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WWDC 2013: Old magic absent from pragmatic Apple keynote

Gordon Kelly

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WWDC 2013: Old magic absent from pragmatic Apple keynote

Intentional or not “Can’t innovate any more, my ass!” has become the take away sound bite from WWDC 2013. It was uttered by marketing head Phil Schiller as he introduced the unfinished redesign of Apple’s Mac Pro desktop. As he lauded a long dwindling technology category, it was also most poignant for the complete lack of irony.

WWDC 2013 proved itself to be many things. It was a veritable tick box list for long running iOS feature requests, it pushed boundaries in laptop battery life, it saw Apple finally enter the streaming music market, OS X was updated (and given a silly new name), office and mapping services leapt to the web and yes, it brought us a new PC chassis. But for everything WWDC was the one thing it wasn’t was innovative.

schiller

Imitation flatters rivals

I didn’t expect the earth. An iTelevision was never in my thoughts and I never truly believed a MacPad hybrid would appear, but Apple TV developer apps or an iWatch would have been nice as would some swipe typing Swiftkey-style. iTunes Radio could’ve challenged Spotify instead of Pandora and if you’re going to recreate iWork in the Cloud at least bring Cloud-specific features like the real time collaboration offered by rivals.

Furthermore while in some ways Apple should be applauded from bringing key elements of other mobile platforms to iOS7 it didn’t bring the best. Automatic app updates, proper multitasking, quick access to settings and redesigned app UIs were all welcome and overdue. But ultimately users are still stuck with a grid of static icons, the inability to change default apps and the same basic notification system that has plagued the platform for years.

Live tiles, the option of widgets, NFC support, and just one thing we hadn’t seen coming would at least have jazzed things up a bit.

Yes Google and Microsoft now face a platform which is closer to them than it was 24 hours ago but - aside from the hard work of its app community - it is difficult to see how iOS7 has done anything more than repeat a worrying recent ritual of playing catch up as both Android and Windows Phone again prepare major updates to leap ahead.

World Wide ‘Developers’ Conference

At which point the correct counter-argument would be “well duh!”.

WWDC is for developers. It is to show them new software and technologies to allow them to better develop for Apple platforms. With a new version of OS X and 1500 new APIs in iOS7 Apple did this in spades. Right?

Not exactly. To see WWDC this way is naive. The name may have stayed the same since the first event in 1983, but since 2002 it has been morphed into a launchpad for the company’s biggest announcements. New iPhones, Macs, iPads, and iOS and OS X versions have all been launched there. The same is true of Google I/O and Microsoft Build.

That said Apple clearly still has a big conference to come. August or September will no doubt see the new iPhone (or iPhones) to launch with iOS7, an updated Apple TV (with apps?) and maybe even the fabled iWatch or iTV. Apple will then be back on song.

Google Now

Can’t Innovate

And yet I think not. For despite Schiller’s ‘can’t innovate any more, my ass’ proclamation what I took from WWDC 2013 is Apple is increasingly hamstrung. The problem is what defines ‘magic’ has moved on.

Apple’s hardware and UI reveals are like watching an overly competitive dad raving about painting his shed. Yes, yes, yes it’s better than it was before.

Instead where the ‘magical’ leaps are coming today are online and this is where Apple remains weakest. Aggregation of wide ranging online services and global search data is currently driving Google towards the head of the pack and Apple looks to be suffering from years spent sitting pretty and raking in fat profit margins on hardware and offline software.

The fruits of Google’s labours are now producing models capable of predicting user behaviour and it is hard to see how Apple could even begin to counter an increasingly influential product like Google Now (above). Facebook Graph Search ploughs a similar route and Microsoft and Yahoo! (now run by former senior Google exec Marissa Mayer) are treading these familiar paths. Even Sony crows about seamless Cloud-powered gaming. Meanwhile Apple is licensing Bing and gushing about a desktop.

Apple must invest online

So how can Apple break out of its comfort zone and truly wow us once more?

The logical route appears to be acquisitions. Apple is cash rich and Spotify, Ask, Dropbox and even Yahoo! buy-outs wouldn’t do it any harm. But as we saw with Apple Maps, even the combination of purchasing and licensing data from no less than nine third parties took years to collate and ultimately poor execution damaged its name. But at least it now has a cross platform web service with Maps released online.

Fixing further holes would be just as troublesome. Independence in search, for example, would be even harder and risk stalling the company again and again. That said it may have little choice. The differentiators rivals can bring online are growing rapidly and Apple cannot respond. Apple finds itself beholden to Microsoft for Bing, yet Windows Phone wants to catch iOS and could now do so with an obvious Machiavellian move. No wonder all the Apple's digs this year targeted Google and pretty much let Microsoft off scott-free.

