Special: WWDC 2017: Turning It Up to 11

by on June 10, 2017

After a lackluster 2016, it was nice to see Apple have a keynote where they could have gone for double the time without having to throw in an awkward music skit or more game demos. While I’ve been tempted to grab all of the betas and load them on my devices, I’m waiting until at least the first public beta, and even that’s going on an iPod touch. Nonetheless, I’m excited for this fall. Let’s recap, with some good commentary, of course.

Apple TV

It’s always a sign that an Apple event is going to be jam-packed when the “state of the union” style content is set aside. When was the last time that we learned about how many new store openings or customer satisfaction? Oh well, never mind, there wasn’t enough time to provide any Apple TV news other than that Amazon was finally bringing their Prime Video app over. Although I’ve found other ways to watch some Prime Video content, it’ll be nice to consolidate it to another app icon on my Apple TV. Go90, you’re on notice.

watchOS 4

The fact that Apple has made major changes to the Apple Watch interface every year since its launch could signal a failure, or throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, but I think it’s a mix of finding what ways that customers use it, along with working within the constraints of the hardware. It was welcome news that the original Apple Watches are being brought along this time.

In terms of features, we’ve gotten some new faces, both a few Toy Story ones, kaleidoscope ones, and a new Siri face. The third reminds me of the original Today view in iOS 7, where you’d get a little paragraph preview of what’s coming up soon. I’m not sure if I’ll use that one as my primary, but it will certainly be in the rotation.

The new fitness features are also an improvement, especially if you need the additional workout options or will have access to gym equipment that can send data with NFC.

macOS High Sierra

For awhile, Apple has been on a tick-stock schedule for OS releases (Leopard:Snow Leopard::Lion:Mountain Lion::Yosemite:El Capitan), so it makes sense that Sierra’s replacement would be about making Sierra even more refined. Except, that for the past few releases, macOS has been mostly about refining and improving, but not piling on the features. It’s fine, as the Mac is a mature platform that really should only see things to keep it in line with Apple’s current lineup of services and features. It’ll get APFS, as expected, but beyond that, it seems like it will be a good, solid update, but nothing I’m racing out to load on day one.

New Macs

Apple updated every Mac in the lineup except the Mac Pro and Mac mini. The iMacs have better hardware all-around, and brought Thunderbolt 3 into the picture, but leaving both the USB-C-style ports and the USB-A ports. This was a good idea and probably left out of the laptops for space constraints. The iMac Pro was also teased, not taking the spot of the Mac Pro, but just to be a good, high-end, all-in-one workstation. Pricing all the parts separately gave some the idea that the pricing is rather fair to start at $5000, and for that chunk of change, you get a Space Grey computer. A neat addition is that the Magic Keyboard (with numeric keypad), Magic Mouse 2, and Magic TrackPad 2 all come in Space Grey, too.

iOS 11

Most of the features of iOS 11 are iterative, in a good way. iMessages now synchronize via iCloud and keep old messages there instead of taking up gigabytes of space on your device. The iMessage app area has been redone to be a bit more user-friendly. Notifications, widgets and the lock screen were once again shuffled around and toyed with, so I’ll be curious to see how much muscle-memory they’ll break. Control Center is semi-customizable and looks a bit weird, almost Tetris-y, but I’ll have to see it in use. Siri got some new voices that sound even better and has some on-device learning to be a bit more contextually aware. The camera and Photos app got some tweaks, including more features for Live Photos, long-exposure mode in the camera, a few updates to Memories. Screen recording has also been added, finally bringing an end to weird hacks or needing a Mac and QuickTime Player.

Person-to-person Apple Pay has been added, with a Square Cash-like card to temporarily hold money. It sounds like this card can be used to pay at stores, too, so I’ll be curious to see if it’s a debit card of some sort (Visa/MasterCard?) behind the scenes. Being a big Square Cash user, I’m also curious if there will be any sort of fees, especially if you use a credit card.

Apple Maps has a few features that stuck out to me—maps of malls and airports, speed limit display, and lane guidance, so you can finally anticipate if the exit is to the right or the left. There’s a Do Not Disturb While Driving mode, which can be great to curb distracted driving, provided people use it. I would’ve liked some sort of landscape CarPlay-esque interface for working with maps and music, as my car is too old and I haven’t installed a CarPlay stereo.

The App Store is being completely reworked, separating games and apps, and offering a more cultivated experience. The entire first tab feels more like a magazine or web site to offer a starting point for anyone who is looking to jump into the App Store.

