Apple’s WWDC Keynote address marked another small step in the company’s march towards defining how everyone on the planet will interact with everyone and everything else on the planet over the coming decade. Or it was two hours crammed full of so-called features the company ripped off of everyone from Android to iOS Jailbreak community developers to Amazon, it’s hard to know for sure. It’s more fun to run with the former than the latter, though, so let’s go for it.
The presentation a decidedly thinner, gaunter-looking Steve Jobs and his top lieutenants gave to developers, partners and press in San Francisco this morning was not about selling more iPhones, making iPads cooler or giving iOS devotees ammunition in the yawn-inducing flamewar between Android and Apple fanboys. Today’s show was about unifying desktop and mobile devices, moving content from local disks to the iCloud, and taking more of what mobile computing users across the globe love about their disparate devices and platforms and making it native to Apple’s own ecosystem.
Forget the lack of new hardware or absence of widgets on iOS 5’s homescreen. WWDC ’11 is about planting more seeds to be harvested over the next several years. Apple’s garden used to grow hardware and software. Then it spawned content, too. Now it’s a full-on self-sustaining biosphere moving towards encompassing communication ranging from SMS messages to how we store our photos and who we share them with, not to mention making the rules for how we interact with them both by ourselves and with our peers. All of which will, in turn, continue to dictate which devices we use to interact with all of that stuff we’ve gone and stuck in that cloud. It’s a perfect cycle, like water raining to the ground only to be evaporated back up into the sky: Devices that create information that we store on servers that we access on new devices.
As promised last week in an out of character pre-show press release, Apple did three things this morning. They showed off more of the next version of their desktop/laptop computer platform, Mac OS X Lion. They previewed the next version of their mobile computer platform, iOS 5. And they unveiled their cloud services offering, iCloud. No new hardware was announced or even hinted at, and the only new software available today to non-developers is a beta version of iTunes in the Cloud; Lion goes on sale in July while iOS 5 and iCloud will follow sometime this Fall. Lots of folks including me think iOS 5 will be accompanied by fresh mobile hardware (in my case, new iPhones and iPads of some sort) at an Apple event in September. We’ll see.
Without getting into the details of the oodles of new features Apple touted across their software, or the ins and outs of which companies they partnered with/ticked off and copied/stole features from, I’ll use baseball terms and call today’s announcements an easy stand-up double. Lion had already been previewed, and the $29 pricing is a solid loss leader move on Apple’s part. What we saw of iOS 5 answers a number of user complaints, most notably to do with Apple’s embarrassingly outdated notifications system. What we saw of iCloud won’t set the world on fire, but it more than makes up for the failure that was MobileMe, offers a killer feature in WiFi Sync, and is priced to move, aka Free. For twenty-five bucks a year you can also get legal amnesty for all of those MP3s you’ve stolen over the years. But the three platforms taken together mark another step down tracks whose rails head off into the distance as far as the eye can see, converging at a point somewhere way, way off on the horizon.
Steve Jobs is serious when he talks about iPad being a magical device, and the subcontext of his wanting to change the way the world relates to “technology and liberal arts” is for real, too. It’s no coincidence that Macs and iPads look and act more and more alike with each new software update, nor that Apple execs spoke excitedly this morning about finally being able to hide the filesystem from users. Apple wants to dictate the terms by which people will interact with technology, now and for generations to come. They believe they are dictating those terms already. It doesn’t matter if the ideas behind concepts like mobile notifications came from their own labs or were not-so-subtly copped from rival OSes and developers of unauthorized iPhone apps; the important part is that Apple’s able to take all of the best drips and drabs of what people are doing with their computers and weave them together into the unfolding vision of digital humanity that is iOS, OS X, and iCloud.
You think I’m being overdramatic and just might be hopped up on some sort of homeopathic remedy for the lousy weather that’s plaguing the Bay Area right now. I’m not, but I am consciously channeling the Apple mojo as I write; having seen a bunch of Stevenotes in person – and, as with today’s, from afar – I’m finally starting to get it. It’s not about distorting reality and serving the Kool Aid long enough to make people buy minor product upgrades; it’s literally about changing the entire world. When enough of the people are drinking the juice and seeing the world through fruit-colored lenses, that’s the new reality. I now fully believe that’s Apple’s ultimate goal. And while I don’t discount the perfume-y effect that money, fame and power are likely having on Jobs, Phil Schiller and their compadres, I also now – finally – believe that they really believe it when they say flowery things about “magical devices” that can change the world.
