This has been quite an exciting week. Apple has introduced over 4,000 new APIs for both OSX and iOS and most developers have been raving about how the “new” Apple led by Tim Cook has changed. They claim that the company now listens more to their customers and use the fact that iOS will support custom keyboards, allow for the use of the fingerprint reader and offer inter application communication mechanisms as proof that things have changed.
Frankly, I am not convinced that much has fundamentally changed. When Apple launched their Rip, Mix and Burn campaign in 2001, they were clearly listening to what customers wanted at the time. In order to do it properly, they had to plan for their vision, which included buying the application (SoundJam MP) that would eventually become iTunes and add the capability to easily burn CDs, which took some time, but they eventually released the product they wanted.
What happened this week was similar. Apple may have wanted to offer the possibility to install alternative keyboards for a while, but it took some time to deliver the capability in a secure form. What is so dangerous about alternative keyboards? Well, imagine that the keyboard logs all your key strokes and send them to some server in Ukraine. All your passwords, credit cards numbers would be gone. So, what is needed to make sure that supporting alternate keyboards is safe? Well, one way to do that is to avoid using the keyboard to enter credentials or credit card numbers in the first place. That is something that Apple has solved by releasing iCloud keychain in iOS 7 and by opening the use of the fingerprint reader in iOS 8. The other thing to do is to forbid internet access for the keyboard app if the user chooses to do so. That was also announced by Apple as part of iOS 8. It is likely that by the time Apple releases iOS 8, all new iOS devices will include a fingerprint reader and as a result, should be well protected against malicious keyboard apps. As you can see, opening iOS to support alternative keyboards is not something totally new that came out of nowhere, it is the result of careful planning and making sure that everything is in place before launching a new feature.
Swift, the new programming language launched by Apple at WWDC is another interesting example. This new language has been in the works for about four years now. It is a modern language with a lot of new cool features, but I would hardly call it revolutionary. What is interesting about Swift is that, as far as I know, it is the first language designed from the found up to make the use of an existing library much easier. Normally, a language is designed to solve a particular problem that other existing languages cannot handle well (multi-tasking, security, etc.). However, Swift seems to be designed solely for the purpose of giving the Cocoa framework a new lease on life. By basing variable types on Cocoa objects (for example strings are NSStrings) and hiding the complexity of handling structs, Swift makes it much easier to write code for Apple platforms without impacting the huge investment made by Apple and Next on Cocoa over the last 30 years (NextStep was launched in 1989). This makes a lot of sense, because it preserves Apple’s biggest asset while giving us developers what we want. Swift is therefore in that sense evolutionary and not revolutionary. It is the result of a plan launched years ago with the adoption of the llvm compiler, and the launch of Objective-C 2.0, and if Apple is really planning on eventually moving their Macs away from Intel, applications written in Swift will make the transition transparent for application developers.
WWDC 2014 was a great event because it saw the fruition of many initiatives started by Apple years ago, not because Tim Cook just started to listen to their customers and developers but because Apple seems to be accelerating the delivery of features that result from a carefully crafted plan. The success of Apple depends on maintaining a clear long and medium term plan to deliver their vision, as they have done so far, and not on delivering a long list of short-sighted features.
Once again, I won’t be able to attend WWDC. I am very excited though that on Monday we will be able to see what Apple has in store for us for the next few years, because I believe that this event will be more about announcing the foundation of things to come than actual products we will be able to buy in June.
From a developer perspective, Xcode 6, iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 should include enough new functionality to keep us busy for the next few months. Support for larger iPhones will probably translate into a lot of work to prepare old apps for the official launch of the new devices. Something similar is to be expected for Mac developers who will have to deal with a flatter overall design including updated controls. I certainly hope that the changes are more than skin deep, because while appearance is important and having a uniform look and feel across Apple devices can make the user’s life much easier, when I use my Mac, it is all about what I can do with it, great looks come second.
What I would like to see announced at WWDC are improvements around iCloud, namely lower pricing and APIs for Windows, Linux and Android. Writing a cross-platform app that syncs data among devices is not very difficult, there are many scalable document based data stores than can handle this task (Cloudant comes to mind). The problem is persuading customers to pay for the service. Apple on the other hand can do that much more effectively because they already have a large customer base that use the free service or pay for iCloud once a year and get a lot of value by using the service with not one but multiple apps. The value proposition is much better. Sure, there are competing services, like Dropbox, but I like the Apple option better because I can easily assume that all Apple customers have an account.
