much leading the charge to the future as they are being led there by Apple's pricing.

Anyway, with regards to Lion specifically, Schiller claimed that this new OS X version would include "250" new features and would cost the same $29 as the prior minor upgrade, Snow Leopard. This drew cheers from the partisan keynote crowd, naturally, none of whom apparently ever considered that they actually paid for OS X development upfront when they purchased their very, very expensive Macs.  (The average selling price of a PC laptop is $499 today. Apple's cheapest laptop, the MacBook, starts at $999. That's where Apple customers pay, in advance, for future versions of OS X and the support they may or may not ever need.)

Jokes about Apple's feature number claims are, of course, too easy. But it's telling that Schiller only described 10 features, many of which aren't particular major changes. These include:

Multitouch gestures. Taking a cue from its iOS products, Apple is more deeply integrating multitouch into its Mac operating system. This makes sense, but because Apple refuses to provide Mac users with a true tablet, it's putting those gestures in trackpads, not in the screen. This prevents direct manipulation of onscreen objects, as in iOS or Windows, but I do agree with the company's stance that a vertical screen is not an ideal format for multitouch because of the fatigue factor. And on that note, OS X's gestures, while hard or impossible to naturally discover, do work well in real world use.

(Amusing side-note. Apple carted out Craig "shaky hands" Federighi, the VP of OS X Software, to do some of the demos. Unlike with last year's WWDC, however, Federighi this year was spared trying to use the ergonomic nightmare that is Apple's Mighty Mouse and was instead able to do the demos on a trackpad-equipped Mac. Still a bit shaky, but not embarrassingly so.)

Full-screen applications. Seeing how successful full-screen apps are on iOS, Apple is bringing them to the Mac. And now Microsoft is bringing them to the PC with Windows 8. In both cases, this is a good idea. And while power users are no doubt bristling at the loss of three-pixel-wide UIs, it's time to admit that the PC has to evolve from a UI that more closely resembles an airline cockpit to one that is more like that of a car. Yes, critics will say this stuff is going too far--a bicycle, anyone?--but as I noted before, simplicity should trump all other concerns.

Apple, however, is taking a step that we're not seeing (at least not yet) in Windows 8. And that is that its full-screen OS X apps are in fact dual-mode apps that work in both windowed and full screen modes. It's not clear yet whether Windows 8 full-screen apps can run windowed too. My gut feeling is that they need to.

Mission Control.  This was described by Schiller as perhaps Lion's best new feature, but I find it telling that the feature is really just about managing the complexity that occurs when a tired desktop metaphor from yesterday soldiers forward without any real improvements. Microsoft wrestles with this too, of course, in Windows, but this is the poster child for why simpler UIs--iOS, Windows 8 Start screen, whatever--are simply overdue. This pig of a keyboard shortcut supports multiple desktops (workspaces, really), apps, app windows, Dashboard widgets, and more. Please. This is complexity at its worst, and while I applaud any attempt at wrangling this complexity, the better solution is to just get rid of it. Power users will love this. Normal users will wonder where their windows went when an errant gesture goes wrong.

Of course, Windows doesn't exactly offer any seamless way to manage open windows either. More visually pleasing app switchers like Windows Flip 3D are cute, but they don't address the underlying issue in the slightest. It's too early to say what, if any, windows management features are coming in Windows 8, of course.

Mac App Store. Apple got this one right, and no surprise there since the iOS App Store (and iTunes Store) that preceded it are top notch too. My advice to Microsoft is simple here: Copy it all, right down to the requirement that apps sold through the store are universally licensed for every single one of the user's PCs. This feature is nearly perfect.

Nearly: I'd rather see app updates incorporated into the system's preexisting update infrastructure, which is Windows Update on the PC.

LaunchPad. This is perhaps Lion's most misguided feature, providing an iOS-like grid of icons as an alternative to the normal app launching scheme. I get why Apple is doing it--after all, millions of people out there know this tired UI from the iPhone and iPod touch--but when you compare it to the gorgeous Metro UI in Windows Phone or the new Windows 8 Start screen, the truth is laid bare: Microsoft's UIs aren't just way better looking, they're simply better.

