A few months back I wrote Apple’s 2016 in Review, which took Apple to task with some problems I felt needed to be addressed. It got fairly wide distribution (thank you!) and a lot of constructive feedback, and because of it, I was really looking at WWDC this year as a bit of a test on whether Apple was figuring it out and fixing the problems I had seen.
Oh, boy howdy.
Lots of people have done a great job going in depth with what’s coming out of WWDC: if you haven’t already, please go check out the coverage at places like Jason Snell’s Six colors, Rene ritchie and friends at iMore, and Jim Dalrymple and his team at The Loop. I’m going to focus just on the pieces that grabbed my attention, both in good and bad ways.
One thing to remember about WWDC: the keynote just starts the onslaught of information, and new stuff, clarifications and better understanding leaks out throughout the week, unlike standalone product announcement events. So as I write this we are literally still figuring out what we need to know and what parts of what’s being discussed is really important. It’ll take a couple of weeks for everyone to really get their heads around this WWDC, so don’t be surprised if opinions change or new stuff surfaces that we missed early on.
I’m going to break this down broadly into the four significant device platforms, and talk about both software and the related hardware in each, and then wrap it up with some general ideas. And with that, onward
Tim Cook opened with an update on TVOS, which is not really a true statement, since all he did was announce the well-rumored addition of Amazon to the Apple TV, coming sometime later this year. It seemed pretty clear to me that the big news for the Apple TV is coming later, probably in the fall (4K support?) and Tim all but said “stay tuned….” — but for right now, not much going on with the Apple TV, but I’m not sure I’d read too much into that.
A few updates have shown up post keynote, most notably the ability to automatically switch between light and dark modes depending on time of day, which is nice.
But I think we all need to set a reminder for the fall and see what happens.
The Apple Watch also got a fairly short time in the keynote, and the updates were minor, with some new watch faces being the highlight. In later releases it was also noted the honeycomb app screen can be turned into a list now, which I will happily adopt as soon as I move to the beta software.
I think the big takeaway for the watch, though, is that Apple seems to have figured out what it’s good at, set up the software to leverage those strengths, and is now iterating on that instead of reinventing. That’s a good thing.
MacOS High Sierra
My primary reaction to the announcement of the next release of MacOS — High Sierra — was disappointment to hear nothing of HomeKit coming to the Mac. Oh well. Also both anticipation and trepidation at the migration to the new APFS filesystem, which is enough for me to let others try the first few betas, I think. But overall, more stepwise improvements in the software and a steady move forward for a mostly mature OS.
New Mac Hardware
Apple spun out Kaby Lake updates to its laptops, an updated set of iMacs, and opened the kimono on the iMac Pro. At which point my wallet started itching, big time.
I’m impressed with the hardware upgrades overall. The “iMac Pro” machines are expensive, but if you’re worried about the price you don’t need one because they’re designed for a small part of the market, and we aren’t in that part. That said, they’re definitely lustworthy, and I have so lusted. But resisted.
On the other hand, the updated 5K iMacs, with P3 screens and new processors and things, really interest me. I almost bought one, slept on it, and decided to hold off, because right now, there are times when it would be really useful, but in reality, unless I start doing more serious photo geeking or more video production than I’m currently doing, my existing setup works fine. So I’ve decided to put this on hold for a bit, but seriously, I’d love to have one.
Oh, but we did get VR kits, and Apple jumped in with both feet. I haven’t really looked into it in detail, but they clearly have made a bit commit here. Interesting that Oculus was nowhere to be found, that all of the hardware they showed were Vive units, and that they were never named in any way, either. Hmm.
Whither the Mac Pro
Little was said about the Mac Pro but it’s still coming down the road. I’ve seen a number of people wondering how the Mac Pro can “beat” the iMac Pro, and are assuming it’ll be more expensive, and I think they’re overthinking it. I expect the Mac Pro will be a complementary product to the iMac Pro, in many ways with specs like an iMac minus the screen. I also think that the Mac Pro base price will be below the iMac Pro, but that the top end models will be more expensive than the most expensive iMac. The big advantage of the Mac pro will include having no screen (for those of you who want/need to rack them up in a server room) and greater extendability and upgradeability.
Apple did announce support for external GPU devices, which I like and thought they might. I expect one feature of some of the Mac Pros will be an internal version of that external box. And one reason I’m holding off on the iMac for now is that I might be able to add that external unit to my MacBook Pro later and get most of what I need. But expect that functionality to be baked into the higher end of the Mac pros when they ship.
Mac Mini. Hello?
And while they even updated the venerable MacBook Air (a bit), the Mac Mini is sitting there in its ancient and increasingly “what about this then?” glory. I have to admit, I can only think of one reason for this: that they still plan to replace the Mac Mini down the road, and that it’ll be done with a lower end version of the Mac Pro. Here’s hoping, because I’d buy that thing in a femtosecond. But for now, the Mac Mini continues to be an enigma of “why is is not updated and still on the price list?” — I’m a little surprised it didn’t get a CPU refresh with everything else here, but I’ll bet our friend the Thermal Limit problem is the reason, and replacing it will require the stuff being done on the Mac Pro. At least, I hope so.
IOS: Lots of love for iPads. Augmented reality. Your best coverage of IOS is at Macstories, so go read it. My take: it seems to have taken Apple a while to both understand what makes iPad special and interesting and useful, and to get the system coding done to start implementing that vision. Moving iPad beyond “it runs iPhone software with some tweaks” to having a real feeling of being designed for the tablet is a good thing. This is now started, and I’m looking forward to digging in and seeing how I like it in reality.