On the hardware front, I do not have many expectations. Apple has been unable to keep hardware leaks from happening in China in the past and right now we haven’t seen enough credible information to believe a product launch is imminent. If there are any announcements it will be like last year’s MacPro, a simple preview with a launch date, to generate pent-up demand.
I have no doubt that WWDC 2014 will all be about announcing the infrastructure for things to come, namely new services that will be available only to customers with modern hardware (fingerprint reader and the M7 processor as well as future devices) which will generate a need to upgrade old devices and leave the competition in the dust for a while. Apple has had several years to build the infrastructure and plan for this moment. On Monday we will finally understand what Apple has been working on. We may not understand the full reach of these announcements until Apple launches their new devices in the fall, but it will be an exciting event. I will be spending a lot of time on the treadmill next week, watching the WWDC session videos on my Apple TV.
Earlier today I laid out my expectations for tomorrow’s Apple Event. That said, the prediction game is extremely entertaining and I do not want to miss a great opportunity to play it. So, here we go, these are my predictions:
And that is it. There will not be a new product category this year, but it will still leave Apple with a solid product lineup for Christmas that should allow them to have a successful quarter.
What do you think?
Update: I was definitively wrong about iPad differentiation. Choosing an iPad is harder than ever. Apple covered all the price points but did not explain why people should choose one model over another depending on their needs. I think this is a mistake, most people need to be guided and confusion can be a sales inhibitor. The iPod touch wasn’t updated either.
On Sunday I will fly to San Francisco to attend WWDC. This will be my fourth WWDC in a row. From what I see, most of the sessions will be a rehash of what we saw last year. That isn’t too bad as it will allow me to focus on what is new in Snow Leopard and iPhone 3.0 and spend more time at the labs.
People seem to have very high expectations from this WWDC, which isn’t unusual. Most expect new handsets and a hopeful handful still expect the mythical Apple Tablet to be finally announced. I am not that interested by new hardware. New handsets will come at some time, that we know, and since we know that they will be running iPhone OS 3.0, which is already available for current devices, I really don’t care if they are announced at the show or two months from now. As for the tablet, my guess is that we will have to keep waiting.
However, most people seem to be much less interested by Snow Leopard. That is probably a mistake. Apple has deliberately set low expectations for this release and is probably set to over deliver in several areas, even though nothing has been announced. Regarding the new features that we know about, like Grand Central and OpenCL, we have no exact idea what kind of impact they will represent in terms of performance gains. I hope to be pleasantly surprised. Like last year, I will keep my finger crossed for Windows and iPhone versions of iChat which would make the Mac version more useful.
On the iPhone front, I have high expectations for significant third party hardware device announcements that can be controlled from the phone. Building a strong ecosystem around the iPhone is key to its long term success and Apple has been very clever to open the development of non-trivial hardware extensions to third parties. It would be nice to see Arduino work with Apple to allow hardware geeks easily create new hardware gadgets for the iPhone. That would open a new market for the phone in universities all over the world.
You may have noticed that I have been quiet for the last few months. I was busy working on a new Mac application. As you may have guessed, I don’t have a lot of time to work on personal projects. My job at IBM from Monday to Friday, with extremely long working hours, and my family to which I devote week-ends take most of my time. As a result, I have to be smart and use any spare time wisely. Working on multiple projects is definitively not an option.
The application I have just released, CityListBuilder for iMovie ’09, is quite simple. It is designed to help non-technical Mac users to add support for additional cities to the new animated travel map feature. This can be done by hand quite easily by just editing the contents of a flat file, but I thought that Mac users deserved a better solution.
From a technical perspective though, writing this app was a very interesting exercise. It gave me the opportunity to work with REST services (to interface with the Google Maps geocoding service), WebKit and the authorization services. I think that the strategy of releasing relatively quickly small apps that allow me to learn new technologies is quite effective. I have already started to look for new ideas for my next project. One candidate project involves using Bonjour and Quartz Composer, two technologies I have never used so far and that I believe are quite interesting. It would also allow me to work on an iPhone client which is quite exciting. I will let you know more once I actually start coding.
When Apple announced the iPhone OS 3.0 last week, most users where pleased. This new version addresses most of the problems that customers have been complaining about since the launch of the 3G iPhone. Features like cut, copy and paste or the ability to finally sync the Notes application with a Mac or a PC will definitively make a lot of people happy.