Resume. This one is useful: Resume is essentially a state management solution for OS X apps or, put another way, a method for providing the PC suspend/resume capabilities on an app-by-app basis. So you quit PhotoShop or whatever app the kids are using these days and the next time you start it up, everything--the windows, toolbars, etc.--all come back up exactly the way you left it. And it works across apps: Reboot the system because of a software update (an all too often occurrence on the Mac these days) and when it comes back up, all the apps return to where they were before.

Very interesting. And something we could sorely use on the PC side as well. The big question here, of course, is whether apps need to be remade to support this feature. I'm guessing no.

Auto Save and Versions. Anyone who's used a Mac or PC productivity app reflexively taps CTRL + S all day long, worried that if they don't, the app will crash and their data will be lost. In Lion, however, documents are auto saved, as are previous versions of documents you can go back in time, so to speak, and access different versions when needed. This latter bit of functionality one is classic Apple, because we've actually had this functionality (via Previous Versions) on the PC for about 8 years, but the problem is that Microsoft has never adequately surfaced a simple UI. Well, Apple has now. And it looks great. Even though they basically stole the name.

Air Drop. Windows 7 has a feature called Home Share that makes it super-easy to share documents between PCs. And if you're looking for PC-to-PC file sync, we've got you covered too, with Windows Live Mesh. Macs don't have either of these features, so Apple is adding one called Air Drop to Lion. Essentially a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi based network (like Meeting Space in Windows Vista), Air Drop is ... well, it's silly. It requires other Air Drop-based Macs on the local network, so it's pretty limited, requires confirmation for each file transfer, and only works with the Downloads folder on each system. Yawn.

Mail. The 10th new feature Schiller highlighted was a new, iPad-like version of the company's venerable Mail app. (This thing dates back to NeXTStep in the late 1980s when, by the way, it had audio mail capabilities.) No big deal here: It's a nice looking update. Mail apps are a dime a dozen.

There is one more thing. Where Microsoft provides customers with choice when it comes to purchasing and installing Windows--you can do so with traditional optical media, via an ISO download with a USB memory key or disc, or over a network in corporate environments--Lion is being sold as a download only, and that $29 upgrade--both the pricing and the ability to even do it--applies only to users already on Snow Leopard. And one wonders about those who purchased a Mac with Leopard, upgraded to Snow Leopard, and then to Lion: How do they get back to Lion? They'll be installing at least two OSes (Snow Leopard, then Lion), that's how.

(On the good news front, one copy of Lion can be legally installed on multiple Macs. And there's only one product version, unlike with Windows.)

So there you go. 10 new features, about three of them truly interesting. $29 sounds about right.

By the way, the big issue I have with Lion is the same issue I've always had with OS X. And that is that, contrary to Apple's claims, which are parroted endlessly by its biggest fans, OS X is anything but easy to use. It is, in fact, a system specifically designed for power users only. And you see this everywhere in Lion's new features, from the Resume and Auto Save stuff that doesn't even prompt you or remind you that quitting will not delete data, the scrollbar-less apps that give no visual indication that more content is hidden below the fold, and the undiscoverable gestures that will elude all but those who really research the changes in this release. OS X is great, a solid, well-made OS. But let's stop pretending it's easy to use. It isn't, and it never has been.

In Lion, Apple hasn't really moved the dial on the OS user experience that much. It's very much evolutionary. And while we've seen precious little of Windows 8 so far, even just the new Start screen shows me that Microsoft is, oddly enough, willing to push forward in ways that Apple simply won't.

iOS 5

In the second part of the WWDC keynote, Apple's SVP of iOS Scott Forstall provided an update on the company's mobile OS. This is an interesting time for iOS. If you recall what it was like in 2007 when Apple shipped the first iPhone, this stuff was so innovative and new. But today, the competition has what Apple has, from a technology standpoint, so the company instead pushes its iOS products as the mature, safe option. This allows competitors to approach things a bit differently: Android is essentially the PC to iOS's Mac (choice vs. quality and consistency), and Microsoft is free to (one might say "forced to") innovate like crazy in Windows Phone, providing a superior and groundbreaking user experience from its position as the underdog.

Put simply, Apple is updating iOS now just like it updates Mac OS X (and like Microsoft has updated Windows to date, for that matter): Slowly, methodically, and emphasizing evolution over revolution. But this is completely understandable, though it provides an opening for rivals to gain market share and mind share. The question is whether they'll do either, of course.