Augmented Reality

I’m the wrong person to weigh in on ARkit, mostly because I have yet to find a compelling reason for me to care about augmented reality, but I can respect the technology behind this and that in some business applications it will really shine. For things like games, I suspect it will add a better, universal API for developers.

iOS 11 Part 2: iPads

This is the part of the keynote that really got me excited. My primary computer at home is a 12.9″ iPad Pro and my primary computer at work is an iPad Air 2. Knowing how much horsepower is available to these devices, iOS 10 felt limiting in a number of ways. I think Apple finally realized this and aims to change it.

There’s a group of people that think the iPad should get macOS and that will fix everything. While I like the Mac and see its value, I have no desire to have macOS on an iPad. Seeing so many Surfaces being used as essentially laptops and not tablets gives me pause that a desktop OS on a tablet is a good idea. Instead, iOS on the iPad just needs to be improved to take advantage of what’s there.

Apple did just that by reworking the interface a bit (although it still looks like the same comically-spaced grid of apps), but there’s a Dock that also acts as the app switcher, which was the first clue that iOS 11 for the iPad is going to be different. Another big change is that you can drag-and-drop content from one app to another, finally putting an end to some of the nonsense of copying, pasting the wrong thing, going back to the other app, copying again, and finally pasting what you need. It’s something that should’ve been added to iOS 10 as a logical update from split-screen apps, but I’ll take it now. The stupid, never-ending scrolling list of apps when you want to do split-screen apps has also been replaced and you can create different workspaces, much like macOS’s Exposé feature.

The iPad Pro/Pencil combo got some love as written text is searchable and you can do inline drawing in Mail and Notes. Document scanning and QR codes also got included, which makes sense. Third-party note and scanning apps are probably just a bit nervous, especially since the Pencil can bring up a new Note when the iPad is locked. Surface-y, yes, but a good idea nonetheless.

Overall, these changes are really giving the iPad the chance to step up and take on the world. iPad-primary and iPad-only computer users may still be seen as a bit weird, but the whole idea that real work only gets done on a Mac or PC, and especially a PC, could shift a bit. If not, I’ll just be glad that some things are more convenient on my iPads.

Speaking of iPads, iPad Pro Updates

I jumped ahead to iOS 11 because I got a little excited and think it’s going to be very compelling. However, for the new operating system, new hardware is always expected and Apple updated the 12.9″ iPad Pro and introduced a new 10.5″ iPad Pro to replace the 9.7″ model. Both are the same from a feature standpoint, with size being the only difference. I think this subtly makes a better division between the $329 regular iPad and the low-end iPad Pro. It also gives both Pros USB 3, better cameras, TrueTone displays, and an A10X chip powering things. Finally, the displays can up the refresh rate to 120Hz when the Pencil is in use for smooth writing, and then drop to as low as 24Hz to save battery life.

These iPads look like good, reasonable updates and are sort of building a narrative of Pro-versus-non-Pro in the iPad family. I suspect by about this time next year, it will be even clearer. Oh, and the 12.9″ iPad Pro still only has the dark grey and white case (Silicone Case, Smart Cover) options. Step it up, Apple.

HomePod

As just about everything from Apple turns into a music event, the last portion focused on a new bit of hardware. We got the Apple take on the talking-Pringles-can gadget that other big tech companies are doing, except that it’s going to be a bit pricier at $350 and focus on sound quality. For that money, you’ll get a 7″ speaker that works with AirPlay 2, and includes a mix of one subwoofer and seven tweeters. Why so many drivers? The device can learn about the type of room that it’s in and firing certain parts of audio out certain tweeters for effect. From a geek standpoint, I really want to see this in action and try to fool it. I also could see something like this taking the place of soundbars or other faux-home theater setups if you’re all-in on Apple devices (it works with Apple TVs).

Because of the attention to sound quality, it seems more in line with offerings by Sonos, or even Apple’s probably-forgotten iPod Hi-Fi as a music-first piece of kit.

Even then, it takes Siri out of your pocket or bag and gives you the ability to do the basics by yelling at it, including music, news, unit conversion, messages, reminders, podcasts, alarms and timers, translation, stocks, general knowledge, weather, traffic, and sports. Apple also stressed the attention to detail on security and anonymity, as expected.

I don’t have a specific use for the HomePod (which isn’t the greatest of names, I would’ve just re-used iPod), so I won’t be racing to buy one when they go on sale in December, but I find Apple’s approach fascinating and will follow the launch and development of this product. When someone throws an A8 chip in a speaker, you can’t not pay attention to what’s going to happen next.

Anything Else?

Monday’s keynote was the Apple we know and love, coming back with lots of exciting things. I’m not really sure why 2016 was such a dull year for the company unless the plan really was to sit the year out, work on some of these items, and finally have them ready for this year. Regardless, I’ll probably fight myself not to load the iOS 11 betas immediately, as I’m that excited to dig into the new operating system. The other items signified that the company feels healthy and firing on all cylinders, and that’s good enough for me.

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