Apple WWDC 2013: from ‘iRadio’ to iOS 7

Apple WWDC 2013: from ‘iRadio’ to iOS 7

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Talking to developers ahead of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at San Francisco, one detects a sense both of puzzlement and excitement.

Puzzlement because there have been absolutely no leaks from the company ahead of the announcement on Monday, at which chief executive Tim Cook, marketing chief Phil Schiller, software chief Craig Federighi, services chief Eddy Cue and – perhaps – design head Jonathan Ive will be speaking.

Excitement because it’s been years since so little was known ahead of a big Apple event like this. Even John Gruber, normally one of the best-connected people with “little birds” who pass on hints and nudges from inside Cupertino, professes that he has no idea what’s coming. That in turn means that people are awaiting the “big reveal”.

As ever with Apple, one has to go on hints, nudges and timing. So let’s run down the list of certain through to definitely not.

• There will be a new version of iOS – iOS 7 – revealed, at least in part. It’s expected to be released in the autumn, when the next update of the iPhone is released. Based on the icons some claim to have seen, and the posters for the conference, the expectation is that it will follow Ive’s philosophy: no frippery in appearance, and a “flatter”, more functional appearance.

The death of skeumorphism (seen in apps such as Find My Friends, which suffers faux leather stitching for no obvious reason, and Find My iPhone, which displays a bizarrely flickering compass needle while it “looks” for your device, and so on) will be widely celebrated. Scott Forstall, the former chief for iOS software, was known to be a fan of skeumorphism; Ive isn’t.

The question around iOS is what it will do to bring it forward to cope with the next years of smartphone development. In recent years it has added the Notification Center (just like Android’s), iCloud and its own Maps app. The first won applause; the latter two, raspberries. Furthermore, there’s no way to change the default apps for processes like maps or email, nor any equivalent of the “intents” that Android uses to let apps hook together. On the desktop, Apple has its own equivalent of intents – Applescript’s object handlers – but hasn’t let mobile apps link up in the same way.

The enduring question is, do most people need or want the power to change their default apps, or to hook together mobile apps? It’s a fact that a minority likes being able to change the default apps on Android. That’s very different from the question of whether it’s necessary or even desirable. Most user behaviour sticks with defaults; allowing different ones multiplies the complexity of support geometrically, both from the developer end and the customer support end.

Tim Cook seemed to suggest at the ATD11 conference that Apple might be receptive to the idea of making the iPhone more open to third-party apps, which has companies which write keyboard apps (for example) pricking up their ears. Even so, it seems unlikely. Far more likely that more companies will be “baked in” to the operating system – so where last year both Twitter and Facebook were added as baseline apps to which one could post from anywhere in iOS, this year Flickr and Tumblr may join the crew. (That would be a double win for Yahoo.) Don’t expect YouTube or Google+ to be made first-class citizens. Because, you know, reasons.

• A new version of Mac OS X will be shown off. The name and timing of its release are unknown, but from the poster that’s on show at the Moscone Center where the event will happen – showing a thin sans-serif “X” against what looks like algae – some people have decided that the next version of the desktop software will also have “Lion” in the name, just like the previous two.

What name? “Mac OS X Sea Lion”. (Brm-tish.)

Seriously, though, it’s hard to know quite what the desktop can learn from the tablet or phone version, as happened with the previous version a year ago. More likely – one hopes – that Apple will see the tablet as a “middle ground” which can learn from the desktop, as Microsoft has done with the Surface, where you can have two windows open from different applications at once, greatly easing the task of shifting information between apps. The great revelation about the original GUI interface on the Mac compared with command-line interfaces was that it made it easier to shift information around between apps; iOS on both the iPhone and iPad has apparently forgotten this fact, which Samsung (on TouchWiz Android on large screens) and Windows 8 (on the Surface) have both shown to be a useful function. If “Algae X” really indicates that the iPad version of iOS will get extra functionality, that will be all to the good.
Fairly certain

• A new Mac Pro, the professional desktop computer. The Mac Pro had a minor update in June last year, but has been essentially moribund since 2010. The expectation is that it will finally get high-end processing and a design update – along with an announcement, hinted at by Apple sources, that it will be made in the US. Certainly WWDC would be the appropriate venue to announce a new version of the professionals’ desktop product. Otherwise it will just wither on the vine.