Forstall had some dramatic figures stressing the strength of iOS, as expected. The company has sold over 200 million iOS devices--iPhone, iPod touch and iPad combined--a figure that Apple claims makes it the "number one mobile OS" with 44 percent of the installed base compared to Android. )This figure also lets Apple quietly ignore sales trends, where Android is in fact a younger product and has been beating iOS in recently quarters, and will soon catch up.) Apple has sold over 25 million iPads in its first 14 months in the market.

The biggest strength of iOS, of course, is the ecosystem. Forstall provided some ecosystem figures, some relevant, some not. But the most compelling piece here, I think, is the App Store. Apple currently stocks over 425,000 apps for iOS devices overall, over 90,000 of which are for the iPad. (So about 335,000 are for the iPhone and iPod touch.) Customers have downloaded over 14 billion (yes, billion) apps from the App Store so far. Not impressed? How about this: Apple has paid out over $2.5 billion to developers who sell apps in the App Store. Yikes.

OK, so what's coming in iOS 5?

As with Lion, Apple chose to highlight just 10 new features, though the company again claims a whopping 200 new end user features. Not bad for an evolutionary update.  But here, unlike with Lion, we see something interesting. With iOS, Apple isn't borrowing features only from its own other products. It's copying features from the competition, sometimes baldfacedly.

For example.

Notifications. Here, Apple is fixing a historical weak spot in iOS. Unlike in Windows Phone, where live tiles and the lock screen provide rich, useful notifications, iOS has until now relied on near-useless icon badges and text-based modal pop-up windows. In iOS 5, finally, Apple provides a central location for Notifications, reached via an Android-like (ahem) downward swipe from the top of the screen. It's called Notifications Center. And if you've ever used an Android phone before, you know exactly how it works.

Likewise, if you're playing a game or using an app of any kind, notifications will no longer interrupt you. Instead they appear right at the top of the screen, in an overlay, just as in Windows Phone.

Copycat, yes. But there's no need to belabor the point: iOS needed something like this. And now it has it.

Newsstand. This one's kind of an oddball, but given Apple's love of content, it's not really a surprise. Basically, Newsstand is iBooks for periodicals, providing electronic subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. My guess is it will be most successful on the iPad, but whatever. It's a logical extension to iOS' already voluminous content stores.

On Windows, of course, there's nothing like this. Instead, we turn to the Kindle platform, which is just fine for me and millions of others. Superior, in fact.

Twitter integration. As with Windows Phone (7.5) before it, iOS 5 will integrate your Twitter account directly into the OS. More important, it's integrated into the apps that matter--Camera and Photo--providing a quick way to upload pictures to the web. Too bad there's no Facebook integration, as in Windows Phone.

Safari. Some evolutionary touches to an admittedly mature and excellent mobile web browser: Safari gets a number of features from its desktop cousin, including Reader, Reading List (offline web article reading, a feature of desktop Safari 5.1), and true tabbed browsing. What it doesn't get, apparently, is hardware accelerated web rendering as with IE 9 Mobile on Windows Phone. But maybe that will require a new iPhone (and iPod touch) we don't know about yet.

Reminders. Your basic to-do app and perhaps a shot across Remember The Milk's bow. This would warrant an "eh" except that it's compatible with Exchange. So now iOS has an Exchange feature (tasks) that's not present in Windows Phone. Doy.

Camera. Responding in very obvious form to one of the more high profile advantages of Windows Phone, Apple has made it easier to quickly take a photo, something that it failed at previously, often humorously. So now it has Windows Phone's "pocket to picture" functionality courtesy of a lock-screen-based Camera button. It is literally identical, down to the locking of non-camera functionality. And it has even copied Windows Phone's dedicated Camera button by allowing you to use the device's Volume Up button as a camera button. Oh, the shame, Apple, the shame.

But I jest. These were hugely necessary fixes, and Apple has also added some unique other features to Camera. Given the high quality of the iPhone camera in particular, this remains one of the platform's great features.

Mail. The iOS Mail app has been pretty stellar since inception. So there are some small changes here, but let's just say that something great just got a bit better and leave it at that. I happen to really enjoy the typographical style of Windows Phone's email application, but iOS Mail looks and works just fine.

