Saturday 26 May 2018

Launch pad: Apple homes in on even more global dominance

A plethora of new products saw the tech giant stay true to its roots with its most powerful desktop ever and better iPhone and iPad storage, while ramping up its smarthome and augmented reality offerings, with a new HomePod speaker. It's also set to become THE global player for money transfers with Apple Pay. Here's our technology editor's top six takeaways from WWDC

Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote address with an image of HomePod speaker behind him
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers a keynote address with an image of HomePod speaker behind him
Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller
Senior Software Engineering VP Craig Federighi speaks about Apple Pay
Apple's World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California is one of the most eagerly-awaited tech events
Kevin Lynch, VP of Technology at Apple, speaks near a projection of an Apple Watch during the company's developer conference
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

At times, it was almost impossible to keep up. Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) included more new launches than any other single Apple event in recent history.

From revamped iMacs and MacBooks to a new smart speaker and umpteen big software upgrades, the reverberations from what was launched will be felt for the rest of the year.

But how do the new machines and services measure up? And what do they tell us about the kind of company Apple will be in future?

Here are the six most important takeaways from Apple's new offerings.

Apple's World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California is one of the most eagerly-awaited tech events
Apple's World Wide Developers Conference in San Jose, California is one of the most eagerly-awaited tech events

1. Apple reaffirms its faith with core Mac computers

There have been insinuations floating around that Apple is fading away from its Mac and MacBook line of devices to concentrate on the category it makes most money from: iPhones. At this year's WWDC, Apple smashed this notion to bits.

It unveiled a new top-end desktop computer, calling it the iMac Pro.

With a 27-inch display, it's a beast of a computer with up to 128GB of Ram and up to 18 Intel Xeon cores - a configuration that few other computers can match.

It's a little like getting a Porsche and adding a whack load of horsepower just for the hell of it. It's so powerful that it can run two giant 5K monitors at the same time. (It has a 5K display itself). As such, it's likely to appeal to media professionals and developers. Indeed, when I looked at it, Apple showed off some virtual-reality development systems that it said will suit the power of the new computer.

Although set in the familiar iMac frame, the machine comes with its own distinct look. Apple has coloured the iMac Pro in a space grey matte finish. To keep it exclusive, the company says that only iMac Pro keyboards and mice will come in this colour.

Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller
Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller

It has up to 4 terabytes of solid state storage and 10Gb Ethernet connections for those who really need to network their devices.

There's very little that this sort of firepower will struggle with: you can forget about crashes or stalling antics. This will zip through multiple heavy workflows like lightning.

It won't overheat, either, with a new cooling system that is more efficient at making sure nothing gets too toasty under the hood.

But it won't be cheap. This is going to cost over €5,000 for the basic configuration. Apple says it's still relatively affordable when rival systems are priced against the iMac Pro's specifications.

Nevertheless, if this seems steep, Apple has updated its other iMac ranges too. All of them now have the new generation of Intel Kaby Lake processors and bumps in graphics, storage and software.

So does this mean that the iMac Pro shoves aside the Mac Pro in Apple's future computing plans?

Senior Software Engineering VP Craig Federighi speaks about Apple Pay
Senior Software Engineering VP Craig Federighi speaks about Apple Pay

No - Apple says that it is now working on a "completely redesigned, next-generation" Mac Pro that is being built for professional users. Crucially, this will be modular, something that pro users crave. (The iMac is largely a case of what you get is all you'll have: Apple doesn't let you tinker about too much with adding Ram or memory.)

2. With the new HomePod speaker, Apple is expanding into smart homes in a big way

The holy grail of controlling smart-home devices has been dominated as much by voice-recognition equipped home speaker systems as by phones. Apple has finally entered the competition against Google Home and Amazon's Alexa with its new home speaker, the HomePod.

Apple is positioning the seven-inch device as a very smart speaker that beats rivals on sound quality. But the company is also making clear that the gadget could become the voice-connected centre of emerging smart home technology for millions of people.

This is largely down to the HomePod's compatibility with HomeKit, Apple's software platform that makes everyday domestic appliances work with iOS devices.

