Apple announced a lot of things at its developer conference on Monday. The company's various operating systems will be improved, and there's a powerful new iMac Pro, for instance. What Apple didn't announce is anything that will change the trajectory of its business or the future of technology. For the moment, at least, it has become a staid old company limping after younger, more innovative peers.
Apple excels when it comes to hardware differentiated by software. It stumbles when it comes to software services. And that's bad news for the world's most valuable public company because innovation has once again moved up the stack from hardware, as it did when the OS wars were won (by Windows) and web browsers became the important battlefield. Similarly, now that everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, the important thing is how they use it, not who made it.
That leaves Apple playing catch-up to other tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Apple will continue to make gobs of money selling iPhones, but based on today's keynote announcements, it has plenty of ground to make up in the race to own the platforms of the future.
The most significant WWDC launches were ARKit, which will allow apps to incorporate augmented-reality features, and HomePod, a music-focused clone of the Amazon Echo and Google Home. It's a clone that relies on Siri, widely regarded as the weakest AI voice assistant on the market. A clone that costs at least $200 more than competitive products.
ARKit has the potential to enable amazing gaming and social experiences, but Apple's track record as a platform is, to put it plainly, terrible. Sure, it pulls in tons of money, but only because of other things that Apple has done well, namely selling iPhones. The company has hamstrung developers for years by refusing to build out robust pricing features.
The App Store flourishes to the extent that it does because Apple's millions of iPhone users are such a tempting demographic. Developers will put up with opaque, seemingly arbitrary rules in order to reach them. That will continue to be true, but it points to Apple's incompetence when it comes to making phenomenal, complex apps economically viable.
Furthermore, even in the free-to-play and social sectors that the App Store is designed to encourage, the bulk of the benefit will be reaped by Candy Crush and Snapchat rather than Apple itself. This is not to downplay the value of being the default platform for AR apps, but to doubt Apple's ability to leverage that advantage for any endeavor other than selling more iPhones. The assessment changes if Apple can introduce and popularize AR glasses (a la Snapchat Spectacles) or a similar product.
As for HomePod, Apple is emphasizing its sound quality, likely because the company knows that Siri is inferior to the other options. The device is projected to be available in December at the price of $349. As New York Times tech reporter Mike Isaac pointed out, Amazon and Google can use their AI voice assistants as loss leaders, but Apple seems to be going with its usual strategy of charging premium prices for a physical product.
So Apple starts with quality audio and adds smarts to it.-- Andrew Martonik (@andrewmartonik) June 5, 2017
Google/Amazon are starting with smarts, adding audio quality secondarily.
This is a tricky area to handicap. As stated earlier, Apple excels at integrating hardware and software. But in the HomePod's case, "software" mean an AI-powered voice interface, which is totally different from a visual operating system. We already have a sense of what Apple's capabilities in this area look like based on Siri. That's not hugely promising.
Apple is by no means doomed. The company still makes great products for which there is plenty of demand, especially in countries like China and India that are rapidly getting richer. But in terms of its ability to reinvent the tech landscape, Apple may have misplaced its magic touch.