Phones, Macs, and Watches - oh my

What to realistically expect at WWDC 2015 tomorrow




WWDC-2015-invitationI’m a procrastinator. I have a tendency to wait until the very last minute to do anything, including publish these sort of What to Realistically Expect stories. Finally, my infliction has paid off – if I had written this even just last week, I would have jotted down new Apple TV hardware and software as a stone cold sure thing. Yet according to the ever reliable Brian X. Chen, Apple threw away plans to announce new Apple TV hardware and a cohesive developer ecosystem at WWDC at the very last minute because “the product was not ready for prime time”.

Given that I’m an avid user of the current iteration of Apple TV (I stream all my nightly television from there), I’m bummed to see this cut. I was hoping this would be when the Apple TV truly grew up and became a major player in the Apple line-up. Alas.

Time is short and things run behind schedule, and so it goes. There’s always September.

And in the spirit of that, we’re still on the verge of an entire week’s worth of new Apple products, platforms, and goodies. The Apple TV may not be there, but there’s still plenty left to cover. Here’s what you can realistically expect at WWDC 2015, starting tomorrow, June 8th.

itunes11-featured1) Plug in your EarPods, because here comes Apple Music. In the first decade of the 21st century, I would never have thought of using anything but iTunes to manage and listen to my music collection. However I obtained my MP3s or AACs, the first thing I did was drag them into the little iTunes CD icon on my Mac’s dock, meticulously organize them into suitable playlists, and sync them over USB to my iPod or, later, my iPhone.

Unfortunately, iTunes’s heyday is now a distant memory for me and many bothers. I’m not even entirely sure why I keep iTunes in my dock – the only time I ever open it is to buy an album that I really, really have an interest in physically owning; other than that, Spotify is and has been for some time the home to all of my music. I pay $10/mo for Spotify Premium, and I can listen at home or on the go in high fidelity without advertisements, no syncing required. I haven’t looked back.

Apple has somehow managed to fall wildly behind in the digital music game, and all signs point to Apple righting that wrong with the release of the new Apple Music service, coming tomorrow. All signs point to it being an overhaul of the existing Beats Music service and applications, which Apple acquired in 2014. That is to say, Apple is going the Spotify route, and your days of purchasing single songs for 99 cents may truly be over. Fork over a monthly fee to Apple and you’ll get access to the entire Apple Music library, which will very likely be as wide and all encompassing as the existing iTunes Music Store library.

It remains to be seen whether this will mark the end of the road for iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, or if the two will coexist. My bet is that the launch will look similar to that of iTunes Radio last year – Apple Music will be accessed through the existing iTunes application and will live as a category tab below the player controls. Both iTunes and the iTunes Music Store will very likely live on, however I can imagine it will forevermore be in a reduced capacity.

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2) A period of refinement comes alongside iOS 9 and OS X 10.11. With iOS 7, Apple introduced a radically new user interface into the iOS operating system, and then they brought the most of that concept to the Mac with OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Unfortunately, said UI changes also brought the impression of bugginess, hackiness, and just an overall feeling of a general lack of fit and finish.

Since then, many have been clamoring for refinement, “Snow Leopard” like releases of both iOS and OS X that focus on bug fixes and stability rather than impressive new features. You want it? You got it. The latest word is that iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 will both focus almost solely on stability and bug fixes. So if, like me, you’ve noticed an increase in general wonky behavior over the last couple of years, Apple reportedly has your back.

But that doesn’t mean that iOS and OS X will be completely devoid of goodies. Apple introduced their first new font family, San Francisco, for use in watchOS on the Apple Watch, and it makes sense that Apple will be switching to San Francisco for the system font on both iOS and the Mac for uniformity purposes this year.

