WWDC 2017 - Apple Plays Catch-up in the Best Possible Way
June 21, 2017
The past couple years for Apple have been met with mixed reviews from those that watch the company closely. In many ways it was an uncharacteristic misstep for a company that has seen remarkable success in the past decade. I should note that this is not an “Apple is Doomed” article; quite the opposite. WWDC 2017 represented Apple catching up in many of the areas where it has been seen as lagging behind.
This years WWDC marks two years since the iPad got its first truly professional features with the release of iOS 9. Split screen and slide over paved the way for the iPad Pros that were released soon after. But no new iPad features were announced with iOS 10 and no new iPad Pros were released this spring, causing Apple’s commitment to pro iPad users into question. However at WWDC 2017, the iPad arguably stole the show. The new iPad Pros and specifically Pro Motion, highlight Apple’s willingness to commit hardware development resources towards high-end iPads, to the benefit of professional users. Even more so than hardware, iOS 11 demonstrates that Apple is serious about pushing the iPad as a serious productivity platform. Year-over-year improvements to the iPad would be ideal, but Apple can be forgiven for publicly ignoring the iPad considering the massive updates the product just received.
The iPad wasn't the only Pro lineup that got some attention at WWDC. Going into WWDC 2017, Apple's commitment to Pro Mac hardware was questionable. While the Mac roundtable event this Spring at least gave a verbal commitment to the future of the Mac Pro, Apple made it clear no hardware was coming soon. And while it may not ship until December, the iMac Pro is definitely Pro Mac hardware. Additionally, all other relevant Macs (sorry Mac Mini & Mac Pro) got speed bump updates. This is something that Apple has neglected to do lately, but doing so demonstrates their commitment to maintaining their Mac products. The iMac Pro may not be for all Pro Mac users, but more importantly it demonstrates Apple's commitment to developing high end Mac hardware in a tangible way.
Siri in a Can
The “Voice Assistant in a Can” market has really taken off with the spread of smart home technology. The success of the Amazon Echo and Google Home shows that people find value in have a home voice assistant. For a company whose primary focus is selling premium hardware products, Apple’s lack of an entry in this market was both confusing and disappointing. The introduction of the HomePod gives Apple some presence in this market. The HomePod is clearly being positioned by Apple as a premium home speaker, that also happens to have voice assistant technology built in. This is good framing for a few reasons. First it plays to Apple's cultural and brand strength of being good at everything music. It allows Apple to enter the market and develop market share without directly comparing the HomePod to its competitors, which arguably have a larger featureset. Finally, it allows Apple to take time to improve Siri functionality and increase support for smart home technology. These are arguably the two most important features of this category, and areas where Apple has some catching up to do, partially due to their unwillingness to compromise on privacy and security.
User Privacy vs. Big Data
There is a perceived conflict between strong user privacy and useful machine learning on aggregated user data. The differential privacy announcement at WWDC 2016 was a positive step forward but we’ve yet to see Apple address this directly, outside of a few system features. WWDC 2017 had many implementations of privacy preserving machine learning like synced photo facial recognition data and a more unified Siri across devices. But most importantly, Core Machine Learning gives developers the ability to use machine learning in a way that guarantees no user data will leave the device and completely preserving user privacy. This is notably different to most companies’ cloud oriented machine learning where privacy cannot be guaranteed. Core ML not only allows an entirely new class of apps to be created, but does it in privacy preserving manner. While the rest of the industry trends towards server side data aggregation, at the risk of compromising user privacy, Apple’s direction is a welcome change.
AR / VR
Apple has never been a gaming focused company. But there has been a recent industry trend towards virtual and augmented reality technologies, fueled by gaming. Apple’s lack of support for these technologies was concerning, both for consumers, and professionals who develop who create AR/VR experiences. While VR gamers may have to wait a while longer, VR developers finally have the ability to work on the Mac. With the external VR Dev Kit, modern Pro Macs are now capable of VR development. Additionally, ARKit allows developers to easily implement AR on iOS, allowing new categories of apps to be created. Its unlikely that Apple will support high end VR games anytime soon, but it’s good to see that Apple recognizes and is embracing, the industry trend, where it makes sense for them.
WWDC 2017 wasn’t perfect. Apple’s cloud services are still lagging behind many of its competitors. The same can be said for Siri. However, for the first time in couple years, Apple had something for everyone. Whether you’re an iPad user, Mac user, into home automation, privacy conscious, or into AR/VR, Apple had something for you. And more importantly, Apple implicitly addressed most of the areas it’s been criticized recently. One data point does not a trend make. But if Apple can continue to address its weaknesses and innovate in new areas, as it did at WWDC 2017, those who follow Apple will have some exciting years ahead.