Op-Ed: My Take on Apple WWDC 2019

For years, I have observed Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference from the sidelines purely as an enthusiast. Since moving to Hootsuite, I can now definitively state that I have a proverbial horse in this race – as we publish multiple applications on the iOS App Store. Hence, this year I paid even more attention than usual – and thought I would share some of the findings. 

iOS

This year debuted iOS 13, which is very much targeted at end-user enhancements. Most of note is a native dark mode, which has been desired by end users for many years. The built in applications are all getting a plethora of feature-enhancements with the majority of the investment going into Music, Messages (including support for dual-SIM), Maps (including Street View), Reminders, and Photos. And the keyboard now supports swiping – bringing parity in alignment with 3rd party options and Android. ARKit v3 debuted with people occlusion and enhanced movement tracking along with the introduction of RealityKit, which facilitates the creation of photorealistic renderings of digital assets, animating them, and having them obey the laws of physics. CarPlay is upgraded with a new layout that appears to be imminently more useful. 

Verdict: Dark Mode, CarPlay and end-user application improvements will continue to make the iPhone the most seamless mobile experience in the industry; iOS 13 makes recent-generation devices the most capable augmented reality handset on the market and is no doubt setting the stage for something much bigger in the future. 

 

tvOS

This year saw a more modest update to tvOS. Many of the new capabilities are centered around the already announced Apple TV enhancements from the spring. Of note are multi-user support to enable personalized recommendations and support for 3rd party game controllers. The personalized recommendation support is by far the most desired feature for both my wife and I and will no doubt continue the AppleTV as our primary means of watching television. 

Verdict: A hugely convenient evolutionary release that will no doubt make AppleTV the most popular gaming platform beyond XBox and PlayStation. 

 

iPadOS

One of this year’s biggest announcements was the separation of iPadOS from iOS. First up, Safari now reports itself as a Mac to provide a full “desktop-class” browsing experience. The days of getting a mobile optimized site on an iPad are no more. iPads now support external USB storage and the ability to import photos directly from digital cameras. The Files application has been upgraded to mirror the experience in macOS. Sadly, there does not yet appear to be any feature to fully offline sync cloud libraries, but hopefully this will come next year. Multi-tasking and split screen mode has been greatly improved, including the ability to have multiple versions of an application open (e.g. multiple copies of Microsoft Word to edit different documents). There are new editing gestures to expedite things like copy and paste or undo. A one-handed shrunken keyboard is available for one-handed typing. Pencil latency has been markedly reduced on the latest generation hardware. Mouse support is finally provided, but under the guise of accessibility. And lastly is Sidecar, which allows an iPad to be seamlessly used (via cable, WiFi, or Bluetooth) as a second display for macOS Catalina. Stylus-enabled applications can now receive input directly through the pencil. And it also provides a touch bar mirroring what is on the 2016+ generation MacBook Pros. 

Verdict: iPadOS is some of the most impactful news coming out of WWDC. The improvements greatly close the gap between an iPad and a laptop, all without compromising a touch-first experience – something Apple has been extremely principled about dating back to rare indirect criticism of Windows 8. It is easy to see how these capabilities will be more rapidly evolved in the future, making an iPad the only computer one needs for more and more use cases. For someone like me, it will shift even more time to my iPad from my MacBook Pro, especially when traveling. More interestingly is Sidecar – I believe this is a hat tip to the future of touch in macOS, which has been remarkably touch-free for many years. I envisage a world where the iPad is used to enable touch (or stylus) where it makes sense but without compromising what is a desktop-first operating system. The blend of touch and desktop is an elusive holy grail no one has yet solved, but this seems to be well on its way to achieving that elusive goal in subsequent iterations. Project Catalyst makes this even more likely. 

 

watchOS

The sixth iteration of watchOS brings independence from the iPhone. The Watch will now have its own AppStore and apps can now run completely independently, opening up a variety of new completely disconnected use cases. Several popular iPhone apps are finding their way to the Watch such as Calculator and Voice Memos. Health and fitness continues to steal the show, with several key enhancements including long-term activity trends, a decibel meter to alert to potentially dangerous hearing conditions, and a menstrual cycle tracker. 