Perhaps most importantly, whispers in the wind indicate that Apple has been working on improving Spotlight across both platforms, giving it elements of a contextual smart assistant a la Google Now. Rumors are sparse, but I understand it will work similarly to the Cards metaphor Google has developed. Open Spotlight, and you’ll be able to see, immediately at a glance, when your dinner reservations are scheduled for, what time your flight takes off next week, when your first meeting is tomorrow, and so on and so forth. This sort of glanceable contextual information is something I think would also be a killer feature on the Apple Watch, but no solid word on that front.

Speaking of the Apple Watch…

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3) Surprise – third party Apple Watch apps won’t suck anymore! Again, there’s a lesson to be learned in being patient (and a procrastinator). If I had written this post a mere week or so ago, I would have predicted this would come later rather than sooner. But Apple’s SVP of Operations Jeff Williams revealed at the Code Conference last week that Apple will indeed be providing developers with the tools required to build honest to goodness native Apple Watch apps capable of utilizing most, if not all, of the Apple Watch’s sensors.

While users might not be able to tell the difference, current Watch apps are built using a developer tool called WatchKit, which requires that apps opened on the Watch actually use the iPhone to execute all data, from the user interface to all functionality, and then all that data gets sent back and forth between the Watch and the iPhone via Bluetooth. It’s a tricky system that at the moment frequently results in stuck apps, crashes, and a feeling of general sluggishness, and I won’t be sad to see the backside of it.

What I’m less sure of is if that’s really it for the Watch. The Apple Watch is so new that I tend to think that it’s far too early for any sort of major update, and I doubt that Apple will make much of a splash about it. Calling this watchOS 2.0 and advertising it as a big improvement so quickly indicates that WatchKit applications in 1.0 were really, really broken, something that I don’t think that Apple is likely to admit to the public. My guess? No big watchOS features, and native Watch apps are merely a bullet point buried in the release notes of watchOS 1.2.

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4) Siri, turn on the lights – HomeKit is finally ready for primetime. This is one that I originally expected would be ready for launch alongside the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus last September, but better late than never. HomeKit is finally ready for primetime, and that means Apple’s take on the smart home is finally here. Get ready for an avalanche of HomeKit compatible hardware, consisting of everything from your blender to the light bulb.

You’ll be able to use your iPhone, iPad, Watch, or Apple TV to do everything from turn on your lights when you walk into a room, to turning on your thermometer when you pull into your driveway, and more. This is Apple’s big step into the “internet of things” world that both Google and Microsoft have been plodding towards for quite some time now.

5) Swift is the new Objective C, and it’s moving in. It may be the least interesting of the bunch for developers, but it’s probably the bullet point here that will have the most ramifications for all of Apple’s ecosystems in the long term – Swift is the new Objective C, and boy, is it here to stay. Swift, for those who aren’t aware, is a new programming language invented by Apple and introduced to developers at WWDC 2014 last year. Apple advertised Swift as an easy to master, powerful new programming language, but it was clearly not ready for prime time. Neither iOS 8 nor OS X 10.11 Yosemite come with native Swift support, and all of Apple’s built in applications are still written with Objective C.

Rumors have it that Apple is preparing to really commit to Swift, going so far as to bake native Swift support right into the company’s entire suite of operating systems, including iOS, OS X 10.11, and watchOS. I would hazard a guess that whenever the new AppleTV does make its debut, Apple will highly encourage that all Apple TV apps be written in Swift. But, again, that’s looking further into the future than we’ll cover today, so don’t put that one in your betting pool.

Intel famously uses a “tick-tock” development cycle for their hardware, switching back and forth between major releases and minor changes every other release. If we apply that same logic to Apple’s releases, this is clearly a “tock” year – the minor release meant to shine and polish last year’s major releases.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and in my opinion, it’s long overdue. Apple has been working at introducing so much new, exciting software and hardware at such a rapid pace that this simply feels like it was time for Apple to stop and take a breath. What makes Apple so special is their old slogan – Apple products have always just worked, and lately, things have been just working far less than it used to. Here’s to the return of the Apple that finds beauty in the boring.