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A launch with no product: Apple shifts focus to take on competitors

Timothy Cook, chief executive of Apple Inc., introduces updates to iOS, the company's mobile operating system, at the annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 2, 2014.


With billions at stake, the war between Apple Inc. and Google Inc. for control of the mobile computing industry has expanded well beyond mobile computing.

Apple unveiled a deluge of software upgrades on Monday, as the company kicked off its annual developer-focused conference in San Francisco. Garnering the most headlines were new versions of OS X and iOS – the operating systems that power all Apple PCs and mobile devices, respectively.

But beyond the new operating systems, a wider pattern was evident in Apple's onslaught of new software tools. Included in Monday's parade of products were developer toolkits for building health-monitoring and home-automation services, as well as a service that synchronizes content across almost all Apple devices, and even an entirely new programming language.

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Together, the tools give Apple stronger footing in its ongoing battle with Google to build the better all-in-one solution – a set of software and hardware products, that, taken together, manage a user's entire digital lifestyle, from communication to entertainment to home automation. By giving its Android operating system away for free, Google has come to maintain a presence on more smartphones and tablets than any other company in the world. But by keeping its software under lock and key, Apple still controls the user experience on its devices, and generates the most profit of any player in the mobile world.

"Once upon a time you'd buy an iPod and Apple would hope that the halo effect would convince you to buy a Mac," said Neil Bearse, associate director of marketing at Queen's School of Business. "But now the [user] numbers are so staggering, in both the Apple and Android camps, that it's more about creating a moat.

"It feels like you'll either be living in an Android world or an Apple world."

In the company's keynote on Monday, Apple announced new upgrades to the operating systems that run its PCs and mobile devices. The former, called OS X Yosemite, features a slew of improvements, including better mail managements and a powerful notification centre. The mobile operating system, called iOS 8, features a new health monitoring app, an improved cloud-based photo service and a predictive typing tool that attempts to guess what the user will write next.

But perhaps the most significant upgrade to both operating systems is a new tool called Continuity, which allows a user to start a task, such as composing an e-mail, on one Apple device and then complete it on another one. The tool further improves synchronization among Apple hardware – a company priority over the past few years.

Both operating system upgrades will be available to Apple users for free this fall.

However it was clear early on during the Apple keynote that the company's primary ambition is to convince as many users as possible that the company's product ecosystem, taken as a whole, is vastly superior than that offered by chief rival Google.

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At one point, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that many of Apple's newest customers had recently switched from Android-powered devices.

"They had bought an Android phone by mistake and then sought a better experience – and a better life."

But the battle to build the dominant ecosystem extends well beyond phones. Many of Apple's announcements on Monday appeared aimed at burgeoning markets that have yet to reach their potential. For example, Apple announced the release of a tool called HomeKit, which turns an Apple mobile device into a means of controlling everything from lights to thermostat settings inside a home. The tool puts Apple in direct competition yet again with Google, which recently paid $3.2-billion to acquire smart-thermostat company Nest.

Apple also unveiled a health monitoring tool that allows fitness hardware makers to take advantage of the data-collection ability of mobile devices. The tool also likely foreshadows the expected release of an Apple "smartwatch" later this year. Even though the company has yet to confirm any such device is in the works, many observers expect it to be the next major hardware innovation from Apple. Indeed, RBC Capital Markets analyst Amit Daryanani estimates that an "iWatch" could add $10-billion in revenue to Apple's books in the twelve months following its release.

However, even as fans of the company's hardware await a slew of updated phones, tablets and possibly watches in the second half of this year, Apple's immidiate focus appears to be solely on improving the software tools on those devices. In this persuit, the company went so far as to announce an entirely new programming language called Swift on Monday – part of an effort to improve the experience for the millions of developers who build iOS applications.

"If you look at Apple's current marketing campaign, it's all about, 'Look what you can do with these devices,'" said Mr. Bearse. "As opposed to, 'Look how much horsepower we can cram into this thing.'"

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