Updates galore from Apple at WWDC 2017
By Chong Jinn Xiung June 7, 2017
- Plenty of new features from OS updates to Apple’s Mac, mobile, tablet and watch devices
- Apple enters the smart speaker fight with HomePod
APPLE made some significant announcements at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose. WWDC isn’t typically the event where Apple makes its hardware announcements, as it normally talks about the updates to its Mac OS, iOS and watchOS.
Love it or hate it, this year’s keynote was especially long as Apple took the opportunity to cram in major updates to its entire line of Mac computers and iPad tablets.
The update to the iMac line is said to boast up to three times more powerful graphics, faster processors, faster storage options, Retina 4K display and discrete graphics with a starting price of US$1,299 for a 21.5-inch iMac.
Apple also updated its MacBook and MacBook Pro with faster processors and added faster SSDs to MacBook with starting price of US$1,299 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
But the surprise announcement at WWDC 2017 was clearly the Siri-powered HomePod, a new product category that clearly takes aim at smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.
Due to ship in December 2017, Apple said the HomePod, that stands less than seven inches tall, is a smart speaker for music lovers.
With built-in woofers for deep bass and seven beam-forming tweeters for delivering high-frequency acoustics, the HomePod is clearly poised to deliver higher quality audio compared to its closest rivals.
Apple is hoping that the HomePod will reinvent the way people wirelessly listen to music at home the same way the iPod brought MP3 to the mainstream consumer.
The HomePod also functions as a home assistant allowing users to send messages, get news as well as weather reports and control smart home devices. When users are away from home, the HomePod acts as a hub to provide remote access to home automation functions through Apple’s Home app on iPhone or iPad.
At a premium price of US$349, it is twice the price of the Echo and Google Home. The HomePod is clearly targeted at die-hard Apple users.
Updates across the board on Apple’s OS ecosystem
Apple had lots of new advancements to present in terms of its operating system development. Starting with its major update to its mobile operating system, iOS 11 is set to deliver new multitasking features to the iPad with a new customisable Dock for quick access to essential apps together with the ability to drag and drop content across apps.
A new Files App helps keep files organised be it in iCloud or in other providers like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive and more.
Apple also announced its first foray into the world of Augmented Reality (AR) with the introduction of a new ARKit platform for developers to blend virtual content on top of real-world scenes to iPhones and iPads.
Even Apple’s personal assistant has gained some new tricks in iOS 11 as it gains new male and female voices with more natural and expressive tones.
Siri also gains the ability to translates words from English to Chinese, French, German, Italian or Spanish.
Apple also previewed watchOS 4, the latest update to the Apple Watch interface that brings a new proactive Siri watch face that displays information users need at the right time of the day and an enhanced Workout app that introduces GymKit, a technology platform that pairs the wearable to cardio equipment.
Lastly, there was the latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system, the macOS High Sierra.
The highlights for the new version of the operating system, due out in a free update this fall, include new Apple File System (APFS) storage that protects data from power outages and system crashes, support for high quality video streaming over networks and Metal 2, the latest version of Apple’s graphics technology, that now supports machine learning and support for VR content creation for the first time.
Apart from that, users of the macOS High Sierra will enjoy refinements to Mac apps like Photos, Safari and Mail.
The analysts’ take
Apple is still one of the few companies that are very good at keeping details of its announcements a secret until they are ready for prime time at their major events.
Analysts like Gartner’s principal research analyst Tuong Nguyen found this year’s announcements were positioned to excite the market but he is reluctant to say that they were significant.
Counterpoint's research director for devices and ecosystems Neil Shah, however, was more optimistic saying that this WWDC indicated that Apple is looking to diversify beyond the Phone with smart speakers and building a strong foundation for future AR and VR devices.
"Apple is aggressively adapting machine language and powerful computing hardware to drive premium experiences. By putting Siri and machine language capabilities in multiple devices the company would be able to collect more user data to drive its artificial intelligence engines," he said.
Devices like the Apple Watch remain relevant in the market today, though it does not have functionality for mass market appeal, Gartner finds.
Shah agrees with this as the Apple Watch is continually positioned for fun and fitness use cases by Apple. This firmly plants the device in a niche category without significant attach rate to the over all Apple user base.
Apple’s iPad continues to have its loyal base of users and this base can still expand, Nguyen said. “It is true that tablet sales have significantly lowered but Apple will fare well relative to many competitors. I don’t think any of the other tablets pose a competitive threat to the iPad.”
In terms of smart home devices, the HomePod is poised to lock horns with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. Though Apple is still behind, the announcement around HomePod and SiriKit sound promising and could signal the potential for Apple to catch up.
This year’s WWDC also showed an Apple that was more willing to speak openly about technologies and ideas that its competitors have been working on for some time now. The areas of machine learning, AI, neural networks, virtual reality, augmented reality, computer vision and voice; open up the opportunity for more exciting announcements.
“The initial question was if Apple was going to involve itself in these technologies and how. Now we know that they will. So the next question will be when they’ll do it and how,” said Nguyen.