Integrating its Way to the Future: Apple WWDC

Apple’s annual World-Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) is one of the most anticipated and best-covered tech events of year. WWDC is typically about software updates, while the so-called Special Events are where the new hardware products are announced. Computer hardware is pretty locked in these days, with the four dominant platforms (laptop, table, smartphone and watch) making incremental advances with little prospects of anything ground breaking coming along. Most of the action in hardware is now taking place in non-computer devices like cars, homes, offices, cities, and legacy networks that are being transformed in more subtle ways by the addition of computer intelligence. With multiple platforms, integration is the easy way to leverage discrete strengths into a more dominant footprint.

Four Platforms in Need of a Maestro

With so many computers and computer-assisted devices in the world, the integration of all these clever little gizmos becomes ever more important. Integration strategies are reveal a lot about company engineering cultures and also provide us with insight about what’s around the corner. Apple has a huge advantage in devices because it makes the leadership technology products on all four computer platforms. Some correctly argue that high-end Android phones are more feature-rich than iPhones, but the Android ecosystem leaves a lot to be desired, especially for developers.

But Apple has fallen short in integrating its own devices with each other. Users want a seamless experience across all their personal devices, but all too often we don’t have that with Apple’s products or anybody else’s. While it’s certainly possible for users to login to a group of devices one time and share data across all of them, device integration is often much too complicated as well as too task-oriented. Rather than using telling Air Drop to transfer a picture taken on the iPhone to the Downloads folder on a Mac, it would be nicer if the two devices did this automatically, for example Similarly, copying something to the clipboard on one device should cause it to show up on the clipboards of connected devices where the same user is logged in.

Until now, Apple hasn’t done this for reasons that seem a bit mysterious. While I haven’t worked for Apple, the lack of integration appears to reflect a culture we find in large organizations where each department is judged on its own sales and not on how much it helps other departments. It appears that Apple’s software executive team, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi, are working together to leverage Apple’s device leadership. So Siri and WatchOS, parts of Cue’s empire, will be accessible from MacOS in Federighi’s realm. This is good for Apple uses in the short term.

Performance and Integration Upgrades

This year’s WWDC announced major upgrades to WatchOS and iOS and a raft of integration upgrades to MacOS. Some analysts incorrectly judged these upgrades “incremental” but they appear a lot more significant than that. Apple is especially excited about iOS 10, which is coming out this Fall along with the new versions of the other platforms.  When you install an app in your phone, its counterpart (if there is one) for tvOS will install itself automatically, for example; and there’s more:

Craig Federighi called the iOS changes “the biggest iOS release ever for our users,” including complete redesigns for Music and Maps, new notifications, and an expanded role for 3D Touch. A new feature called “raise and wake” will wake the lock screen when you lift your phone, revealing redesigned notifications that you can interact with using 3D touch.

So all of these increments add up.  WatchOS is going to get a performance upgrade – desperately needed – and a new user interface that reflects Apple’s learning about how people want to use these devices.

Is Apple Integrating its Way to the Future?

So all in all, platform upgrades with an emphasis on integration are a necessary, but not sufficient step toward the One Big Platform to Rule Them All that we’re going to demand in the near future. Apple’s strength in devices can easily become a weakness as computing continues to evolve beyond pure computers to computer-assisted devices. To retain leadership, computer companies will have to learn how to play better with devices they don’t actually control, such as homes and cars. Apple’s approach to these markets is with integration frameworks – HomeKit and CarPlay – that have to be adopted by others to allow them access to the Apple ecosystem.

This isn’t much of burden since the carmakers and home automation companies need direction and there are only two options in these fields (the other being Google/Nest/Samsung, of course.) But we don’t want to get into a scenario where it becomes too complicated for device builders to support both standards.

The unanswered question for Apple is how, when, and whether the company will embrace artificial intelligence and the cloud. This is really Google’s turf since its real business – advertising – is all about smart infrastructure. But Apple has an asset in this field – its pioneering Siri for example – and has now built a basic worldwide network infrastructure. It’s probably easier for Apple to perfect its network than for Google to match the awesomeness of Apple’s device, but not by much.

Stay tuned for the next post about artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and better software in general.