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WWDC 2013: Old magic absent from pragmatic Apple keynote

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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.

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