All eyes were on San Jose yesterday (Monday, June 5) as Apple kicked off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2017) and gave the world its first preview of its 2017 roadmap, its Amazon Echo killer, the HomePod, and its Venmo killer, P2P payments via iMessage.
Based on what we saw, both Amazon and Venmo can rest easy.
Apple’s HomePod, powered by Siri, was the so-called “big” news in a day full of big announcements. The HomePod was the most anticipated announcement in the days and weeks before the event got underway. It is an oft remarked upon irony that the tech company that had a voice-activated assistant first is now about the last to market with a device that can give it more of a presence outside of the phone, in the face of an Amazon Alexa army of 12,000 developers.
More on that in a moment — but for mere mentions across presentations, Siri was the day’s most popular recurring character. The big iOS upgrade, which features updates from both Apple Pay and the App Store, also saw a Siri soup-up. Siri will be doing more to make the Apple Watch work more seamlessly and productively for its wearers — and perhaps lure back some of those developers who have of late abandoned the platform due to lackluster consumer interest.
Need more details?
The HomePod Is Here (Almost)
The announcement of the HomePod at WWDC gave the world its first peak at Apple’s predictably sleek and shiny answer to the proliferation of smart speakers on the market. Perhaps a bit surprising, however, is Apple’s level of focus on the speaker side of the equation — as opposed to the smart part.
“We want to reinvent home music,” CEO Tim Cook noted in his keynoted opener — and that then was followed closely upon by Apple’s Head of Marketing Phil Schiller, who, before showing the world the HomePod, talked about Apple’s over a decade-and-a-half as a musical innovator — going back to the 2001 launch of iTunes.
The HomePod, according to Schiller, is the next phase in that evolution, as it comes to market able to offer two things at once. Which, until now, he maintains, it had been either/or — really good sound (a la Sonos speakers) and a smart device that is going to make one’s life as a consumer easier (a la the Echo).
On the sound side, the Pod features a seven beam-forming tweeter array and a custom-made woofer with an Apple A8 chip. It has multichannel echo cancellation, real-time acoustic modeling and the ability to scan the space around it so it can optimize its audio according to need. Plus, combined with the announcement on AirPlay2, users can pair multiple speakers and play music across multiple rooms.
On the smart side, the service is particularly wired into Apple Music — able to take command like “play more songs like that” or “I like this song.” Siri also answers other questions — mainly at this point about news headlines or to do some task (it can control various elements of one’s home, like lights, appliances, etc). Those interactions start with an audio clue — Hey, Siri — and from there, it is off and running.
“For us, it’s not about being first. It’s about being the best and giving the user an experience that delights them every time. We don’t let that impatience result in shipping something that is just not great,” noted Apple CEO Tim Cook after the day’s presentations in an interview with Bloomberg News about how he is less concerned about the timing than market watchers.
It’s a good thing, since Apple’s stock was down nearly 1 percent at the close of the market yesterday.
Though the device is able to do simple tasks, those tasks seem to fall mostly within the Apple ecosystem of products (music, homekit, etc). Very little mention was made of third-party integrations that would be needed for the HomePod to come close to offering the skills that Alexa has. Maybe those announcements are forthcoming once the device is closer to shipping, but as of yet, third parties don’t seem to have been invited to the HomePod party.
Minus those skills — and the robust functionality that comes with them — Apple’s sound quality would need to pretty incredible, especially since the starting price for the HomePod is $349 (as opposed to $149 for the Echo or $50 for the Dot).
And while Siri got its biggest showcase during the HomePod presentation, its new enhancements as an AI assistant were bandied about throughout the discussions of the coming new iOS and WatchOS. We should note, however, that Apple talked a lot about improvements to Siri during WWDC — but offered very few demonstrations.
Apple P2P Payments (and iOS 11)
The biggest announcement out of the iOS 11 redesign part of the presentation was the announcement that Apple’s long speculated-upon addition of P2P payments to Apple Pay is finally happening. As of now, Pay P2P will live inside iMessage — as of yet it is not clear if the P2P platform will work outside of the messaging app.
What we do know is that it won’t work unless both parties have an iPhone, iPad or the Apple Watch.
Apple also launched its Apple Pay Cash card — Apple’s digital debit product. Funds sent through the P2P service will be sent to the card. From there, they can be sent back to customers’ bank accounts. Users can, however, also store the cards directly in their Apple Pay wallets and use them to spend online and in-store wherever Apple Pay is currently accepted.
With P2P payments, Apple is now directly competing with PayPal, PayPal-owned Venmo, Square Cash and popular bank services like Chase QuickPay and Zelle.
Should those providers be losing sleep? Probably not.
Also heavily hit in regards to the iOS 11 redesign: The App Store is getting a makeover. That will include the addition of a “Today” tab that will surface notable releases and a dedicated segment for games only.
Apple is also moving the store to more editorial curation. Customers will be (through AI that was mentioned but not fully explained) guided toward digital content that pertains to select apps. Going forward, developers will also gain the ability to directly list in-app purchases in the App Store — rather than making users hunt for them in the app itself.
Apple noted the new OS will go online this fall, presumably to sync up with the release of the iPhone 8, but will be compatible for iPhone 5 and later, all iPad Air and iPad Pro models, iPad 5th generation, iPad mini 2 and later and iPod touch 6th generation.
Some features — like person-to-person Apple Pay — require newer hardware.
The Apple Watch — Upgrade O’Clock
May was a tough month for the Apple Watch. As the month began, so did the steady drumbeat of reports that developers and businesses were slowly and quietly backing away from developing for the Apple Watch. Big businesses, most notably: Google, eBay and Amazon.
And perhaps in an attempt to rekindle some of that developer love, Apple announced a series of upgrades to the Watch in the hopes that customers might actually start wearing them and developers would thus start caring about them again.
The update — called watchOS 4 — will go into wide launch this fall. Available features include a Siri-powered watch face that will automatically surface relevant information at different times of the day. For example, at night Siri might pull up one’s smart home controls, or in the morning the app for one’s favorite coffee shop en route to work.
The Apple Watch will also be able to exchange information with gym equipment to ensure that it’s gathering the most accurate information. The fitness AI has been upgraded to give consumers more personalized advice on how to achieve their fitness goals.
Will it be enough to make people feel the wearable love? Again, that depends particularly on how well Siri can do surfacing actually relevant content on the Watch’s face.
But of course, the answers to these, and many other pressing questions, will only become clear when any of these products go into mass release, four to six months from now.
Not to worry — we are sure there will be plenty to discuss between now and then.