Apple has almost always been a company that has elicited strong feelings — from customers, from non-customers, from tech journalists. Until recently, those feelings were more or less positive and mostly based in adulation. Of late, with falling hardware sales and its air of invincibility pierced, those feelings are getting more complicated.
All things that punctuated the reporting of WWDC yesterday (June 13).
TechCrunch was over the moon. By the end of the day, it was ready to roll with 19 separate stories on the event.
The team at ABC News cheerfully reported everything they read in the press release. The Verge was mostly impressed but with a healthy vein of skepticism, noting that yesterday's presentation was more of a waving of hands at ideas that could be interesting.
The team at The New York Times seemed mostly bored. But then, they usually do.
The team at CNET seemed disappointed, bordering on a little weepy.
"Steve Jobs probably would've hated this." That is how their story began before launching into a description that characterized the conference as an unfocused jumble of feature updates with no discernible through line.
So, what really went down at WWDC, and why the wild variety of opinions? While there were a variety of opinions on WWDC yesterday, everyone agrees on what it was lacking: no big, flashy anything. This conference seemed to be more about incremental improvements more than about move-the-earth innovation.
The non-CliffsNotes version. Well, that's a little more interesting.
What Everyone Was Talking About Afterward
Mac OS X, after more than a decade, is getting rebranded in line with the rest of the Mac operating universe as macOS, to be set free amongst the people in final form during fall 2016. The name of the first official macOS product will be Sierra and, apart from its pleasantly symmetrical name, will also be more broadly interconnected within Apple's walled garden (Orchard). Among the new features that got a test drive during the presentation was Universal Clipboard, which allows users to copy and paste across multiple Apple devices. Apple also touted the forthcoming ability for users to save a Mac desktop to the cloud and access it from a different computer using iCloud Drive.
Apple also generated a lot of interest in upgrades coming to Apple Pay and Apple Music.
Apple Pay is officially making its transition to the web, though in a limited fashion. While an "Apple Pay" button will be available for a retailer's site, it will only be accessible through the Safari browser on a Mac computer. Given that, for desktop computing, Safari represents about 10 percent of desktop browser use — while Google Chrome represents about 40 percent — and that, to use Apple Pay, the desktop user still needs to be able to access Touch ID via their iPhone or Apple Watch, it is hard to imagine this creates a lot of brand new Apple Pay users. We should note Apple is clearly working hard to make it easy to sync all of those lovely Apple devices so they can work together to unlock services like Apple Pay. But it still requires owning and syncing two or three devices and using only Apple's software.
Put a pin in that, though. We'll get back to it.
Apple Music is getting something of a makeover, too. Apple hopes to answer the main complaints about the service: being buggy and hard to navigate — an rare complaint for Apple during the Steve Jobs era and an increasingly common one during Tim Cook's.
What universally caught everyone's attention, however, was that Apple plans to open up an increasing number of core products to developers, allowing them to build increasing functionality and increasingly interconnected functions across Apple.
Siri is now open for third-party app developers and able to do more to touch once-separate functions. Need an Uber? Siri can call you one. Want to send a message through WeChat? Siri can send it. In Apple TV land, Siri can now be programmed to more precisely search through the service’s 650,000 movies and shows, as well as live channels, by name or category. Maps is also increasingly open for business and more able to be programmed with local points of interest.
More Me Too
A recurring theme through the various grumbles about today's presentation was about how much of what Apple had added in term of developer functionality of operating system features was somewhat familiar ground. The updates to Photos that allow better categorization through facial recognition resemble features that have been available on Android for a while. Curated content features in Apple Music feel oddly like a retread of Spotify's features. Siri's upgrades were compared to Amazon's Alexa in every article they were featured in. Apple Pay's branch-out? Awfully reminiscent of ground already tread by PayPal One Touch and tread more broadly, considering PayPal One Touch was designed to work on any device or computer anywhere.
While deep-seeded dissatisfaction was far from the mainstream response, most people noted that, while Apple made a lot of changes, it didn't make any big changes. And it didn't really come to bat with any big, new ideas. Some sources lamented that. Others noted that Apple's M.O. isn't being first to market; it is being best.
But the problem is that none of what Apple presented was clearly the best either. Similar to what is already out there — possibly better, possibly worse — and still an untested commodity.
Karen Webster pointed to Apple's "me too" problem several weeks ago after Apple reported earnings. "Me too" seems to be the way Apple does business these days — a big departure from how it used to go to market. Everyone else used to emulate Apple. That doesn't seem to be the playbook these days.
What To Watch
While it seems everything about Apple got a long look today, one piece of news was reported often but without comment. It was about Apple News and the announcement that, going forward, users with paid subscriptions services would be able to access their accounts through the Apple News service. Heck, they'd even be able to easily sign up for paid content services (through the magic of Apple Pay) right there in the News app.
Insofar as that announcement gained any notice, it was ruled an unqualified good for all the content producers of the world.
"Good news for publishers: Apple News, which has 50 million monthly active users, will let people subscribe to get every article from their favorite publications, including those with pay walls, like The Wall Street Journal," noted The New York Times (that also has a pay wall).
And good news for Apple, notes Karen Webster, who has just managed to cheerfully place a brand new toll booth on all subscriptions of any ilk. Subscriptions for digital media have always been subject to Apple's subscription fee model of 30 percent, but Apple is making it easier for those fees to be attached to an iTunes account now.
And those subscription fees could be the start of a much more interesting world for Apple, which Karen Webster this week noted is at a turning point because it has likely seen the market for its flagship iPhone device peak.
"The bottom line is this: At least as I read my own tea leaves, Apple needs to prop up its revenue from sagging device sales. Taking a cut of app sales has been part of Apple’s DNA since Day 1," Karen Webster noted on Monday in the run-up to WWDC.
Because, as Webster noted, Apple — through its phones, devices and App Store (and rapidly expanding into the more lucrative, if less covered, world of enterprise subscription apps) — already operates an incredibly powerful retail platform that it just might be warming up to more fully monetize.
In criticizing Apple, an NYT commentator wrote:
"This is a company that still sees the tech world as defined by separate physical devices. Sure, it will integrate these devices through some cloud-based features (including some new ones it showed today), but fundamentally, each Apple device is its own, and the internet is merely the glue between them."
And that view is problematically "old-fashioned" when stacked against the more cloud-oriented future of tech that players like Google are trending toward.
"In Google’s view, the internet is the central operating system; it’s the place where all your data and tech intelligence reside."
Can Apple win that fight?
Well, as Webster notes, an awful lot of people remain awfully committed to their Apple devices, even if they aren't upgrading them every year and half as they have been. And unlike Google, Apple exerts massive control over the entire ecosystem those devices operate in and is moving to offer a service package that makes them even more able to exert that control.
Which means it just might be worth watching how Apple leverages that platform and just who it decides to "tax" for access.
Apple, as it turns out, may not have to be the most original company in the world to remain dominant. Being the world's biggest toll collector may, instead, do the trick.