Verdict: The most popular health wearable will continue to maintain and grow its lead within the market. The ability to run independently from the iPhone and additional productivity apps will open up new use cases and possibly start to see new categories of broad adoption beyond health and fitness. For me, it will make my Watch even more useful than ever. 

 

macOS

Recent macOS releases have all had California names – this year it’s Catalina. And Catalina brings some of the heaviest investment in macOS in some time. One of the most long-requested features has materialized – the breakup of iTunes. Replacing it are new Music, Podcasts, and TV. Devices can now be directly managed in the Finder. Voice control is now offered as a new means of navigation. Apps such as Home and News will also receive significant improvements. 

Verdict: Outside of Project Catalyst (more on that) and Sidecar, this is a largely evolutionary release that delivers upon one of the most long-requested features to address the user experience behemoth known as iTunes, making it a worthwhile upgrade just for that alone. However, Catalyst and Sidecar hint at much broader ambitions to come…

 

Siri

Apple’s often criticized voice assistant gets a number of upgrades this year. First is a more natural sounding voice. Support has been extended on other devices. For example, on AirPods can read incoming messages and facilitate immediate voice-driven response. HomePods can now differentiate voices to allow for individualized responses. More third party apps can now leverage Siri in CarPlay, facilitating a much richer voice-driven in-car experience. 

Verdict: Although not as useful as Google Assistant or Alexa, Siri provides a solid “third place” but without compromising privacy. The number of additional use cases take something that has been growing increasingly useful, and make it even more so. 

 

HomeKit

HomeKit this year added support for several new categories of devices including routers and security cameras. Security camera footage can be analyzed by a HomePod and then encrypted and stored in iCloud, with 10 days of storage available at no charge. 

Verdict: HomeKit is one of the easiest smart home systems available and one that certainly makes privacy a feature. Although I personally have not gone down the smart home path, if I were to do it, HomeKit would likely be my choice given privacy concerns with other platforms. 

 

Project Catalyst

One of the largest announcements was no doubt Project Catalyst, the project formerly known as Marzipan. Developers can now take iPad applications and target macOS merely through xCode and get applications working with a minimal amount of re-factoring provided that no obsolete libraries are used and there are not too many hardware-specific features. iPad apps were chosen deliberately as they were inherently designed to handle a larger display size, with the hypothesis that the experience will translate better to macOS. This is also Apple being cognizant that an application built for a phone may not work very well on a desktop; something that is painfully apparent when utilizing Android apps in ChromeOS. Several major developers have already committed to leveraging Project Catalyst including Twitter and Atlassian. 

Verdict: Probably one of the most game-changing announcements from WWDC – this sets the stage to invigorate the macOS ecosystem like nothing before. All Mac users can no doubt look forward to many more native applications than have been previously available. Early developer feedback is very positive, suggesting that Apple’s timing is once again right to truly drive a cross-platform developer experience. As well, it sets the stage for further blurring between the iPad and the Mac. It’s easy to imagine where this goes as the iPad gains mouse support and true windowing while the Mac becomes more touch-enabled when using an iPad as a second display/input. 

 

Sign in with Apple

Single sign on has been around the Web for a while, with Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter all being quite prevalent. Now Apple has entered the fray – but with a unique twist, Privacy. Whereas the others leverage SSO to build up advertising profiles, etc. – Apple is doing the exact opposite. No data is stored. It even goes so far as to provide e-mail address obfuscation to truly maintain a private identity. And, the use of Sign in with Apple is going to be mandatory for the App Store going forward virtually guaranteeing widespread adoption. 

Verdict: This is the 2019 “Apple tax” for developers, but consumers win in the end – at the expense of the other major SSO providers. It will be interesting to see how actual end user adoption goes, but as a privacy minded individual – I can see myself using this. 

 

The Mac Pro & Pro Display XDR

Several years back it seemed that Apple had abandoned the professional user with the 2013 Mac Pro that didn’t seem to solve very many problems for anyone while exiting the display market and pushing users towards MacBook Pros and USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. The rest of the line somewhat languished beyond the outstanding 5K iMac. Professional users were rightfully outraged. 