In this way, the HomePod can control smart home devices by 'asking' Siri to turn on the lights, close the curtains or turn the alarm on. It can also so this when you're away from the house by using the Home app on an iPhone or iPad.

It can also be used via Siri for messages, news, sport or weather.

The HomePod is quite small, at only seven inches tall. However, Apple claims that some high-end technology under its hood gives it an edge for audio quality. "Spatial awareness" sensors allow the HomePod to estimate how best to modify audio levels to maximise effect in any given room. So if you put it in a bookshelf, it will adjust differently than if you put it on a table.

One of the things Apple wants is to make the HomePod addressable from anywhere in the room, even if there's music playing fairly loudly. In this vein it has a six-microphone array to figure out whether people are nearby.

As a smart speaker, it's designed for Siri to handle advanced searches within the music library. So you can ask it questions such as "Hey Siri, who's the bass player in this?".

Wireless speakers are a booming tech category at present and are seen as a gateway into turning our homes into 'smart' homes. Everyday products such as light bulbs, heating systems and security alarms are increasingly being made to connect to the internet. Domestic appliances such as kettles, washing machines and fridges are also becoming wifi-connected.

3. Apple wants to become a serious player in augmented reality

While Facebook, Samsung and others jump further into a virtual reality ecosystem, Apple is going squarely for an augmented reality (AR) alternative. The difference is that augmented reality can be used on devices we already have, such as iPhones, iPads and other everyday gadgets. In other words, you don't need to don a headset to use it.

Some real meat on the bones of Apple's AR philosophy emerged at WWDC. The company launched an AR kit for iOS to let developers focus on making games and other applications. Because of its scale, Apple claims (with some accuracy) that this makes Apple the world's biggest AR platform.

That doesn't mean that the company is shunning VR, though. A significant part of its pitch on its new iMacs and MacBooks is as tools for VR developers and programmers. John Knoll, chief creative officer for Industrial Light & Magic (which looks after graphics for Star Wars) was on hand to show off some gaming projects.

4. Apple knows that our iPhones and iPads are filling up too fast

There are very few people who don't know the pain of handsets that won't save any more photos because they're full to the brim with existing snaps, videos and other detritus from our lives. To this end, Apple has increased the default (and upper) storage levels on almost all of its updated devices announced this week. This includes the iPad Pro, which now starts at 64GB and goes up to 512GB of storage.

But Apple has also done something that could help even more. It has re-engineered its photo and video compression rates so that both now only take up half as much space on the iPhone or iPad as they used to. It has done this, it says, without affecting the resolution or quality of the photos and videos.

5. Apple Pay could become a juggernaut

One of the less commented-upon new features which emerged at WWDC is the extension of Apple Pay into peer-to-peer payments. In other words, you can now transfer money yourself to someone else who has an Apple Pay account. And it's easy to as Apple has included the mechanism in its iPhone Messages app. The system uses the usual safeguards and is verified by a TouchID tap from your authorised finger.

There are quite a few peer payments systems out there, ranging from blockchain-based Circle to Colm Lyon's Fire. But none of them have anything remotely approaching the scale or impact of Apple's iOS. It means that overnight, Apple could rocket to the top in the global peer-to-peer payments hierarchy.

6. Apple Watch is a permanent, successful product category

Though still sometimes described as an also-ran product, Apple's Watch seems to be a steady genre with strong recurring sales and a reasonably healthy development ecosystem. The numbers around the Watch sound impressive. It's now the biggest-selling smartwatch, overtaking the (much cheaper) Fitbit device this year. It has also claimed top spot in overall global watch sales, taking in more than any other traditional timepiece company.

At WWDC, new announcements for the Watch focused mainly on fitness upgrades (it will now synchronise data with gym equipment) and some cosmetic additions, such as Toy Story characters for Watch faces and a new selection of straps. But there were meaty iterations too, mainly in the shape of deepening Siri interaction.

More and more, the Watch is being positioned as a personal assistant rather than just a fitness accessory.

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