• A streaming music service, perhaps called “iRadio”. All three major music labels are now reported to be on board with this, which would enable Apple to steamroller companies such as Pandora and Spotify by offering a free (ad-supported) service to its hundreds of millions of iTunes users. One big advantage Apple has over those rivals is its Genius service, launched in 2008. Genius runs in the background looking at all of your iTunes library, trying to figure out what goes with what; that could make “iRadio” fantastic, because the best predictor of what music you’ll like is what music you already like – not, as some services try to pretend, what your friends like.

True, Apple’s Ping service flopped badly – but that’s because it tried to be a social network. Unusually for something that so many people engage with, one’s taste in music isn’t social; it’s not predictable from your political or social position. You don’t necessarily like the music your friends like. You like what other people who like the same music like. Genius should know what that is – so “iRadio” should be good at finding music you’ll want to listen to.
Less certain

• New MacBook Airs. The lightweight computers could get an update with the Intel Haswell chip, which uses far less power than previous generations. But it’s unlikely there will be a “retina” version with four times as many pixels as now; the battery wouldn’t be able to take the hammering that implies.

• A new Apple TV set-top box, and apps to go with it. Last year, it looked completely obvious that Apple would announce an SDK (software development kit) for Apple TV apps, which would lead its way into the “smart TV” revolution. Nothing of the sort happened. Increasingly, it’s hard to see how any company can break into the content producer/cable TV tieups in the US which dictate how companies like Apple view TV. Both sides benefit from the situation as it stands; neither would benefit from its breakup. (For more on this, and why the idea of “cable-cutting” is a fiction, read Ben Thompson’s Stratechery posts.) Google underestimated the extent of this interdependency with Google TV, though it did incidentally prove that simply offering a technology is no guarantee that it will be adopted by anyone.

• Improvements to Maps. This is sorely needed; the cartography gives roads insufficient emphasis when trying to find locations, and updates (aka corrections) aren’t taken in rapidly enough.

• Better connectivity to Siri. Again, this was hoped for last year and didn’t emerge; instead Apple itself began offering more interfaces from Siri to services such as football results. Opening it all up to third-party apps could be a voice control boon.
Just uncertain

• Time-limited or other flexibility on buying apps. Developers complain that they can’t offer time-limited full functionality, nor “buy the functionality” versions of apps; all they can do is offer two versions, the “lite” and “full” versions of apps.

Apple however has little reason to salve these complaints. It can point out that it’s still (for now) the company with the most app downloads, and certainly the most monetisation of those apps. For developers, the money is starting to shift into developing “line of business” apps for companies of all sizes: two of the restaurants I visited today in San Francisco used iPads for their point-of-sale systems, and it won’t have been because Apple is headquartered in the same region. (After all, so is Google.) Though apps could certainly benefit from more variation in sales systems, there’s little incentive for Apple to add what it will see as more complexity to its app sales process.

• Better iCloud. Developers have been complaining bitterly about iCloud, with good reason. As one pointed out to me, its problem is that it’s an umbrella name for all sorts of processes – synchronising email, calendars, passing data about location, synchronising documents, storing information. It doesn’t work well for third-party developers, and barely for Apple. At the two-year mark, it’s time for something to change radically so that iCloud makes sense.

• An “iWatch”. The idea of a wearable something – watch? – is tempting, but it’s the wrong time of year to launch it; Apple is increasingly focused on the Christmas buying season, though it might not be averse to offering something in summer to test the waters, and release a newer version in a year’s time to really go for the mass market.
Definitely not

• New iPhones. It’s the wrong time of year, and this is a developer conference, not a hardware conference.

• New iPad(s). As for iPhones, it’s the wrong time of year; announcing something now would just give rivals the chance to announce something in early autumn and capture Christmas share.

• A TV set. The fact that the rumours persist around this doesn’t make it more true; it just makes those who push the rumours persistent. Those are two quite different things. There’s too little renewal in the TV business to make it worthwhile for Apple; the margins are too low; it’s a commodity business which is shaped by its content, which already suffers from the cable/content tieup.

• Any mention of the Prism programme and the access the NSA gets to messages and email. Even if it is the story dominating front pages and news bulletins.

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