In a rare about-face, Apple admitted it had gone down the wrong path and re-committed to the professional audience, but with a 2-year tease for a new Mac Pro. In the interim, the core iMac and notebook lines have been refreshed with much better regularity and seen massive specification increases – hindered only by the awful butterfly keyboards. The Mac Mini received an impressive specification boost that nobody thought would happen. The iMac Pro debuted and delivered the most powerful Mac to-date – something far more powerful than the 2013 Mac Pro. All of this led to the speculation that the new Mac Pro and display would be horribly off the mark when they did arrive; the rumor mill was convinced it would be a stackable system of Mac Mini-like enclosures with proprietary connectors while users lamented the old G4-style “cheese grater” chassis. 

In a somewhat shocking move, Apple reimagined the “cheese grater” and delivered the most powerful and expandable Mac ever seen. Industry standards like PCIe are embraced, but Apple made it better with the MPX modules and is encouraging an open ecosystem. At debut, the new system has an impressive array of GPU options plus a FPGA coprocessor for editing up to 3 streams of 8K or 12 streams of 4K video. This is paired with a 32” display that can operate in either portrait or landscape at Retina 6K resolutions with an astounding 1M:1 contrast ratio. The whole setup is ungodly expensive, but ungodly powerful. 

Verdict: Nobody can say that Apple doesn’t care about professionals any longer. There is truly something for everyone from extremely powerful notebooks and iMacs Mac Minis with 3rd party display and GPU ecosystem to the iMac Pro – and now this beast of a setup. It punches far above the weight class of any previous Mac Pro, whose use cases can now arguably be met with the iMac Pro or other aforementioned options. The level of power (and price tag) one can configure is pretty amazing. Likewise, the new display’s specifications are competing with reference displays costing tens of thousands of dollars. When looking at what is being delivered, it is priced competitively to inexpensively depending on the use case. 

As someone that does a lot of virtualization as well as photography (with a budding interest in SLR panoramic photography, which requires a lot of horsepower), this is the Mac Pro I’ve been waiting for. Although an iMac Pro would definitely meet my needs, the modular expandability wins every time. My last Mac Pro lasted from 2006-2016; I can’t say I’ve managed to get a decade out of any other computer I’ve owned. I expect no less here…

 

Closing Thoughts

This was an incredibly exciting WWDC. My key take-aways:

  • The most refined mobile operating system gets even more refined, with a lot of core functional enhancements and a much desired dark mode combined with the best in-car experience available
  • Although by no means winning the AI assistant race in terms of features, Siri has evolved to the point of genuine utility while not sacrificing privacy
  • HomeKit has expanded to pretty much every mainstream use case for a smart home platform, while again prioritizing privacy
  • The Watch and watchOS have emerged into a first-class platform, with a plethora of new use cases opened up with iPhone independence. Only time will tell if the Watch will continue to be a health and fitness first device (and the undisputed leader there) or evolve into something broader. 
  • Apple is truly becoming the “privacy as a feature” company, with this being a core value proposition of virtually every product line and the new Sign in with Apple, which provides a unique means of obfuscating one’s identity over the Internet in what will no doubt become a very widely adopted SSO mechanism given the mandate to leverage it in the App Store. 
  • Apple is more committed to the Mac ecosystem than ever, with the introduction of Catalina, the new Mac Pro, Pro Display XDR, and Project Catalyst, which looks to be on the verge of bringing a multitude of iOS applications to the Mac in an extremely seamless and expeditious fashion. Big name adoption and early positive feedback are indicators that taking the time to mature Project Catalyst was probably the right thing for all. 
  • The iPad is now becoming a true laptop replacement for many more use cases. It’s touch-first user experience is not being compromised in any way and it is clear Apple has even further ambitions in the future. Even more interesting is its fusion as a touch-display accessory to macOS allowing a best-of-both worlds without any compromise. Project Catalyst and harmonizing the developer platform between iOS and macOS hints at likely even greater things to come as iPadOS and macOS converge. 

The fact that iOS was not the star of the show acknowledges what sales and Wall Street have already recognized we are likely at peak iPhone. The renewed focus in broadening and growing the overall Apple ecosystem quashed any lingering doubts I had about Apple’s overall strategy.    

 

Some Other Thoughts

First, a hat tip to my good friend and former colleague Dylan Lloyd, with whom I always enjoy discussing Apple’s latest including this WWDC. 

This is also my first blog post in almost three years. Shame on me. Now that I work for Hootsuite as a social-tech company, I must endeavour to “be more social” and blog more often. Thanks for reading! 

 

 

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