Welcome Back, Apple

Apple’s annual developer conference is underway in San Francisco. Yesterday’s opening keynote was the best since before cofounder Steve Jobs’ death nearly 5 years ago. While pundits poo-poo what’s missing (shiny gadgets), new and improved software and services matter more—and they showcase priorities properly placed.

CEO Tim Cook kicked off the event, by asking attendees to stand and offer a moment of silence for the mass murder victims the previous day in Orlando, Fla. Forty-nine people are confirmed dead and as many hospitalized from the nightclub shooting. He then went on to lay out a clear agenda for the keynote and the conference—four platforms: iOS 10, macOS “Sierra” (formerly OS X), tvOS 10, and watchOS 3

Until WWDC 2016, no post-Jobs Apple keynote or media event impressed me. Presentations felt kludgy; the vision was unclear and strategy wasn’t unified; and manipulative marketing lingo overshadowed meaningful substance. WWDC 2016 stands apart, delivering sharp focus on benefits for developers and customers—and, finally, a cohesive vision for the post-Jobs and post-iPhone eras. While much stands out, I pick seven things that suggest Apple is returning to its core competency—and that incidentally matters more: software development.

Some personal context: I bought my first Apple computer in December 1998—Bondi Blue iMac, carted out of CompUSA. MacOS 8.5 impressed the Hell out of me. I found it to be more intuitive than Windows 95/98 and more application-compatible than Windows NT 4. Software—not pretty hardware—drew me to Apple. Stability and intuitive usability stood out; the latter attribute as applied to iPod and, later, to iPhone changed how billions of people use technology.

In that context, yesterday’s renaming OS X to macOS is well-timed and fits a larger trend which importance cannot be overstated and shouldn’t be ignored by critics calling the Apple empire’s decline imminent (and I’ve been a bit of a town crier there—mea culpa). With that introduction, let’s get to those seven things, and I present a purposely short list, that could be 10-plus, in no intended or order of importance.

1. Apple’s rhythm is back. Keynotes reflect much about how cohesive is a company’s strategy; how truly enthusiastic are the presenters about it and the products; and how meaningful are the features and benefits. WWDC 2016 opening keynote had fantastic pace, briskly moving along among presenters, who as a group gave as good an aspirational show as Steve Jobs might have done solo. But they were more believable. Grounded. A team.

2. The era of Apple ego economics is over. Fanboys will burn my effigy for this: In the past, the fruit-logo company made too many decisions for the benefit of Jobs’ self-esteem. Lucky thing, he was the master of good taste, for which product development benefitted. Not surprisingly, Cook and Company needed several years to find their footing and to realign priorities. Surging smartphone sales, where iPhone made Apple the world’s most valuable company, gave the leadership team the time that they needed.

The opening keynote puts developers at the center, and that’s more than because of the audience or venue. Yesterday, Apple more broadly opened up the four platforms—and specific technologies, such as Maps, Messages, or Siri, within them—to developers. There are many reasons why platforms succeed, and among the most important: Third-parties, especially developers, make money. In iOS 10, for example, devs can reap rewards directly from the operating system—not just the App Store.

Customers will gain new capabilities and customization options long prohibited. In a dramatic departure from Steve Jobs’ reign, there are signs that “Apple’s way, or no way” no longer applies.

3. Apple’s four platforms are really one. In-house development finally focuses on connecting features with meaningful benefits among the operating systems. Something seemingly simple like copying text or photo on iPad and effortlessly pasting to a MacBook is brilliantly beneficial. Google and Microsoft tout cross-platform synergies that are meaningful, too. But the bitten-fruit company offers superior approach by emphasizing tasks across platforms as much as content.

The theme connected the entire keynote. Apple device owners can expect big, meaningful cross-device, task-oriented benefits when new platforms release in the Fall. Anyone with one of the company’s products will find more reasons to buy others.

4. iOS improvements are all about keeping existing iPhone users interested and avoiding Android switching.  During the keynote, Apple highlighted 10 things that expand iOS appeal to anyone already using iPad or, particularly, iPhone. With global smartphone sales slowing, keeping existing customers is paramount. Converting Android users is another top-line goal.

Major functional changes to notifications, lock screen, and home screen make Apple’s mobile operating system feel more like Google’s. You can say it! “Apple, start your copiers!” Version 10 wouldn’t be the first to lift concepts from Android; but the execution, as demoed, is one of the best mashups yet—Apple taking concepts that are quite good and making them much better.

Messages app enhancements—from scribbling to quick responses to emoji suggestions and more—are another example of task-oriented benefits with broad appeal. Apple puts Facebook on notice, with them.

Shake up all the new features, mix with the new capabilities that developers can bring, and iOS is refreshed like no other release since the launch of the App Store in July 2008. Core to the new philosophy, for the company and its partners: Delivering better cloud services and generating more recurring subscription revenues.

5. Finally, 3D Touch makes sense. I criticized Apple for bringing the feature to iOS 9. 3D Touch benefits are marginal and detract from what matters more in mobile devices: touchless interaction via voice. iOS 10 provides purpose, at last. The big beneficial bang will be with notifications and revealing content without unlocking the home screen. That’s but one of several examples, but the most obviously behavior-changing. Now the tech makes sense.

6. Apple at last makes voice interaction a priority. I’ve long said that touchless, and not touch, is the future of so-called post-PC era devices. While an early entrant digital assistant, Siri sucks. She struggles in my testing on all shipping Apple platforms to correctly recognize what I (or others) say and consistently provides useless or inaccurate responses to questions. If Google Now is 99 percent, and it is, Siri is more like 69 percent. If that measure was IQ, my cat would be brighter than her.

But if the WWDC 2016 keynote conveys anything rightly, then Siri is available on more platforms (macOS newly), offering more capabilities and with far better responsiveness. Even if she gets some things wrong, Siri is rightly prioritized. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft had better look over their shoulders to this late-bloomer rushing up from behind.

7. Apple wants your kids. Give them up. 🙂

Swift Playgrounds is huge. The forthcoming iPad app means to help anyone, but particularly youth, to program for iOS. During yesterday’s keynote, Cook said that programming should be a required language in schools. Education was once among Apple’s core markets, but share is bleeding, particularly to Google Chromebooks. The adage is true: Get `em young, keep them forever as users.

Making programming easier, and on iPad, puts iOS forward as Apple’s primary operating system (as it should be); provides tools that will teach would-be coders how to develop for it; and assures Apple of new developers supporting its hardware platforms (e.g, Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, iPod). Hehe, the company might sell more tablets, too.

Photo Credit: John Mitchell

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears on BetaNews.