By Harry McCracken | Monday, June 6, 2011 at 6:02 pm
Almost 38,000 folks turned out for Technologizer’s live coverage of Apple’s WWDC keynote this morning. We had a good time. But as the comments came in from attendees, there was clearly a serious contingent of folks who still held out hope that Apple was going to announce a new iPhone today–and who just didn’t care that much about software and services. For them, no new hardware meant that the event was a letdown.
On Twitter, I responded this way:
Dear everyone who's irate there was no new hardware: THIS WAS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT & INTERESTING THAN NEW HARDWARE.
— Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken) June 6, 2011
This was among the most news-packed Apple events I can recall, and in its own way it was one of the most wildly ambitious ones. Apple is finally making the iPhone and iPad into autonomous devices that don’t rely on a Mac or Windows PC. It wants to store vast quantities of data for us and be responsible for safeguarding it and getting it to the right place. It’s making iOS look more like OS X and OS X look more like iOS. It’s not yet clear whether all of this stuff will pan out, and people who already bristle at Apple’s approach to the world will like this new, more fully Apple-centric version less than ever. But if you think the event was a big yawn because there wasn’t a new iPhone that was a bit thinner and a bit faster, you live in a different world than I do.
Judging the implications of all this is going to take a while, in part because few of today’s new announcements involve anything that’s immediately available. (Lion will reach consumers in July; iOS 5 is coming “this fall.”) For now, the best we can do is mull the news over. Here are some of the things I’m wondering about:
Can 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1=47? On Twitter, I saw some folks with Microsoft- and Android-centric worldviews snark that this new feature or that new feature announced at WWDC already existed on other platforms. In general, they’re right–just about everything Apple announced has antecedents elsewhere. And in some cases, as with iOS 5’s notifications, Apple is playing catchup, pure and simple. The company’s defining characteristic isn’t that it does things no company has done before it–it’s that it does them on its own schedule (sometimes very early, sometimes remarkably late) and tends to do them well. And it does them all itself, on its own terms, and tries to make them all work together seamlessly. (It doesn’t always succeed at the seamless part, but it tries harder than anyone else.) If today’s news adds up to be a big deal, it won’t be because Apple invented anything utterly new; it’ll be because it made many old ideas work better together than anyone else has managed to date.
What does the last week mean for the Microsoft vs. Apple wars? People sure like to talk about the competition between these two companies–which makes sense, since it’s been going on for at least thirty years–but it’s really been pretty quiet in recent years. Microsoft has had a monopoly on PCs under $1000, and Apple has had one on PCs over $1000, and they’ve both made lots of money. (And Apple has sprinted ahead on the mobile front, where Microsoft is still lacing its running shoes.) Between last week’s Windows 8 peek and today’s news, though, the two companies are coming back into existential conflict. Microsoft is trying to reinvent Windows into a post-PC operating system. Apple is is giving iOS, its post-PC operating system, a level of autonomy formerly reserved for PCs. What the two companies are doing is simultaneously oddly similar and wildly different. (More thoughts to come on this.)
Will iCloud…work? Syncing is one of the toughest problems in personal technology; I’m not sure if anyone’s ever nailed it. And Steve Jobs acknowledged that MobileMe isn’t exactly proof that Apple knows how to get it right. John Gruber of Daring Fireball points out that Apple isn’t calling what iCloud does “syncing,” and that the version of a file that Apple is storing on its servers is the definitive one. That version will just get pushed out to devices as necessary. That should help. But even if you don’t consider iCloud to be syncing, it’s the single most ambitious moving-data-around-between-devices service to date. If it works without meaningful hiccups, it’ll be quite an accomplishment.
Do people want the file system to go bye-bye? At the keynote, Steve Jobs explained that the company is working vigorously to eliminate the need for a file system of the sort that personal computers have had ever since the first ones with floppy disks arrived. He was talking about iOS, but iCloud starts to nibble away at the edges of the traditional file system on Macs and PCs, too. My impulse was to think “but I like the file system.” And then I thought “maybe it’s an inconvenience I only think I like because I don’t know better.”
Why is Lion only $29? It looks like a pretty meaty upgrade. Certainly far more so than Snow Leopard–I’m provisionally more excited by it than I was by Leopard, which was $129. Maybe Apple figures it’s a good idea to get it on as many Macs as possible to increase the chances of people buying lots of software from the Mac App Store?
Does the world need iMessage? My instinct is to be skeptical about a messaging system that requires me to give much thought to what sort of device the person on the other end is using. We’ll see.
Will the split keyboard catch on? Divvying up an onscreen keyboard into left- and -righthand sides to make for easier thumbtyping is a very old idea. I associate it with Samsung’s Q1 UMPC from five years ago, and Microsoft showed a variation in its Windows 8 preview last week. So far, it’s felt quirky rather than mainstream. But Apple likes to avoid the quirky, so I take its inclusion in iOS 5 as a sign that Apple thinks a lot of people will like it. (Now, can we get Swype?)
What should we read into iOS’s embrace of Twitter? I like to tweet from my iPhone, so it’s a pleasing development. But should we try to parse its greater meaning? Is there any reason why it wasn’t Facebook that got baked into Apple’s OS, or might that come along in iOS 6? Is there now an Apple-Twitter alliance that’s a mightier Facebook competitor than if the two companies were going it alone, with more signs of the partnership to come?
Why no straightforward music subscription service a la Rhapsody, Napster, Rdio, Slacker, and Mog? Is it a business Apple isn’t interested in pursuing? Or can it not sign the music-label deals it wants? Or is it just “one more thing” for the traditional September music event?
Will people pay twenty-five bucks a year for iTunes Match? It’s the return of one of Lala’s best features, the ability to automatically unlock songs you already own in an online collection. Lala offered it for free. Then again, $25 a year is slightly over two bucks a month–pretty darn close to free if it’s useful.
Got any thoughts about any of these issues–or questions of your own? (I know I’m going to have more questions–the more I think about all of today’s news, the less I’m clear on all of its implications…)