WWDC 2017: What to expect


A decade ago, the late Steve Jobs stood and sat at a desk on stage at Apple’s 2007 World Wide Developer’s Conference for an hour and a half, master of ceremonies for the unveiling of OS X Leopard and, most importantly, the first glimpse of iPhone OS 1

No one could have envisioned what would happen with the iPhone as a development platform. Even Jobs didn’t seem to know what he was about to unleash. All he offered third-party developers was the ability to build web-based applications for the still-untested smartphone that would launch a few weeks later. 

“[You can] write great apps, but yet keep the iPhone reliable and secure, all based on the fact that the iPhone has the full Safari engine in iPhone,” he told developers. The demonstration that followed from Scott Forstall was underwhelming. It would be another year before Apple launched the App Store and permanently shifted the focus of the world from the desktop to mobile.

A decade later, the iPhone and its platform, now called iOS, is pretty much all anyone can think or talk about when it comes to WWDC, which will be held June 5-9 in San Jose, California. What Apple unveils on Monday will likely define the eagerly anticipated 10th Anniversary iPhone (or iPhones). That momentous occasion, though, is also defining, to some extent WWDC itself.

This year, it will be different.

I’m not saying Apple CEO Tim Cook, who will deliver the keynote, won’t focus heavily on the demands and interests of developers. There will be iOS, macOS, TVOS, watchOS, and CarOS updates. There will be developer tools updates  (Swift, Objective-C) and even code. But I don’t expect Cook to ignore the elephant in the room: He’ll mark the auspicious occasion of the iPhone’s birth. But, sources tell me, Apple will also try to surprise.

The hard truth

WWDC is not a hardware event and any time I suggest there might be hardware, someone shouts me down. Hear me out, though. Obviously, it’s happened before: the cylindrical Mac Pro is the most obvious example.

This year, Apple may go further, unveiling updates across multiple hardware categories and platforms. Most experts I spoke to agree.

“Usually it’s more about the software announcement, but it’s [possible Apple could] refresh some of the product lines. Potentially MacBook and, possibly, iPad, as well,” said Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst at the market research firm Forrester.

No one expects product redesigns. Creative Strategies President and Analyst Tim Bajarin told me to anticipate, at most, processor updates. “There is a distinct possibility we could see some new MacBooks that use updated Kaby Lake processors from Intel,” said Bajarin.

Earlier this year, Apple’s Phil Schiller promised significant updates to both the design and components of the iMac, an all-in-one desktop system which, Schiller noted, has been widely adopted by professionals, even though it doesn’t feature traditional pro-level components. 

Even so, no one expects Cook to reveal a fully-redesigned iMac until later this year. Forrester Analyst Frank Gillett told me it’s “hard to imagine more than processor bumps for the iMac.” He does think it’s possible Apple could tease the 2018 Mac Pro overhaul, just to satisfy the developer audience, which is the core market for that machine.

The iPad Pro, which Apple likes to position, at least for professionals, as a companion power tool for MacBook Pros and iMacs, may be the one piece of hardware that sees more than just a component update.

Gillett likes the idea of an all new iPad Pro and the rumored 10.5-inch model, which would sit between the 12.9-inch original and 9.7-inch model.

Bajarin agrees, telling me, “The iPad Pros do need to be updated and this venue would be a good one to show their hand on new iPad hardware.”

The mobile brain

While there have been a steady, almost inescapable flow of iPhone rumors, there’s been precious little to chew on for the OS that runs it.

That Cook will get on stage and declare, “I give you, iOS 11,” is a given. After that? 

Do not expect a major iOS redesign. There will be a continued scrubbing of skeuomorphism, more smooth animations, more taptic-engine, 3D touch integrations, productivity updates for the iPad Pro, and, I’m guessing, a lot of enhancements to the control panel and widgets. Apple will also continue to open the mobile OS for better third-party integration on core applications like iMessage, Maps, and Safari.

Some rumors suggest an all new Apple Music App and Group FaceTime, as well. 

Siri needs to catch up 

The key area of focus, and where Cook and others will spend the most time, though, is Siri.

Siri, Apple’s AI-powered assistant, will bleed out into virtually every part of iOS 11. Increasingly, it will be like the neural links in our brains that quietly and constantly make instant connections so, on the surface, we can act as sentient beings.

“Siri is one of these areas where they need to innovate the most and fastest, given the competition in the space,” said Forrester’s Husson.

He sees Apple integrating Siri on a much wider array of services, apps, devices, and even third-party offerings. 

If Apple goes further with Siri, Gillett thinks now would be a good time for Apple to make Siri a more open platform. He hopes they add options for “giving more access to your personal data and for seeing what your profile is with Siri, like Microsoft Cortana’s notebook. Siri needs to become more transparent and configurable.”

