Why Apple WWDC Matters to You

Tim Cook at WWDC

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

It’s almost Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference time and there’s nothing like a dev conference to get my blood rushing. So many new features, intelligence, code, and designs slathered over my devices like a lox spread schmear on a bagel.

I love it.

But for consumers, the prospect of updated mobile, desktop, wearable, and streaming box operating systems is their worst nightmare. While I’m dancing around pointing out how my iPhone possibly combined Find My Phone and Find My Friends into one app, they’re pulling their hair out wondering if Apple is also planning on releasing a “Find My App” app.

Look, there’ s no getting around the fact that changes are coming. Technology does not stand still. Hardware adapts to smaller components and new usage scenarios, while software constantly updates to support said hardware and open up and support new features. It’s a symbiosis that, unfortunately, sometimes leaves confused consumers out of the equation.

What if we try looking at what Apple might announce on Monday through the prism of consumer interests and needs? We can gauge whether something is really going to make your digital life better or incrementally worse. 

WinterOS is Coming

Craig Federighi at WWDC
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

Bear in mind that we know nothing for certain about the futures of iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS, other than that they’ll probably be called iOS 13, macOS 11 (maybe), tvOS 13 and watchOS 6. I, along with pundits across the Web, make educated guesses about what will transpire during what promises on Monday to be a very long keynote presentation by Apple CEO Tim Cook and other execs in San Jose, California.

First the good news. While there will be design tweaks across virtually every platform (Apple just unveiled a big Apple TV app update well in advance of WWDC), I don’t expect Cook to unveil wholesale interface and icon changes on any of its major platforms, including iOS. This means that while Apple might introduce an enhanced Control Panel, tightened up widgets, more powerful stacked notifications and more 3D Touch controls, it will not redesign core iPhone metaphors. My reasoning? We’re at a stage where the design is good and polished enough. Plus, a massive redesign would either cause untold pain for millions of iPhone users or prompt them to put off updating their devices for months if not years.

Changes in iOS will, as Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman notes, revolve mostly around Apple-owned apps and utilities that are, essentially part of iOS. Maps will get an update that makes it work better and more like Waze, Screen Time will get more granular controls for users and their children. The Health app will likely get another makeover, especially as Apple moves into trying to help us manage our healthcare.

One caveat to all this is how iOS updates — even small ones — can indicate future iPhone plans. 

Siri and Automation

Tim Cook talks HomePod at WWDC
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Apple will, in particular, home in on intelligence and automation in the hopes that you start using Siri more often and in more places. Most people I know barely use Siri beyond asking about the weather or a few basic questions and leave about 90% of the functionality on the table. Siri still isn’t as smart or conversationally intelligent as Google Assistant, but it’s better and more useful than you think. It’s actually a better voice assistant than Amazon’s Alexa, but without a physical presence in your kitchen or den, Siri’s presence fades as soon as you put your phone in your pocket. I will say that adding touch-free Siri control to AirPods 2 was a brilliant move on Apple’s part.

I think Apple will use WWDC to make a much bigger play for your smart home with another major update to Siri’s conversational skill and, this I pray for, a wholesale redesign of Apple Home. What? You’re not familiar with Home? It’s Apple’s main metaphor for managing smart devices and smart home scenes. To me, it’s half a good app. It makes it easy to add smart devices and control them on an ad-hoc basis but is abysmal for automation. Plus, there’s Apple’s insane insistence on using Apple TV or your iPad as a home hub. When my iPad runs out of power, my automation dies.

This may even be the moment Apple tries to turn you onto a brand-new, albeit much smaller HomePod Mini. WWDC is not a hardware event, but it has a history of surprise hardware introductions. There’s also a chance that the long-promised Mac Pro redesign could appear, as well.

Digital (and Physical) Wellness

A row of three Apple Watches from the Apple Store
Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images

A large part of WWDC will be devoted to our well-being. Some of it will come if the form of richer controls for managing our screen time, but Apple will also remind you, again, how it treats your data differently than, say Facebook or Google. It’s possible that Apple might get a bit more aggressive in this area and introduce tools to help you manage how third-party digital and social media companies access and use your data, as well.

Apple is also still concerned with your physical health. Apple Watch has turned into an effective workout tracker that, with each software update, gains the ability to track yet another workout routine. I’m not sure of exactly which workouts it can’t track (it’s not great at weightlifting), but I promise there will be more.