OS X and iOS will continue to look more and more like each other until the differences are all but negligible to all but the geekiest among us. Online app stores with automatic updating, grids-of-icons launchers, full-screen apps managed by multitouch gestures – what’s not already shared across both platforms is well on its way, and what’s not yet capable on the go will be soon enough. By that point, so-called mobile devices will be the norm. Battery life, processing power, and cloud storage buoyed by fast wireless networks will enable phones and tablets to do the work of desktop workstations. We’re almost there, frankly, unless you’re an oddball like me who can’t live with iMovie for iPad’s relatively limited range of title and transition effects.
Everything you do on any device, be it palm-sized or mounted on your living room wall, will automagically be backed-up to the cloud and shared with your contacts as you’ve preset. It’ll be available on all of your devices at the same time, as well, albeit it slightly different forms modified to fit your various screen sizes. You’ll be able to share your content via a number of protocols, but the ones baked into your iDevices will be the easiest, cheapest, and – if Apple’s vision holds true – most commonly accepted forms of communication. You use SMS/BBM, ripped/stolen MP3s, flickr and Facebook now? You’ll still be able to (if they’re still around in the future), but Apple will make it cheaper and easier for you to use iMessenger, iTunes, Photo Stream and Twitter, respectively. That Facebook vs Twitter one is the most up in the air of them all, but hey, there’s gotta be something driving the Microsoft/Google/Apple war through ’til 2015 or so, right?
And those devices? What will they look like and how will they act? Apple knows. Apple knows what they’re going look and act like for the next few years, and they’re already working on the next few years after that. They’re in the labs, them and more of their kind that won’t make it see the light of day because they’re just not quite right. Will Steve Jobs’ vision of our device future play out as the dominant one? Apple’s pretty sure it will; that’s how they can afford to let the entire summer of 2011 go by without even hinting at a new piece of hardware while their competitors are racing to play catch-up in getting their own tablets out to market.
And come this Fall when Android tablets are a dime a dozen and HP’s finally shipped Touchpad and Windows 8 tablets start to materialize? That’s when Apple will roll out iOS 5 and iCloud with a few more features baked in and a brand-new, subtly paradigm shifting device to further unify its vision of our near-term computing future. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some mash-up of what we now call MacBook Air and iPad 2, though that sounds a lot like an Acer Iconia and that sounds too confusing for Apple’s key user demographic. But whatever it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was super cool on the surface but still in need of some kink-ironing out when it ships. And I wouldn’t be surprised it if still moves a ton of units for Xmas-time and sets the stage for a better, more important-to-Apple’s vision product for the Winter of 2012.
Whether or not the world follows Apple’s vision of how it should interface with itself remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt Apple’s got that vision firmly in mind right now. Today’s WWDC keynote broke the “New June, new iPhone” mold and in doing so said something very important to its competitors and the rest of us. Apple’s not about market share and market caps right now; they’ve got too many units in the wild, too many retail stores on the streets, and too much cash in the bank to much care about normal measures of corporate success. Apple is about changing the world, for better or for worse. The company was brought back from the brink by a visionary, a visionary whose time on this planet may well be running in very short supply. Steve Jobs finally has his company to a place from which it’s calling the shots industry-wide: They’re worth more than Microsoft, they’re more important to the mobile phone industry than Nokia, and they’ve taken over the business of selling music. They made an all-touch phone and the phone industry turned into an all-touch industry. They made a tablet and everyone else started shipping tablets. So what now?
Now they go beyond changing industries. Now they change the world, or at least the way we interact with it. OS X and iOS are platforms, and they’re set to converge way off in the distance, at the end of that track, underneath that … wait for it, it’s so silly to say out loud … underneath that iCloud up above on the horizon. That cloud will be so big … If Apple’s vision plays out, that cloud will be so big and hold so many portions of your life that you’d be a fool not to use the devices that best mesh with what’s in that cloud. If Apple’s vision plays out you’ll be using those devices that Apple’s already tinkering with in their labs and will soon be flooding the streets, inspiring around the block lines, fanboy wars, corporate shakeups, back-alley knockoffs, and collapsing of Finnish economies.
Today was just a step along those tracks. A solid standup double with nobody in scoring position, but one that sets the table for the next batter. Batter up, Apple: See ya at that Fall event in September.