However, despite all the improvements that Apple has included in this new release, it is clear that this is just a transition product that will improve the user experience but that nobody can seriously define a revolutionary. Those who expected the iPhone OS to run on new types of devices, like a larger tablet or a smaller, cheaper phone are probably disappointed. There seems to be nothing in this release that allows existing applications to run on different form factor devices. That doesn’t mean that we won’t see a new generation of iPhones relatively soon. In fact AppleInsider has already reported on some of the features the new phones are expected to sport when they are released this summer. However, these products will be evolutionary (better camera, improved speed, etc), not revolutionary.
So, what should we think of those rumors that tell us that Apple has been shopping for 10” LCD screens? They might be still be true, but they just won’t be for a device running the iPhone OS. That probably means that if Apple chooses to release a Netbook later this year, it will most likely be a Mac, or at least a device much closer to a Mac than to an iPhone.
The iPhone is already a popular product in the US, but it will become much more popular, specially in the enterprise, once Apple releases version 2.0 of the iPhone OS. With the new software companies will be able to easily distribute custom build applications to their employees using a special version of the iTunes App Store.
While not much is known about this application, it is a pretty safe guess to assume that it is Mac OS X only and that it will probably included in an upcoming release of OS X Server. While such a strategy may help Apple sell a couple of hundred servers, it is hard to believe that Apple doesn’t have larger ambitions in the telephony market, specially for small and medium sized businesses.
Asterisk is a popular open-source application that is already widely used on Linux servers. It is used to create cheap telephony solutions that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The solution is an open source/free software implementation of a telephone private branch exchange (PBX). Like any PBX, it allows a number of attached telephones to make calls to one another, and to connect to other telephone services including the public switched telephone network (PSTN). With Asterisk it is easy to setup voice mail boxes and route calls to home numbers or cell phones.
Asterisk also supports a wide range of Voice over IP protocols, including SIP, MGCP and H.323. It can interoperate with most SIP telephones, acting both as registrar and as a gateway between IP phones and the PSTN. This makes Asterisk a perfect complement to iChat.
Apple has a long history of including open-source applications with OS X Server, making them easy to configure and manage. The OS already includes products such as the Apache Web Server or the MySQL database server. So why not include Asterisk? It would allow Apple to offer a turnkey solution for small to medium companies. Imagine a server that costs less than US$ 5,000 and offers everything that this market needs, from e-mail to instant messaging, from wikis to video conferencing, and now with a true unified communications solution. I am sure it would quickly become an instant hit.
What is required to make this happen? Asterisk already runs on OS X, so all Apple really needs to do is to integrate it better with the OS and offer the required analog phone and E1/T1 interfaces for the XServe. Additionally they will need to port iChat to Windows (this is long overdue). On the business side, they will also need to improve their VAR network as these solutions cannot be simply sold at the Apple Store, they need to be supported by IT professionals.
None of these hurdles seem too hard to overcome. I really believe that Apple will eventually offer such a solution, with an announcement coming maybe as soon at WWDC. After all, at the event there is an Information Technologies track designed for IT professionals who support Mac networks and many of those attending it would likely be very interested by such an announcement. The iPhone is Apple’s key to get the Mac into the Enterprise and Asterisk can make it happen in a really big way.
Last year over 5,000 persons attended WWDC. At the time it represented a new record for the annual Apple developer event. The result was fueled by the imminent launch Mac OS X Leopard. This year, with 25 days to go before Steve Jobs addresses developers at the keynote speech, Apple has announced that for the first time ever, the conference has sold out.
I am sure that most do not realize the significance of this announcement. In the past, Apple has used many dirty tricks to artificially increase the number of attendants to WWDC. For example, there used to be a separate conference for Quicktime content creators. I believe that Apple cancelled that event two years ago and folded it within WWDC. Last year there was a session track for web developers, presumably to pave the way for new web applications targeting iPhone users. The result was that if you engaged in conversation with people you didn’t know you were likely to find out that they had absolutely no clue about Objective-C or Xcode.
This year things are likely to be quite different. Apple no longer needs tricks to fill Moscone West up. Gone are the tracks for web developers and video content creators. There still is a track for System Administrators but the rest of the sessions are designed exclusively for developers. This means that even if attendance only grows to six thousand (the Convention Center was already packed last year), this will still represent a very significant increase in the number of real programmers attending the event. It is a clear sign that many of those 200,000 persons who downloaded the iPhone SDK are actually using it and want to be prepared for the launch of the app store at the end of June. This is going to be the best WWDC ever!