In addition, based on anecdotal evidence, Apple’s made some serious inroads in wearable health monitoring thanks to the increasingly popular Apple Watch. That device now carries Apple’s water for all sorts of health initiatives. The current Series 4 watch and watchOS software can track your heartbeat, watch for arrhythmia, do an EKG, and even detect a fall. The next watchOS update will use existing hardware to track your sleep. Yes, that means Apple expects you to wear the watch to bed. This presents a pair of conundrums: 1) How is this not uncomfortable, especially if you sleep with your hands under your head? and 2) When, exactly, are you supposed to charge the watch?

And, no, you’re not wrong in wondering how Apple’s apparent interest in your well-being syncs up with its ever-expanding list of services, all of which encourage you to spend more time with your devices.

Apple might be able to answer that question if, across its new Apple Arcade game subscription service, Apple TV+ content platform, and Apple News+ eat-all-you want magazine subscription service, it integrates Screen Time. It would be quite something if “take a break” message appears inside the Arcade games or if Apple adds outright control over where and when someone (you or your child) can consume and play as part of each of these new services.

Services are Key

Tim Cook talking services at WWDC
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That’s unlikely to happen, but you will hear a lot more about games, news, TV and magazine content during the keynote. How Apple packages or doesn’t package all these pay-to-play-watch-or-consume services will be a topic of ongoing discussion. Apple’s long-term business model is, especially in the face of flattening or declining iPhone sales, service revenues. It’s a brilliant play, but also pushes you and your budget to the breaking point. Not only is Apple asking you to pay for new TV, News and Game content, but there’s Music (that app should get a big update, too) and iCloud storage, as well. Not to mention what you pay for apps. It’s time for Apple to offer devoted consumers some relief in the form of more affordable bundles. Sadly, my sources say that isn’t in the cards for now. It’s a better bet that Apple will rise iCloud storage levels while maintaining current prices (see services revenue model above).

It’s not that Apple doesn’t see things holistically. It’s fully aware that Apple ecosystem customers own multiple Apple devices and are, in some instance, frustrated that the various screens still work so differently. The iPad Pro is now almost just as powerful as your garden variety MacBook, and yet there are still apps you can only run on the iPad. That’s changing, obviously. News and Stocks run on MacOS and the TV app arrives on macOS in the fall. Apple will likely announce an expansion of that cross-platform initiative and encourage iPad developers with new tools to write apps that work on both platforms. 

That said, do not expect your MacBook to turn into an iPad with a keyboard. There’s little chance MacBooks will ever have touchscreens or even rear cameras to support augmented reality, which means there will always be limits to which apps make sense on that desk- and lap-bound platform.

There's (Still) An App For That

Tim Cook in front of the App Store logo at WWDC
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Since Apple’s keynote is essentially an entertaining lecture on how Apple development initiatives align with consumer concerns, Apple will spend a lot of time on the apps you use the most. There will be myriad Safari updates across iOS and macOS. iMessage updates will bleed across iOS, Mac OS, watchOS, and possibly even tvOS. We’ll get new Animoji’s and new tools that offer powerful functionality within Messages: think of sending money to someone simply by mentioning money in an iMessage (Apple Cash) and you get the idea.

If you follow along, you will also hear a lot about “Kits.” These are development tools that power things like home automation, research, and augmented reality. For consumers, these various updates won’t mean much until developers leverage new capabilities for their consumer-facing apps and peripherals. However, the highlight here will surely be what Apple does with ARKit and augmented reality, which Cook believes is the future (not so much virtual reality). Whatever’s mentioned might offer hints about future iPhone and wearable hardware plans.

All About That Keynote

Tim Cook in front of a huge Apple Logo at WWDC
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

There may be a sly reference to the on-going battle between some disgruntled app store customers and Apple over whether or not the App Store is an unfair monopoly. Still, do not expect Cook to address your concerns about the 30% cut they take on every app and in-app purchase or how some believe that amounts to a tax on consumers. It just won’t happen, and, in my opinion, the App Store is still a beneficial monopoly.

When Apple CEO Tim Cook finally puts his hands together, nods gently and thanks us all for listening, you’ll be left with a lot to digest, but the highlight will be: No one’s moving your cheese this time, they’re just bringing crackers.