Three lessons and three questions from Apple’s WWDC conference

Apple had a whole host of announcements in its WWDC press conference yesterday but what did we learn and what are we still left wondering about from Tim Cook and co.? Jonathan Easton breaks down what happened and where Apple stands going forward.

Apple acknowledges its spec shortcomings

While the biggest controversy surrounding last November’s MacBook Pro refresh was about the wholesale shift to USB-C, many were not particularly happy with what was under the hood. There was a lot of flash in the form of a fancy new (and functionally questionable) touch bar, but specs wise it was only a marginal improvement over the MacBook Pro that was last updated four years prior. 

Basically, people weren’t happy that the MacBook Pro didn’t seem very ‘pro’ in its performance. 

With the updated MacBooks and MacBook Pros, Apple is introducing Intel’s Kaby Lake processors. While this isn’t a radical overhaul, it does provide boosts to CPU clock speeds, and supports native acceleration for decoding and encoding some kinds of 4K video.

This might not have been the biggest of upgrades, but it does seem out of character for Apple – who had not pretty much left the MacBook Pro untouched for four years – to make an upgrade barely nine months after a big upgrade. 

This is entirely an assumption, but it would seem that this is a gesture from Apple that it realises its top-tier laptop was perhaps not quite the premium product it wanted it to be and that this is a gesture to rectify that.

iOS taking tips from Windows

It’s no secret that the iPad has cooled off over the past couple of years. While Microsoft has focused its efforts on making its portable Surface products into more agile and dynamic PCs, the iPad has become something of a blown-up iPhone. This was reflected in sales figures too as the iPad dropped 22 per cent year-on-year.

Now it would seem that Apple is taking a page out of Microsoft’s playbook with some drastic changes to iOS on the iPad.

Firstly, and most visibly, is the dock which can now be filled with more icons and appear on any screen to make it look and function more like the dock on MacOS.

There’s also a new app switcher which functions similarly to the Mac’s Mission Control, allowing you to see and switch between each window you are working on. 

Apple also has introduced drag-and-drop functionality throughout the entire OS. For example, if you’re using split screen mode you could drag a photo from Safari into iMessage.

If that wasn’t already enough, Apple is launching a desktop-style file management app to iPad which shows you all your files and supports nested folders, search and tags. Surprisingly, Files looks outside of Apple’s own ecosystem by supporting third-party storage providers like Dropbox and Google Drive.

While the iPad undoubtedly has an audience of users who enjoy the simplicity and security afforded to them by the mobile operating system, the growth of Surface along with other convertible-style tablets/notebooks shows that there is a hunger for a more powerful and customisable portable computing experience. 

Apple will hope that these changes, along with the introduction of a new 10.5-inch iPad will help the iPad recover and reinforce its position.

High Sierra is a ‘tock’

Even Apple is aware of how silly the name is. 

“We talked to the guys and they said ‘this might be misconstrued’” said senior vice president of software Craig Federighi. “But they assured us this name is fully baked.”

With the obvious jokes out of the way, what’s actually in the updated operating system?

Well, from a user perspective not a whole lot. The most obvious changes are coming to the Photos app, introducing a whole bunch of light-editing tools to change it from a photo management app into something closer to a basic version of Photoshop. Elsewhere there are changes to Safari to make it faster, more secure (the browser will use machine learning to identify and block ad trackers), and the welcome introduction of the ability to block autoplay videos. 

However, most of the changes in the operating system come in the makeup of macOS to make the entire experience faster, safer and more efficient with storage. This is mainly down to the long-awaited shift to Apple’s File System which replaces the antiquated Hierarchical File System. Seriously, HFS has been around since 1985. 

Apple also introduced a new version of its graphics tech Metal which finally brings VR support to Mac. 

There aren’t any headline grabbing features such as Sierra’s introduction of Siri to macOS last year, but that was never really on the cards. Apple has established the ‘tick tock’ release schedule of the iPhone, and High Sierra is further evidence that this mentality is fully established in macOS’ release schedule as well. Expect this to be the groundwork for big new features for Mac in 2018.

HomePod to be bridge between Echo and Sonos, or another iPod Hi-Fi?

Going into the event the big expectation was of an Amazon Echo/Google Home rivalling smart speaker. And sure enough, about two hours (two hours!) into the press conference the company announced ‘HomePod’. Its $349 (no UK pricing announced) speaker that not only brings Siri into the living room, but also looks to ape Sonos’ multi-room functionality. 

HomePod has a whole load of fancy features that I won’t go into here, but the core idea going in is that those smart speakers don’t have sound quality to match their sophistication and that multi-room speaker systems are overcomplicated and expensive. 

Apple says that HomePod ‘just works’, and that it has features such as spatial awareness to tune and better fill the room with sound. The company also says that it’s super easy to join up the speakers together and that it can detect if another is in the room and that it will play audio across both to create a better sound. 

This isn’t the first time that Apple has entered into the home audio space though. Back in 2006, the company introduced the iPod Hi-Fi at a time when iPod docks were all the rage. While an iPod dock made by the people who made the iPod seemed a sure-fire hit, the product came under a mess of criticisms ranging from pricing and lacking a radio to limited compatibility and poor audio quality. 

A year and a half later Apple checked out and discontinued the iPod Hi-Fi, telling Engadget that it “decided to focus priorities on the iPod and iPhone and will not be making more iPod Hi-Fi units”.

With the difficult experience of the iPod Hi-Fi a decade ago will Apple have learnt its lessons or will HomePod repeat those same mistakes?

Is the Mac Pro dead?

I personally was very excited to see the iMac getting a lot of love at WWDC.

While Apple’s all-in-one desktop was at the centre of a lot of fanfare when it introduced the 5K Retina display iMac in 2014, the computer has slipped under the radar since, with incremental changes but no real standout features. 

Like with the MacBook Pro, Apple is upgrading the iMac with more powerful specs and the latest Intel chips. Graphics cards are also getting a spec boost which means that they will now (finally) support VR.

The biggest statement comes in the form of the iMac Pro that has an eye-watering $4,999 price tag. The desktop starts with an 8-core Intel Xeon processor, but can be beefed up to 18-core, as well as up to 128GB of EEC RAM, 4TB of SSD storage and Radeon Vega discrete graphics cards with up to 16GB of memory. The screen is 27-inches and has four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and can push up to 44 million pixels across three screens. 

Right now, the iMac Pro is Apple’s flagship desktop. With no mention of the Mac Pro at this year’s WWDC it would indicate that Apple is quietly retiring its dedicated tower PC in favour of the slick all-in-one, though we will wait to see if the company has anything up its sleeve later this year. 

Is Apple confused about what the Watch is?

Apple also announced the latest version of its Watch operating system – watchOS 4.

The big focus this time is on Siri. A new Siri-based watch face is being introduced that uses machine learning to figure out what information is most useful at any given moment in time. The examples given were flight boarding passes and smart home controls. 

There are also some updates to fitness tracking and the ability to link devices to gym equipment. 

The announcement of watchOS 4 comes less than a year after the launch of the Watch Series 2. The newest hardware had a definite skew towards the product being more of a fitness tracker, in contrast to the luxury fashion intentions of the original Watch. 

With the new focus on making the Watch an itinerary and smart home controller Apple seems to be shifting gears yet again on what the Watch actually is and who it’s for. 

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