Each year Apple holds a five-day event attended by the tens of thousands of independent developers of Apple products. Monday, the first day of its Worldwide Development Conference (WWDC 2017), Apple announced advances to some of its products as well as a few new ones. This event doesn’t include new iPhones; they’re scheduled for September.
HomePod: A small speaker to compete with Amazon Echo
With the success of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, tabletop devices with a speaker and mic that respond to voice requests, Apple is finally introducing its own version that runs Siri. It works much like Echo and Home, but Apple says it has a much higher quality speaker that sounds better than anything in its class and can fill a room with distortion-free sound.
Like the Echo and Home, you can request that it play songs, report the news, set a timer, provide the weather, or give directions. It remains to be seen if Siri has improved enough to compete; today’s Siri has fallen well behind its competition. While the Echo costs $180 or less and the Google Home is $100, the HomePod costs $349, with Apple positioning it also as a high-fidelity speaker, much like a Sonos. It will be available in December.
New desktop computers
Apple has updated their iMac desktop all-in-one computers with three times more powerful graphics, faster processors, Thunderbolt 3, brighter displays, and the controversial USB-C port. They’ve also updated the iMacPro, the cylindrical desktop computer for processor-intensive tasks. The 21.5 inch iMac model begins at $1100 and the iMacPro begins at $5000.
Apple updated the MacBook and the recently announced MacBook Pro with faster processors, faster memory in the MacBook, and introduced a new lower cost 13-inch MacBook Pro at $1,299. This, off-cycle refresh, is likely in response to the disappointment in the current line, introduced in October.
New iOS11 software for iPhones and iPads
Apple is making a major update to the software that runs iPhones and iPads. Siri is said to be much improved and will get smarter with use, based on it learning across all of your Apple devices, while avoiding some of the less secure practices of its competitor, Google, which tracks you across the web. iMessage will have more enhancements, including the ability to make payments to others directly using Apple Pay.
A welcome addition is a file system that lets you more easily save, find and retrieve files. That’s been a major obstacle to using the iPad as a computer, because files were spread among the apps and hard to find. All your files will now be accessible in one place, including those in the cloud and on the device.
Also, iOS11 is adding a safety feature to iPhones that detects when you’re driving and warns you against using the phone. This is a welcome feature with the increasing number of fatal accidents caused by distracted driving.
Apple showed off its developer kit called ARKit to create augmented reality (AR) programs within iOS11. This allows developers to more easily create games and other AR applications that combine real and virtual information on the display. This is probably the most significant announcement of the day for what it will bring to millions of iPhones.
iOS11 will work on many old and new iPhones and iPads, including the iPhone 5S, 6, 6 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, SE, 7, and 7 Plus; the iPad Air and Air 2; the iPad Mini 2, 3, and 4; the fifth-generation iPad; and all iPad Pros. It won’t work on the iPhone 5 and 5C and the 4th generation iPad.
New iPad Pro models
With iPad sales lagging for the past year, Apple added two new models, a 10.5-inch and a 12-inch iPad Pro, the iPads that work with a stylus, called Pencil. Each has thinner bezels, faster processors, and better anti-glare screens. The screens are refreshed at twice the current speed, making images smoother, improving the Pencil’s performance. These will be available next week beginning at $649 for the 10.5-inch model. But adding a Pencil, a keyboard case, and Apple Care brings it up to about $1000.
Improvements to the MacOS were also announced, with the new version to be called High Sierra. One of the best new features of the built-in Safari browser is its blocking of auto-play videos, as well as blocking the ads that track you from device to device.
Apple showed off its new Watch OS4 operating system that will work on models. It provides many new watch faces, better Siri integration, and a greater emphasis on fitness. It tracks more kinds of exercise and can wirelessly connect to certain gym equipment to exchange data.
While Apple continues to make improvements across their product line, there was no major new product or category that created lots of excitement. Its only new product, the HomePod speaker, received some interest because of its sound quality. But Apple has had speakers before, only to exit the category. High margins and modest innovations appear to be the continuing definition of Tim Cook’s Apple, at least until the new iPhones debut this Fall.