Earlier today, Ryan Naraine reported for eWeek that “PayPal, one of the brands most spoofed in phishing attacks, is working on a plan to block its users from making transactions from Web browsers that don’t provide anti-phishing protection”. The reason behind this decision is that “browsers that do not have support for blocking identity theft-related Web sites or for EV SSL (Extended Validation Secure Sockets Layer) certificates are considered ‘unsafe’ for financial transactions”.
This announcement has generated a lot of concern among Mac users since Safari, the most widely used browser on that platform does not support EV SSL. Even though I do use Safari as my main browser on both Mac and Windows, I do agree with the decision. The reason is simple, even though it is very simple to avoid phishing attacks on any computer by just pointing your DNS information to OpenDNS, few know how to do it or even understand how phishing works. Those who complain about the decision are obviously not aware of the size of the phishing attacks and the amount of fraud they represent. If PayPal‘s decision forces Apple to implement EV SSL support into Safari, I will certainly not complain. It is great to have a fast and standards compliant browser, but security for the technologically challenged users should be a major concern for Apple.
However, there are more reasons to back PayPal‘s decision. Too many users are still using old browsers and this his slowing down the adoption of new technologies. I would love to see more companies to stop supporting old versions of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. That would really give web developers an opportunity to create great innovative applications. Right now, people too often prefer to use those old versions because there are still sites that require them. If large sites start requiring newer browser versions, those old sites will face increased pressure to modernize. That cannot be bad for the industry or the end-users.
I just read an editorial on The Mac Observer in which John Martellaro writes that Microsoft Retail Stores would fail. He bases his conclusion on the poor reception Vista has had in the market so far, specially among consumers, and the fact that Microsoft seems to have lost interest in that segment of the population.
I totally disagree. For starters, Microsoft currently produces one of the most successful consumer electronics device, the XBox 360. Microsoft could easily fill up any Apple Store just with Xbox 360 games and accesories. Then there is the Zune. Sure, that MP3 player isn’t nearly as sexy as the iPod touch but I could see more people buying it if it were properly showcased. Microsoft could also sell phones based on Windows mobile made by their hardware partners. Those phones are certainly not state of the art but they (almost) work as advertised and appeal to a segment of the population. Microsoft also produces some PC hardware that includes keyboards and mice which are quite popular. And then obviously there is software, Windows and Office of course, but let’s not also forget that there is much more, like the Microsoft Expression Suite which is a decent collection of products and finally highly popular PC games like Age of Empires or Flight Simulator. So, the perception that Microsoft does not have products that are compelling for consumers is totally wrong.
People also tend to assume that Microsoft would be unable to match the Apple shopping experience. I am not sure what they mean by that. Sure, Apple’s sales force tends to be nice and knowledgeable but having run a small chain of Apple retail stores for three years about ten years ago, I know that this is relatively easy to achieve when you only handle a small number of SKUs. The secret of Apple’s success has to be found somewhere else. You want to know what it is? Easy. People go to the Apple Store because it is usually one of the only stores in the mall that appeals to men (although not exclusively), and because there is free internet access. That was the genius behind choosing malls to open stores. People usually don’t go to Best Buy or Fry’s to just hang out, instead they go to a mall where there are more entertainment and food options. And where do men go when they are tired of watching the women apparel that their wives or girlfriends want to buy? That’s right, they go to the Apple Store. WHy? Because there simply aren’t many other options (and it could get even worse if The Sharper Image goes out of business.
There is a reason that explains why Apple hasn’t yet opened stores in Germany, France or Spain. Those countries haven’t embraced the retail shopping mall model like the US, the UK or even Mexico. It has to do with expensive and scarce real estate in downtown areas where affluent people use to shop. In those countries you may find malls in the suburbs but they will usually not house luxury or premium brands. You could argue that not all Apple Stores are located in malls, and you would be right. In fact all flagship stores (San Francisco, New York, Chicago. Tokyo and London) are on busy streets, but only major markets support that model. The problem is finding great locations for smaller stores. Nothing prevents Apple to open a flagship store on the Champs Élisées in Paris or Serrano in Madrid but where does Apple grow from there if there are no (suitable) malls?
Apple has great products but analysts and Apple enthusiasts must understand that many of those who enter the company stores do it often simply because of a lack of better options. That is great for Apple because it generates a disproportionate amount of foot traffic, but most of those people would probably welcome a little competition. I love Apple but I also like to spend some time at a Sony store, specially if the alternative is spending time at Zara or Coach. I am sure that if Microsoft decides to open new retail stores and like Apple places them in malls, they will be able to get a fair share of that traffic. Wether Microsoft deserves it or not is a different matter.