The upgrades and products touted at this year’s WWDC lacked the pizzazz Apple needed to re-establish itself as a company that delivers breakthrough technologies.
A few weeks before Apple's 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), I read a fascinating Wired Magazine cover story written by Steven Levy about Apple's new campus. I recommend you check it out if you haven't read it yet. One particular set of sentences stuck with me:
Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death.
Though Apple won’t officially confirm or deny the project’s reported $5 billion price tag, Cook doesn’t correct me when I cite it during our time together.
Even more recently, I was set back on my heels when I read that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak no longer believed that his "baby" was capable of creating fundamental technology breakthroughs, due to its age, size, and bureaucracy. Apple's moonshot heir apparent? Tesla.
Admittedly, these two recent data points may have coloured my perspective on the products and plans that Steve Cook and his lieutenants just rolled out, but I don't think so. Look at my Apple coverage over the years, notably from someone who's not just an observer but has plenty of company-branded hardware and software under his roof, and I think you'll sense a consistent (if anything, increasing with time) vibe of pessimism.
This year's WWDC did nothing to reverse or even slow that trend. If anything, in fact, it further accelerated. I'm not going to devote this particular post to covering everything that got unveiled at WWDC … you can get plenty of that elsewhere … at AnandTech, AppleInsider, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, MacRumours, Macworld, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, The Verge, Wired, and the like. What I'm going to do is focus in on a few case study examples that showcase what I saw as the key themes of the 2017 WWDC: incremental half-steps, prematurely unveiled me-toos, attempts to extract additional content and service revenues from existing users, and intentional hardware obsolescence by design. Read through the categories below and then, as always, I welcome your perspectives in the comments.
WWDC is a developer conference, after all, so new software was as usual a key keynote focus. But there was little breakthrough in either of the company's "tentpole" operating systems, aside from (perhaps) their new AR, VR, and machine learning APIs. Upcoming MacOS "High Sierra" (10.13) for computers sounds quite similar to its predecessor, today's "Sierra" (10.12), just as "Snow Leopard" (10.6) closely followed in "Leopard's" (10.5) footsteps. And in both cases, spit-and-polish refinements seem to dominate; the APFS (Apple File System) announced at last year's WWDC finally makes it to MacOS this fall, replacing the longstanding HFS+ precursor, but tweaks otherwise dominate.
As for iOS 11 … when the very, very belated unveiling of a file management utility is the biggest news, that's pretty sad. Actually, there's other news, which is perhaps even sadder. iOS 11 will completely dispense with support for legacy 32-bit applications (with MacOS ironically following it in short order), and hardware containing 32-bit-only CPUs will also not be upgradeable to iOS 11. Also, although the recent brief disappearance of 32-bit applications from App Store search results was apparently just a glitch, developers will undoubtedly focus on 64-bit support going forward. The inevitable end result? Otherwise perfectly acceptable hardware will end up in landfills because up-to-date programs are no longer available for it. That's a waste and a shame.
Most of what we got at WWDC came in the form of baby-step advancements; iMacs and MacBooks based on seventh-generation Intel Kaby Lake CPUs versus today's sixth-generation Skylake-based products, with both CPU families based on 14nm process foundations. Back in 2013, Apple had unveiled a completely redesigned high-end Mac Pro platform; stunning to the eye, but impractical in practice (and increasingly so with the passage of time, due to obsolescence). It wasn't user-upgradeable, in contrast to its more conventional predecessor's design, and Apple made only occasional (and belated) updates to its CPU, graphics subsystem, and the like.
Well, the planned Mac Pro reboot isn't here yet, although the company promises us it's still coming, but as a stopgap, we get the iMac Pro. It will have high-end Xeon CPUs, along with higher-end graphics, but still no user upgradeability (of memory, even, far from anything else), and a 5K-resolution display … along with a $5K starting price tag. Thankfully, MacOS High Sierra will include official support for Thunderbolt 3-tethered external GPU enclosures, so users will at least be able to upgrade their graphics subsystems that way (NVIDIA's recent release of Pascal drivers for MacOS now makes more sense). But professionals are otherwise likely to be underwhelmed with the iMac Pro, surrogate for Mac Pros of days past.