Split virtual keyboard. As I noted recently, one of the problems with holding a tablet like the iPad horizontally (where the screen is wider than it is tall) is that you can't type unless you sit down and place the device on something. Microsoft addressed this issue first in its Ultra-Mobile PC platform about 5-6 years ago by offering a split virtual keyboard, allowing users to thumb type will holding the device. And now Apple is copying this feature in iOS, bringing it to the iPad. Now you can hold the device normally (portrait or landscape) and still type.

PC free. One of the biggest complaints about the iPhone (and subsequent iOS devices) is that you can't use it when you buy it; you have to activate it and sync it with a PC (or Mac) first. Finally, several years into this product's lifecycle, Apple is finally rectifying this issue. Now, an iPhone or iPad can be used as a standalone device, as God intended. Coming along with this functionality are over-the-air software updates (including delta updating), and updates to various apps so that they can be used fully without requiring a PC. This is an obvious but important maturation of the iOS platform, and I applaud it. This is truly a major, if overdue, feature.

Games Center. This feature actually debuted last year, but in iOS 5, its being updated with friend photos, Achievement points (ahem), friends of friends viewing, recommended friends, game discovery, game downloads, turn-based-game support, and other features Xbox LIVE has had for years. (Microsoft talked up turn-based games in Windows Phone last year, for example.)

iMessage. There's just no other way to say this: Here, Apple is ripping off the Blackberry Message Service (BMS). iMessage is a proprietary, iOS-to-iOS only messaging service that lets you send texts, photos, videos, and so on, all without the need to involve the outside world and its silly standards. Sigh.

iOS 5 will ship sometime this fall, no doubt alongside a new iPhone and iPod touch. It looks solid, but given the maturity of this platform, that's not surprising. For Android, iOS 5 is not insurmountable. Windows Phone? It's a bit early to say: What we've seen so far of Mango (7.5) looks promising and very competitive with iOS. But we haven't seen it all yet. Stay tuned.


Apple's most eagerly anticipated product announcement at WWDC 2011, perhaps, was iCloud. Here, the industry was clearly looking to Apple to again filter through the complexity of yet another next-generation technology and provide an implementation of it that is both easy and seamless to use. Did they succeed?

Looked at from a critical standpoint, iCloud is like a MobileMe mea culpa, both an apology for, and a superset of, that previous and much maligned service. Looked at from an Apple-centric standpoint, iCloud is a wonderful evolution of the company's previous strategy, but instead of treating the Mac as the center of your digital life, it treats the cloud as the center and relegates the Mac to being a device just like an iPod or iPhone. Both of these are fairly accurate descriptions.

Put simply, iCloud is a cloud-based service that synchronizes a number of data types between devices you own. Not just any devices, but rather PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. And not just any data types, but contacts, calendar, and email (like MobileMe), music (via iTunes), photos, documents, and certain Apple-specific data types like mobile (iOS) apps and iBooks.

There are elements of many competing services in iCloud, including Microsoft's Windows Live Mesh, DropBox, Kindle, and many others. But here, they're arrayed as in typical Apple form: Elegant, yes, but with a nice little edge of lock-in too. This isn't an open service you can extend to non-Apple devices (besides PCs, which, let's face, run iTunes and Safari). It's a closed ecosystem.

It seems solid, however. In iCloud, "the truth is in the cloud," meaning that the "master" copy of the data is in the cloud, where it belongs, and then is synced to all your devices. The service is deeply integrated with Apple's own apps, of course, but unlike with hardware, software developers are able to write iCloud-compatible apps of their own as well. Expect them to in droves.

Key elements of iCloud include:

It's free. Unlike MobileMe, which cost a horrific $99 a year, iCloud is free unless you subscribe to iTunes Match, which I'll describe below.

Contacts, Calendar and Email. Just like MobileMe, but better.

App Store. Everything you buy from the App Store is stored in your iCloud so you can easily get at your purchases on new or reformatted devices. You can configure iCloud to automatically download all apps to a new device too.

iBooks. Ditto for book purchases, which are now centrally stored in iCloud and always available from any compatible device.

Backup. In keeping with the iOS "PC free" functionality, devices now wirelessly back up to the cloud. It happens once daily via Wi-Fi, can be restored to a new device, includes purchased music, apps books, camera roll (pictures and videos), device settings, and app data.

