WWDC 2017: Apple still short on breakthroughs

-June 07, 2017

A few weeks prior to the just-held 2017 edition of Apple's WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference), I read the fascinating Wired Magazine cover story by Steven Levy, covering Apple's new campus. I commend it to your inspection if you haven't already seen it; one particular set of sentences stuck with me:

Apple has also taken some knocks for the scale and scope of the thing. Investors urging Apple to kick back more of its bounty to shareholders have questioned whether the reported $5 billion in construction costs should have gone into their own pockets instead of a workplace striving for history. And the campus’s opening comes at a point when, despite stellar earnings results, Apple has not launched a breakout product since Jobs’ death.

and later:

Though Apple won’t officially confirm or deny the project’s reported $5 billion price tag, Cook doesn’t correct me when I cite it during our time together.

Even more recently, I was set back on my heels when I read that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak no longer believed that his "baby" was capable of creating fundamental technology breakthroughs, due to its age, size, and bureaucracy. Apple's moonshot heir apparent? Tesla.

Admittedly, these two recent data points may have colored my perspective on the products and plans that Steve Cook and his lieutenants just rolled out, but I don't think so. Look at my Apple coverage over the years, notably from someone who's not just an observer but has plenty of company-branded hardware and software under his roof, and I think you'll sense a consistent (if anything, increasing with time) vibe of pessimism.

This year's WWDC did nothing to reverse or even slow that trend. If anything, in fact, it further accelerated. I'm not going to devote this particular post to covering everything that got unveiled at WWDC ... you can get plenty of that elsewhere ... at AnandTech, AppleInsider, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, MacRumours, Macworld, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, The Verge, Wired, and the like. What I'm going to do is focus in on a few case study examples that showcase what I saw as the key themes of the 2017 WWDC: incremental half-steps, prematurely unveiled me-toos, attempts to extract additional content and service revenues from existing users, and intentional hardware obsolescence by design. Read through the categories below and then, as always, I welcome your perspectives in the comments.

  1. iOS and MacOS
  2. Computers
  3. Mobile Devices
  4. Wearables
  5. Siri and HomePod

iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra

WWDC is a developer conference, after all, so new software was as usual a key keynote focus. But there was little breakthrough in either of the company's "tentpole" operating systems, aside from (perhaps) their new AR, VR and machine learning APIs. Upcoming MacOS "High Sierra" (10.13) for computers sounds quite similar to its predecessor, today's "Sierra" (10.12), just as "Snow Leopard" (10.6) closely followed in "Leopard's" (10.5) footsteps. And in both cases, spit-and-polish refinements seem to dominate; the APFS (Apple File System) announced at last year's WWDC finally makes it to MacOS this fall, replacing the longstanding HFS+ precursor, but tweaks otherwise dominate.

As for iOS 11 ... when the very very belated unveiling of a file management utility is the biggest news, that's pretty sad. Actually, there's other news, which is perhaps even sadder. iOS 11 will completely dispense with support for legacy 32-bit applications (with MacOS ironically following it in short order), and hardware containing 32-bit-only CPUs will also not be upgradeable to iOS 11. Also, although the recent brief disappearance of 32-bit applications from App Store search results was apparently just a glitch, developers will undoubtedly focus on 64-bit support going forward. The inevitable end result? Otherwise perfectly acceptable hardware will end up in landfills because up-to-date programs are no longer available for it. That's a waste and a shame.

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