Figure 1: Although the CPU and graphics are upgraded, the iMac Pro still does not offer user upgradability.
No official news on next-generation iPhones yet, just lots of leaks and dubious prototype-and-case photos. The iPad mini remains on life support, and the mainstream iPad received no updates (then again, it just got tweaked in March). All the action at WWDC was on the high-end, high-margin iPad Pro front. The 12.9" model finally got a CPU upgrade, and the 9.7" variant was EOL'd in favour of a 10.5" successor that's actually only slightly larger thanks to a narrower bezel around the LCD.
Figure 2: The iPad Pro series has now a 10.5" variant with a narrower bezel around the LCD.
One thing I'll give Apple credit for … the company sure has assembled a crack chip design team. The biggest thing I'm wondering about the new A10X "Fusion" SoC is whether it is the first to include Apple's internally designed GPU core (to Imagination Technologies' dismay … although was anyone there really surprised after Apple unveiled its proprietary metal graphics API, I wonder?) But if Apple really thinks that the combination of the iPad Pro and an external keyboard will enable it to seriously compete against Microsoft's Surface line and other ultrabooks (thereby rationalising the file manager that's finally coming in iOS 11) … well, all I can conclude is that it’s obvious recreational marijuana is now legal in California.
Let me be clear up front that Apple has successfully captured a notable chunk of the overall wearable device market with its Apple Watch line. But with that said, also keep in mind that Apple Watch is the only new product category that the company has launched since Steve Jobs' death (although the kick-off of its development reportedly predated his passing). And the overall category (also including fitness bands, Android Wear-based products, recently-passed Pebbles, and the like) hasn't been the technology "home run" that some had hoped.
If the overall wearable category has instead only turned into a double (hit, not play … and yes, I'm still being kind), then Apple's contribution is something on the order of a bunt single. And the just-announced v4 of the WatchOS isn't going to kick off a ninth-inning rally, either; I'm sorry to have to prognosticate. Let's be honest; when "new watch faces" are what Macworld's WatchOS 4 coverage leads with, that's pretty sad. And a bit more Siri integration is all well and good, but Apple's not exactly building on a position of strength here.
Speaking of Siri, I'll close with a bit more here. It's ironic that while Siri was the first major AI "assistant" offering to hit the market, it's subsequently been eclipsed so quickly and completely by alternatives such as Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, and (yes) Microsoft's Cortana. I use the voice interface option on my Android smartphones and tablet all the time nowadays, and my wife and I also both regularly converse with the various Amazon Echo units scattered around our house. But Siri on both her iPhone 5S and iPad 3 is a perpetual source of frustration; I long ago gave up on it on my iPad 3. Apple once again promised enhancements to Siri this year at WWDC, but the competition isn't standing still.
Which leads me to HomePod. First off, keep in mind that it's now early June as I write this. HomePod, like the iMac Pro (by the way), won't show up in stores until at least December. It will cost $349, versus $180 for the Amazon Echo (or less … I regularly see it now on sale for around $150) or $50-or-less for the Echo Dot. And, reflective of Siri's bigger-picture woes, it's not being positioned first and foremost as a voice-controlled personal assistant (unlike the Echo line, not to mention Google's $109-or-less Home), but as an upscale audio playback device.
Remember last time Apple launched an upscale audio playback device? It was called the Apple Hi-Fi. I roundly mocked it at its unveiling. And shortly thereafter it quickly and quietly succumbed to a terminal illness know as "consumer refusal." I'm sure HomePod sounds great, although from a transducer standpoint, its fundamental advantage over the half-as-expensive Echo seems to be a few more midrange/tweeter drivers. But at twice the price of the Echo (not to mention more expensive than Sonos alternatives, too)? And let's not forget about the three-year launch lag versus the Echo, either? I think I smell the recreational pot smoke wafting from Cupertino again.