Augmented Reality

The other buzz term will surely be Augmented Reality. Cook is an avowed fan (not so much Virtual Reality). Most rumors integrate AR sensors into the next iPhone. Apple will look silly if it does unveil an AR-enabled iPhone and has no third-party apps to support it.

On this point, however, my sources disagree. 

Bajarin thinks the close pairing of the iPhone 8 (or 10 or X) and AR means Cook and company will wait for the full reveal until the phone launch later this year. “They could give us a hint of their interest in AR, but only a hint,” granted Bajarin.

Hasson sees things differently. He thinks the phone integration begs for this early reveal, especially if Apple integrates AR support into iOS 11. 

“If they integrate such an approach, they need developers and brands to build experiences on top of that. So WWDC is the right moment to promote such functionality for them to be ready to work with next version of iPhone,” he told me.

What about bots?

There’s also a chance Apple will get serious about bots. Those little intelligent agents were all the rage at last year’s Facebook and Microsoft Developers conferences. Apple hasn’t said much about them, but some believe they could be the key to a much more responsive mobile OS.

If Apple uses WWDC as a platform to launch a new Siri-powered bot initiative, it could help the entire bot market mature and, Hasson contends, “streamline the [iOS] experience and make it easier to move from one app to the other.”

We should also expect Apple to make Dark Mode an official, system-wide thing in iOS 11 (and may tie it to a broader battery management discussion), enhance iMessage, and update Health so it’s more visible and useful. Home should get a much-needed interface update.

The entertainment mess

There’s also the chance that we’ll see an Apple Music overhaul. Tim Cook might even use WWDC to reveal Apple’s content strategy, especially as it impacts how we view the iTunes store on the iPhone.

Right now, we have the Apple TV app, which is a boiled down Apple TV device interface with TV shows, movies, streaming partners, and TV apps, iTunes Store (which includes Music, TV, and Movies), and then Apple Music (which is all music). WWDC 2017 would be a good time to both consolidate this mess and plow a new road with fresh, Apple originals.

The heart of your desktop and laptop

If the details of what Apple will do with iOS 11 are slim, they’re virtually non-existent with the follow-up to macOS Sierra

Most people think Apple is done with the animal and location names. This may simply be called macOS 11 (or macOS 10.13).

I don’t expect any fundamental design changes. iTunes should get an update that aligns it with whatever content plans Apple has for iOS 11.

I also think that the relationship between the mobile and desktop will deepen. Siri’s awareness of activities on the desktop, laptop, smartphone, iPad, Apple TV, and Apple Watch will be on display in the desktop, the place where, perhaps, you finally get do to some management of your Siri profile.

I also expect an iCloud update to make it more competitive with Microsoft’s OneDrive. I also hope Apple further lowers the price of iCloud storage to make it more attractive for businesses and individuals.

Kits and wearables

Apple will also walk through all its dozen or so kits (Health, Home, Watch, Research, Game, Cloud), I expect Cook to dwell a bit on Research and Health. He may even show off the Apple Watch glucose tracker he’s been wearing, but there won’t be a health product announcement. “I seriously doubt they would announce something like the rumored blood glucose monitoring system yet. I think that project is really in its very early stages,” said Bajarin.

The surprise

When Jobs turned his attention to the iPhone at 2007’s WWDC, it was, literally, his “one more thing,” moment. I fully expect Apple’s current CEO to recognize that event. It could be a brief celebration of the original iPhone or, fingers crossed, it could be: Surprise, an actual product!

There are rumors of a Siri-based speaker, an in-home companion that could help Apple compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home. Siri is one of the most highly engineered and deeply integrated software products in Apple’s corral. Unveiling a consumer product connected to this platform could make sense for WWDC. However, I’ve long wondered if a Siri Home device could be based on Apple TV. Siri is already part of the system, accessed via the mic-enabled remote. A new Apple TV with an integrated microphone array is possible.

Or not.

“I’d be disappointed if the Siri Device is Apple TV based. It should be a speaker for the kitchen, office or bedside, not just a living room device,” said Forrester’s Frank Gillett.

Bajarin told me that he’s heard too many conflicting stories to reach any conclusion on a Siri Apple TV device.

When I asked Hasson about surprises, he reminded me that there’s “always some irrational expectations on how Apple could disrupt the game again and launch something new and unexpected.” 

However, he agrees that there is a possibility that Apple could use Apple TV as a “Trojan horse for digital home.”

Whatever Cook announces Monday, it won’t be vaporware. This event is about Apple’s future and, sources promise me, everything Apple talks about will be real and will ship. 

Bonus: When your iPhone is about to die

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