Documents in the Cloud. Documents compatible with Apple's iWork apps are synced to the cloud automatically, and to compatible devices (Mac, iOS only). This lets you seamlessly move back and forth between devices while editing documents, albeit only with Apple's weird apps. For now: Apple bills this as a "complete iOS document storage story," so it removes the need to worry about the file system on the more complex of these devices (the Mac) and opens up APIs so third party developers can use it too.

Photo stream. Here, Apple is automatically syncing a limited number of photos (1000) to the cloud and to your devices. What happens when you exceed that limit? It won't delete them from your Macs (and PCs, where it integrates with the My Pictures folder), which have massive amounts of storage. But it will delete them from the cloud and from the portable (iOS) devices. Photo stream requires Wi-Fi. On the good news front, photo stream is also compatible with the Apple TV, so you can easily cue up photo slideshows in your living room.

iTunes in the Cloud. The most eagerly anticipated iCloud functionality is, perhaps, the least well understood. It works natively with every song you've ever purchased on iTunes, so that content--like apps and iBooks--is now available on any device, automatically. OK, fair enough. I expect the UI for this to grow over time, since most people won't want to download every single song they ever purchase on every device. But whatever. There it is.

The big question, of course, is the rest of your collection. Most people have music collections that are comprised largely of music they did not purchase from iTunes. So for these people, Apple is offering an optional service called iTunes Match. It costs $25 per year so it's sort of a subscription service. What it does is scan your music library (on your Mac or PC), match each song in your collection to the 18+ million songs in the iTunes Store, and then provide you with a high-quality (256 Kbps AAC) version of those songs in the cloud. Apple wins because they don't need to store millions of copies of the same songs, and you win because you don't need to upload your entire music collection. (That said, you'd only have to do it once.)

There are questions around iTunes Match. What's to stop someone from paying the fee once, duplicating their illicitly-gained music collection in the cloud in a high quality format and downloading it to their Mac? We don't know. We don't even know if it matters.

Finally, Apple did a fairly BS comparison between iCloud + iTunes Match and competing music services from Amazon (Cloud Drive) and Google (Music), the latter two of which "force" you to upload your own collections. Those services provide web-based apps for playing and managing music, but Apple has a native app (iTunes) which virtually everyone except for Apple knows is junk, so that's kind of a wash. Apple's service does "upgrade" your collection to 256 Kbps AAC, but again it's unclear if those are yours to keep. (And what if you ripped in lossless?) Apple's service appears to be less expensive for those with 5,000 songs--$50 at Amazon vs. $25 for Apple (Google is unknown)--but I expect Apple's competitors to move aggressively here and, no offense, but Apple's service is still months away. So it technically doesn't even exist yet.

While parts of iCloud are available to developers now, the service won't publicly launch until sometime this fall. That's a long ways away, and I suspect we'll learn more as other new products--like new iPhones and iPods--are launched later this year.

For Windows users who wish to replicate all this functionality, I guess the long story short is that it's doable, and often for free, but it would require mixing and matching a number of utilities and services. So let's give Apple some credit for diving into this market, albeit a bit on the late side. This is like MobileMe x 100, the only question is whether the infrastructure is actually there this time. I don't expect another meltdown, but it's something to think about.

What wasn't discussed

Apple's events, like its products, are often as notable for what's not there as they are for what's included. In this case, two widely expected hardware updates went unmentioned. And they are:

iPhone 5. The elephant in the room. Rumors peg a next generation iPhone launch for a curiously late fall release, and it's unclear what the branding will be: iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S are the best guesses I've seen so far.

MacBook Air. Apple's trend-setting MacBook Air didn't have the market to itself for that long at all, and we've already seen several PC makers respond with equally thin and beautiful laptops based on more modern chipset architectures. Rumor has it that Apple will quickly refresh the MacBook Air to meet these challengers, and my suspicion is that a 2nd generation Core i-Series-based MBA could appear literally any day.

Final thoughts

While the WWDC 2011 keynote was short on surprises and didn't deliver a single killer announcement, it was still quite impressive from a content standpoint. Apple's computing platforms are mature and full-featured and offer the technical chops to compete with anything from Microsoft, Google, or others, and are, in fact, market leading in many cases as it is. Apple's biggest advantage, as always, is its rich and deep ecosystem, and unless you really weren't paying attention, the company rammed home that fact again and again during the keynote. Right now, Apple is on top or near the top in virtually all the markets in which it competes. This is a super-power in the consumer market that will not be dislodged easily or quickly.

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