Which leaves Apple in the scenario it faced last night and has been for the last few years: treading water while it hopes to pass off pragmatism as magic. Since mindsets shift slowly the trick still works. Shiny hardware and resprayed feature-assimilating software has largely drawn praise and more will follow for the iPhone 6 and iPad 5. But year-by-year these reveals feel more hollow as Apple's options for advancement constrict and it struggles to match rival innovations derived from online services.

Apple has long been known for its bravery and risk taking. If it wants to create yet another magical product the company must fully embrace the Web and be braver and risk more than it has ever done before.

diddler

June 12, 2013, 3:27 pm

On a pure profit basis when compared to the iPhone and iPad everything else at Apple is niche.The problem with reporters is that you see the detail and miss the big picture. Most of the articles I remember after the iPad launch were negative and dismissive. Developing a product takes time, ensuring that it works well takes even longer. Adding features just so you have something to report on is how Samsung works, not Apple.

JBingham

June 12, 2013, 4:19 pm

sorry, but how is the lack of hard drives lamentable. you talk about conservatism - yes, perhaps in terms of product strategy, but in terms of design and product innovation, they have been nothing short of conservative, and have made a number of break-throughs with many of their products. For instance, lamination of screen removing gas layer, is now being implemented by Panasonic after apple offered it on their new iMac. Apple's iPhone was the first phone to make extensive use of ambient light sensors, gyrosopes and proximity sensors, and to bring multi-touch to the masses.
you talk about hard drives, but Apple as Steve Jobs would say, has always tried to skate to where the puck is heading, not from where its come, and that was the case both with the way which it was the first desktop computer to eschew the use of floppy discs, and now with cd roms and hard drives. why would you want an hdd, when the pci-e based ssd solution apple has now integrated on the mac pro enables read speeds in excess of 10 times what the fastest WD 10k ones are capable. The answer is that hdds, and apple has in traditional fashion sough to realise how the new technologies - Thunderbolt 2 and ssd, can be utilised to maximum effect, through removing the theorectical data limitations imposed by sata 2

Russell Davies

June 12, 2013, 5:36 pm

Whilst I understand the points you make I think that expecting ANY company to maintain mystique, magic and the dreaded 'wow factor' for any period of time let alone the 14 or 15 years since the iMac is unrealistic.There are too many other competitors out there, too many industrial spies, too many home brewers and too much social networking and the innovation by necessity will come on a diminishing returns basis.

By contrast one of the oft repeated criticisms of Apple has been not delivering comparable 'good bits' that others (Google, Samsung, MS et al) have come up with and I think, from a laypersons' point of view, that they have done this with the release of iOS7 and OS X Top Gun (as it shall forever be in my mind at least !) Looking back, how often have Apple actually come up with the original idea rather than taking someone else's brainwave, polished and refined it and claimed the glory of innovation? More often than not (see Creative Jukebox, Nokia Messenger/Palm Pilot etc).

For my part I think that the 'Apple magic' is and mostly always has been a mirage. The Apple quality on the other hand seems genuine. I know which I would rather have too and it ain't the one that's pulled out of a hat munching a carrot.

Pbryanw

June 12, 2013, 5:37 pm

@kupfernigk - I think it's harsh to say Apple got where they are today due to two pieces of luck. Really it was an iterative process, with Jobs improving the Mac line, founding the iPod, coming up with the iPhone and iPad then constantly improving these lines at a yearly pace.

The innovative part of the process was taking ideas like the Smartphone and Tablet, making them easily accessible and adding to them Jony Ive's great industrial design.

The problem now is that they've lost their totemic figurehead and what places are left for them to do another iPhone or iPod? I think they're finding new areas like TV hard to crack, and Tim Cook isn't a Steve Job's type figure who can tell us what we want before we even know it.

However, the new Mac Pro, and the intro video at WWDC, makes me wonder if they can find their own niche as a company which turns out great products and software albeit without the innovation that marked out the Job's era.

Guest

June 12, 2013, 7:14 pm

No Jobs, no Apple.

macdara

June 12, 2013, 9:49 pm

I agree with your key points Gordon, one thing that Jobs railed against in the biography was when Apple were making headlines for their financial results, and not their products.
The last 2 years has been just that, Sales, Cash, Profits...who cares really, it's not going to change the lives of most people like the iPod and iPhone, and iTunes did.

