Any Surprises At WWDC 2014 Keynote?

The keynote for WWDC 2014 came and went yesterday (had to watch it last night, given I was travelling on business all day Monday). Despite all manner of bold predictions, absolutely nothing really earthshattering happened. Apple didn’t change anything all that radically. They didn’t invent any new categories of product or service. Basically, what we got are what appears to be reasonable software upgrades.

No New Hardware

Despite breathless predictions from media desperate to write about anything Apple, we saw nothing about new hardware. None of the predicted wearables. Nothing about updated MacBook Airs with Retina displays. No new phones or tablets. All we got was software. None of it was surprising.

We also didn’t get any discussion about Beats, beyond a quick throwaway during the “use your Mac as a phone” demo to “new employee” Dr Dre. It, along with much of the other humour, was on the lame side. More on that feeble attempts at humour later. Anyways, it isn’t a surprise they didn’t discuss Beats. Why would they? I suspect Apple hasn’t completely figured out how to best use their new acquisition. Anything to do with Beats will arrive in the fall at the earliest.

There was also very little on the home automation front (and I think that getting into it is a mistake, in some ways. It’s a messy market and not one that Apple may be able to clean up). Sure, we saw HomeKit and the new app associated with it. There was a lot of fluff and pablum about things you can probably do in the future, maybe, if anyone ever actually builds it. But adding a few APIs and an integrated app isn’t all that disruptive, and won’t necessarily break the chokehold maintained the incumbents in this messy and over-hyped space.

Really Nice Upgrades

Craig and his team were really stretching to try to make the most out of a bunch of updates that are either chrome and eye-candy, or were addressing gripes and usability issues that have been there for a while. Oooo, the titlebar and decorations are now translucent. Sure, that’s going to fundamentally change how we think about and use our Macs (sarcasm intended) . Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they did it. But it wasn’t worth more than about 10-20 seconds of effort to show it off, and then shut up about it.

The extensibility features of iOS 8 are certainly interested, and a big step in the right direction. It is about time Apple woke up to the fact that mobile apps are standalone creatures, but need to interact with other apps the user has. Now, if they can just take the next step, and allow users to change the default apps for things like e-mail and the web browser.

Really, A New Language?

Probably the single biggest change that we got yesterday was the introduction of Swift, a new programming language meant to replace Objective-C. Apple hasn’t abandoned Objective-C completely. There are still significant chunks of the APIs and SDKs’ written in C, and those aren’t going away either, so Objective-C will be with us a for a while. Apparently, Apple has been working on the language for the past 4 years, and the WWDC app is now written in Swift.

It bears a closer look, only because it appears that it will be the defacto standard for building apps for the Apple ecosystem in the future. The tiny, tiny fraction we got to see in the keynote was interesting, but not nearly enough to say if it is really an improvement or not.

My concern, though, is that this is a language that may go nowhere, and that Apple could just as easily abandon it if it doesn’t get a reasonable adoption rate. I’m all for learning new stuff, and I look forward to trying Swift out. But this could be NewtonScript all over again. It wouldn’t be a big deal. It isn’t like there are many other environments outside of iOS and OS X that use Objective-C in any substantial amount. I guess it depends on how truly dedicated Apple is to this language. Sure, they’ve built one app in Swift (and a non-critical app with a fairly small user base). If they also rewrite their core apps, like Mail and Safari, in Swift as well as some of their other key apps like Pages and Numbers, then I will believe they are truly committed to the language.

Of course, the challenge is that we are all in a bit of a transition now. It is one more thing to learn and one more thing to remember (and one more thing to forget how something works and have to look it up over and over). Learning is good. But learning a skill that has a future is better. Whether Swift is here for the long haul is an open question. Apple seems committed to it now. How that looks a year or two from now remains to be seen.

But Was It A Letdown?

The announcement, despite being 2-hours long, was actually a bit subdued compared to the over-the-top events Apple normally holds (although it still had its fair share of superlatives). The humour attempts were a bit much. They seemed to be trying to hard, trying to remain the “fun-loving plucky underdog”, despite now being the industry behemoth. They really should knock it off.

The lack of a “just one more thing” moment could be seen as a letdown, but this is the kind of announcement Apple has needed for a while. It’s time to settle down a bit, slow down a bit, and let the rest of their products catch up. It isn’t like this industry is moving nearly as fast as some like to pretend it does. Since the original iPhone and Android announcements, the only truly disruptive change has been iPad and the rise of the tablet. There is absolutely no need to rush about just become some company makes their phone bigger/smaller/thinner/waterproof/whatever. Apple software has declined in reliability, at least from my own experience, and it is time to stop trying to stuff so much into a single release.

Of course, there will be the naysayers. Those that will predict that Apple is now doomed, and that someone will supplant them. That may very well happen. Apple is no longer the underdog, they are the top dog. Everyone watches what they do. When someone imitates them, they are being clever or nimble. When Apple imitates, they are unimaginative. It’s the downside of success. Apple can probably learn to live with it.

Even these releases could arguable have been dot releases, and not worthy of a new major revision number. But it is what it is. It isn’t like Apple’s done, or that they have nothing left in the tank. They, like other companies that some have written off, have a ways to go yet.

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