Apple’s annual developers conference kicked off this week. You may have heard about it, if you visited any website on the Internet in the past 24 hours.
The WorldWide Developers Conference, or WWDC, is about as media-saturated a news event as there is in the tech world – which is to say, it garners about as much coverage as any other Apple media event. On Monday, thousands of journalists listened intently as Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered the WWDC kick-off keynote. The speech largely consisted of myriad hardware, software and product feature announcements, interspersed with various charts and statistics that illustrate just how mercilessly the company is flogging its competitors.
As with most Apple events, coverage of Mr. Cook’s speech prompted an unfortunate amount of gawk-and-praise reportage – a seemingly endless parade of stories about the physics-bending thinness of the new MacBooks, the razorblade sharpness of their screens.
Some of this coverage is understandable, partly because Apple does build some of the best gadgets in the world – but also because the company has a rabidly loyal fan base that craves information about every last product detail.
But lost in this onslaught were some interesting implications of Mr. Cook’s latest show-and-tell – signs of where Apple is headed, and how likely it is to remain the most profitable tech company on Earth.
Tired of giving one of its biggest competitors a free ride, Apple has launched its own navigation app. It looks to be an impressive piece of software, with 3D features, turn-by-turn navigation and about 100-million business listings built-in.
Most importantly for Apple, the new app isn’t Google Maps. Google is by far Apple’s most dangerous competitor in the smartphone wars, given that the company is responsible for the Android mobile operating system, which is used by dozens of smartphone makers. The first consequence of Apple’s new maps app is more competition for Google in a realm it currently dominates. The second consequence is yet another reason not to invest in companies that build standalone navigation devices.
But perhaps the most significant feature of Apple’s new maps software is its use of anonymous, crowd-sourced traffic data. The data comes straight from Apple device users. Over the past half-decade, Apple has built one of the largest and most loyal user bases in any industry. But the company hasn’t really tried to leverage that base for any purpose other than convincing those users to buy more songs, apps and phones. By harnessing the power of its users to make its products better, Apple may have stumbled onto a powerful, relatively pain-free way to add more features to its devices for years to come.
More than any other Apple product, Siri maintains a fine balance between groundbreaking and frivolous. Devices that can understand the content and context of our speech are a huge step forward in artificial intelligence, and have the potential to make computing accessible to a much larger percentage of the world’s population. On the other hand, how many people use Siri purely as a gimmick, a way to get a quick chuckle by asking the robot living inside your computer to help you look for the nearest porn store?
On Monday, Apple gave its users groundbreaking and frivolous Siri updates in equal amount. On the frivolous side, the phone butler now has a much larger database of sports knowledge, so it can quickly tell you exactly how many points Michael Jordan scored in that one playoff game when he had the flu.
But by far the most important Siri-related update on Monday was something called Eyes Free – a vehicle integration system for Apple’s voice-command software. Already, several major car companies, including Toyota, BMW and General Motors, have signed up for the system.
This is a big deal for two reasons. First, the car-computer integration market is huge. Virtually every car-maker on the planet has invested in digital information and entertainment consoles, which have largely replaced CD-players and analog knobs. With Siri, Apple now has a means of cashing in on that market.
Second, and more tangentially, this is bad news for Research In Motion. Currently, one of the biggest players in the car console market is QNX, a RIM subsidiary that also designed the operating system that powers the PlayBook tablet. Banking on the idea that people who drive expensive cars also tend to have BlackBerrys, RIM is looking at car-phone integration as a lucrative opportunity. To be sure, QNX designs far more complex and all-encompassing digital systems for cars, but it may soon find itself up against a very large, very rich new competitor.
3: The MacBook Pro (Specifically, Its Screen)
Perhaps the biggest announcement Mr. Cook made on Monday was a new line of MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops. The highest-end MacBooks will come with “retina” display – essentially, a screen so sharp that the user can’t tell the individual pixels apart at normal viewing range.
Retina displays have proven very lucrative for Apple this year. The company’s newest line of iPads sold millions of units in large part on the strength of the screen, which featured incredible clarity and resolution. Indeed, the retina display was by far the biggest improvement to the new iPad, which was otherwise largely similar to its predecessor.
But while the technology is a short-term positive for Apple – the company will undoubtedly begin to include it in just about every screen it sells – it does mark a turning point for the tech industry. Screen resolution, once as much of a numbers race as storage capacity and CPU power, is hitting a ceiling. Eventually, the human eye becomes the limiting factor, and it makes no sense to build sharper screens. That means an area where Apple currently has the lead will slowly become an even playing field. As such, the company will have to figure out new ways to improve the hardware on its devices, as it churns out more and more iterations of its phone, tablet and laptop lines.
4: Facebook integration
One of the most difficult things to do today on the web, it seems, is not share something on Facebook. Just about every Web site comes with a stable of “Like” buttons, and some 900-million people visit the social network monthly.
Still, Apple and Facebook have had a notoriously cold relationship in the past few years. But on Monday, there came some signs that the relationship might be warming somewhat.
The latest version of the iOS software, which powers Apple’s tablets and phones, will now come with deep Facebook integration, meaning iPhone and iPad users will be able to instantly share all manner of media on the social network.
Even though the Facebook integration was one of about 200 new tweaks and improvements to the iOS operating system, it does suggest Facebook and Apple have found some ways to co-operate. To be sure, a simple integration feature is probably nothing more than a mutually beneficial business arrangement for the two companies – it doesn’t mean we’ll see an Apple-powered Facebook phone any time soon. But Facebook and Apple do have at least one important reason to work together – both companies share the same primary competitor. If you’re sharing media on Facebook using an Apple device, that means you’re not sharing media on Google+ using an Android device.
5: Tim Cook
Notable in the coverage of this year’s WWDC keynote is who wasn’t mentioned – Steve Jobs. Following Mr. Jobs’ death last October, Mr. Cook could expect every single one of Apple’s major events to generate countless comparisons between the company’s old CEO and it’s new one. And because Mr. Jobs is recognized as one of the most successful business leaders of all time, Mr. Cook rarely did well in those comparisons.
This week, however, Mr. Jobs was rarely mentioned, indicating that reporters, customers and investors have become comfortable with Mr. Cook as the leader of the most valuable technology company on the planet. It also indicates a similar level of comfort with the fact that Mr. Cook is not a world-class salesman, as Mr. Jobs was, but a detail-oriented leader who’s much better at cutting costs and managing supply lines. For both Apple and Mr. Cook, this is very good news.