Jobs had the genius to risk everything in search of perfection, he didn't care about making money because he knew that would be a natural outcome if he backed his vision. Very few people have this kind of courage and unwavering self belief.

Apple are firmly in the pack now in terms of innovation but iOS is still streets ahead of Android as a mobile platform. Windows Phone 8 offers a comparable User Experience though and I expect Microsoft to repeat history and eat Apple's lunch again, this time on mobile.

andyvan

June 13, 2013, 7:21 am

Some excellent points - I agree that the likes of the iPhone and iPad don't come around often, let alone in such quick succession.

For me, the most important point is Gordon's last - online services. Currently Apple's offering just plain sucks. I'm an Apple user, but I could never bring myself to use iCloud for mail, contacts and the rest. The web apps are awful, low-feature rubbish. I guess that comes a little from Apple's heritage as a software and hardware company - it would rather you use Mail on Mac OS than a web app, but when I can't do that (i.e. at work on my Windows PC) I want something a little more useful.

diddler

June 13, 2013, 8:52 am

It would be nice if cloud on iOS was better, but why should they invest all that money with no hope of getting it back. Google is happy to mine all your user information for use in advertising, Apple is less likely to want to do that.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:21 am

As Andy mentions these are excellent points and I do agree. I think rather than expect an new 'Wow' product, where I feel the company is restricted is online. Right now the heart of an iPhone - mail, maps, browser, media are arguably better stripped out for Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome, Netflix and Spotify - all web-based services (though admittedly only recently in Spotify's case).

Google has always needed to mine customer data (how anonymously is arguable) because it didn't have a revenue stream in its services and wanted to provide advertisers the best possible targets. Apple had fat hardware and software margins. But long term Google now has a 'suite' (for want of a better word) where Apple does and it is allowing Google to evolve Android faster than iOS.

Google Now simply isn't possible with the resources Apple has and Apple has no power in the search market forcing it to licence from its biggest rivals.

Apple remains a hugely influential company and its quality is rarely in doubt (though it could do something about the iOS7 icons!), but how it evolves long term - I personally believe - could be increasingly hamstrung without a credible suite of core online services.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:25 am

I don't think that's fair kupfernigk

Apple's updates can be conservative, but when it jumps into new technologies its radical interpretation is often brave and comes with a major element of risk. The iPhone asked people to use phones in an entirely new way, the iPad to treat tablets as expanded phones rather than cut down laptops. Going further back the graphical UI and even iTunes asked customers to take a leap of faith.

The investment to get these products to market was huge and had no guarantee of success, but their success ultimately revolutionised their respective industries.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:28 am

I'd say this is just about spot on. I do wonder where Apple's next moves are and their lack of online services does inhibit their future expansion (as I mention here). But games consoles, television and wearable tech are all markets Apple can do very well in going forward. Should Apple ultimately return to being more of a niche, premium brand over time that is no bad thing either. Just ask Aston Martin, Bose or Bang & Oulfsen.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:30 am

Absolutely and I actually made a point of revisiting this (and my) misinterpretation of the iPad in April: http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

That said here I believe I'm actually looking at the wider picture. Much more widely (and far more controversially) than most reports which have simply praised Apple for its brave iOS and Mac Pro redesigns. They are commendable, but in the big picture I think there are roadblocks up ahead because of its online services shortcomings. Where I'm right or wrong, we'll just have to see.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:34 am

I was with you right up until you said iOS is streets ahead of Android. I believe the polish and invention (Google Now) in Android are actually far ahead of iOS and it is a platform which can be customised by the techie or left as it is for the mainstream user... though I do believe this is only best seen with pure Android.

At the moment Apple seem to be in a refining mode - and to be fair that is where they spend more of their time - you can't have revolutionary products every year! But what I see is its lack of online services becoming a real problem down the road. And this is something that existed in Jobs' time too.

Gordon Kelly

June 13, 2013, 9:35 am

I think the concerns I have had been at the company for a long time, but whether Jobs would spotted them earlier and had a strategy to address it for WWDC 2013 sadly we will never know.

andyvan

June 13, 2013, 3:45 pm

Because it would make me a more loyal, happier customer. :)

mode11

June 14, 2013, 8:55 am

Or perhaps people will get sick of Google knowing absolutely everything about them, and there could be a backlash. I'm starting to have my doubts. Google Now is smart, but it also highlights the 'we know you better than you know yourself' factor.

Gordon Kelly

June 16, 2013, 1:39 pm

That's absolutely the right counterpoint. They may well.

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