The new iPads
As with the software, we now see that Apple sees how the iPad differs from the iPad pro and how to segment their products to their audiences. It seems to have taken Apple a bit of time to sort out what the iPad really is, and here it is: iPads are consumption centric devices, and iPad Pros raise that consumption capability, but are really about content creation.
I am somewhat tempted by the new iPad Pros but I’m happy with my fairly modern unit as well, so I’ll wait.
For a long time the App Stores just sat there, and Apple seemed happy with them because money was flowing through them. Developers weren’t happy, and honestly, they were stale and not interesting or that useful in finding the apps you want, but it seemed that as long as the money flowed, Apple saw that as success.
Then developers started abandoning the Mac App Store, loudly. And that seems to have caused Apple to take another look at things, and Phil Schiller got put in charge of the stores. And things started changing. It’s been about a year now, and Apple has announced a major redesign of the stores.
At first glance, I really like it, with a few caveats. Moving to a much more visually interesting and modern look, some category reorganization, and a lot more curation. A LOT more curation. As someone who’s been watching the Apple job board for the last few months, I can note they’ve been staffing up editorial staff for months in preparation for this (although not me, but I’m not bitter. No, seriously, I’m not) and it’s clear a stronger editorial voice and person curation is their model for dealing with discoverability issues in the stores today.
I think that’s great and I think it’ll work great (or I wouldn’t have applied into the team: and seriously, I’m not bitter), but it’s unclear to me if this is going to be good or bad for smaller and indie developers. There are going to have to be strong attitudes and policies for this curation to surface and promote the smaller developers, or we’ll end up with ever fewer, bigger blockbuster apps and the rest will get lost in the dust. I’m hoping that the staffing up I saw in the App Store editorial team indicates that’s their direction, but it’s unproven now, and that’s my caveat. This seems to be really good for the App Store overall, but whether it’ll be good for the indie devs, we’ll have to wait and see. I hope so.
One big positive: app reviews won’t (by default) reset every time a dev update their app. That will actually encourage good developers to update, because they don’t lose the positive review histories by doing so. I really like that change.
There was a lot of chatter leading up to WWDC about Apple “finally” coming out with it’s competitor to Amazon Alexa with their own “lady in the can”. What we actually got was the HomePod, a new smart speaker with advanced audio capabilities, and oh, yeah, you can control it with your voice. It’s Siri support and capabilities were almost ignored, to the surprise of many.
In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense to me. We have a tendency to think in terms of technologies; Apple envisions and builds products around solutions. The “lady in a can” personal assistant idea is still in its infancy; as Michael Gartenberg says, “If this assistant was a real person I’d fire them because they’re stupid”. And he’s dead right, and Apple doesn’t ship products that aren’t going to work to customer expectations, and any assistant Apple might build would not just have to work as well as Alexa (and whether they can do that with Siri today is arguable) but has to live up to the special Apple Standards we attach to everything.
So instead we get a smart speaker, good audio and voice control (which can be extended to full Lady In a Can mode if and when Apple chooses to). Really smart move on Apple’s part, because this isn’t a product that will be easily compared to Alexa and found wanting. It’s in its own niche. I’m sure the Sonos product managers aren’t happy, but they aren’t destroyed, either, given this product is Apple Music centric.
It’s very much an Apple product solving a very specific need in the Apple ecosystem. It can become a lot more over time as the personal assistant capabilities mature — if Apple chooses to — but they very much didn’t oversell or place it in the market in a way to encourage comparisons. Lots of smart marketing here around what looks like a good product with a lot of technological upside over time.
For me? My initial thought was whether I could replace my TV sound bar with this, and right now, I think that answer is “no”. Without that, this doesn’t fit my needs or usage patterns very well, so I’ll stay on the sidelines for now. But it’s a product I want to watch down the road because of the possibilities it might surface later. I like it, even if it’s not really for me right now.
This week in summary
My take on Apple in the last year and a half was that it seemed to have hit that point in its growth where the old processes and strategies were struggling to keep all of the balls in the air at once, and a few of them hit the ground.
Figuring this out seems to have started with the recognition that the Mac App Store (and to a lesser degree all of the app stores) were a problem needing to be solved and handing it to Phil to fix. Then the MacBook Pros came out in October and the Touchbar got very lukewarm reviews (to put it mildly) and a lot of criticism from developers and higher end users.
And to their credit, I think Apple listened, took the criticism to heart and set out to fix things. The Mac Pro roundtable they did a couple of months ago were an indication of a change in mindset there and a willingness to admit mistakes and move forward from them.
And now we have WWDC 2017, where Apple made good on the first stage of promises from that roundtable, showed off a new commitment to the iPad as well as a real understanding of why it can be special and not just a big iPhone, and Phil, while having fixed a bunch of App Store issues over the last year (hello, reduced review times!) showed off the long needed redesign of the store.
This is by far the strongest WWDC we’ve seen in years, and the strongest set of product releases in a while as well. it’s hard to think of a mis-step or a mistake, the biggest criticisms are things that simply don’t exist yet (home kit on a mac: seriously, apple, get coding) or are items of potential where we’ll have to see how they grow up over time (hello, HomePod).
So if my criticism of Apple nine months ago was a company not firing on all cylinders, my take on it today is that they figured it out, dug in and fixed the problems, and they’re back. And I say that without hesitation or qualification. I’m 100% happy with what I’m seeing this week and the future Apple it shows me in their direction and attitude.
Apple was never really broken, it just needed a bit of a tune up. And it pretty clearly has gotten that, and it’s back, and it’s ready to push forward into the future. And that’s a really good thing to see. Well done, folks.