It doesn’t take long in the tech world before what seems like a rock solid proposition becomes undermined and leaves companies scrambling to retain a foothold in a market. While Apple might still be the world’s largest technology company across all measurables, its reputation has been hit hard by sluggish sales forecasts and several products coming under severe market pressure as rivals ramp up their own offerings to match or better Apple’s capabilities in many regards.
This perfect storm made this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) all the more important for Apple; simply put, this was the chance to set several product lines back on the right track and get itself back riding the crest of the technology wave. Primarily a software event, WWDC 2016 saw the company refocus its efforts on voice recognition, wearables and its oft-neglected smart home ecosystem.
No place like HomeKit
Apple’s approach to the connected home has thus far been a peculiar affair – one that saw it first enter the market with HomeKit as early 2014, but has since seen little in the way of meaningful process. This has meant the likes of Amazon have taken the plaudits for innovative thinking in this area while Apple has been relegated to a bit-part player.
Apple continues to place its faith in HomeKit, but is finally looking to make it a genuinely useful framework with the introduction of the Home app, a unifying platform for controlling a number of systems in the home via Apple devices. Replete with Apple’s signature flair for design, the interface allows users to set time- or event-based scenes, quickly access frequently used systems and customise the layout of the homepage.
Apple has made good use of its existing iOS architecture when it comes to control, adding force touch control for certain functions (such as opening up a camera feed or unlocking a door) and building HomeKit functions into the Control Centre so that the user doesn’t always need to open the app. Siri-based voice control is also a key element, particularly as it opens up further functionality once its mooted ‘smart speaker hub’ is unveiled later this year.
This is Apple’s first attempt at a fully-fledged control interface, having previously allowed third parties such as Lutron and Insteon to create their own apps using its HomeKit architecture. While it will control the usual array of lighting, locks, heating, sensors and shades expected of a unified control system, its ecosystem of compatible devices is hardly extensive. This is in large part down to the encryption demands that Apple places on its third party partners, even down to specifying an Apple-approved chip that must be used.
This is a double-edged sword, as it is the right move in terms of building a secure connected network – but if this cuts down on the number of devices available, this scrupulousness may hurt rather than help in the long term.
While the HomeKit app is an important step for Apple, its elegant design doesn’t hide the fact that, as demoed, it is not particularly extensive when compared to established rivals such as Savant. It has time to gather more hardware partners before it launches alongside iOS 10 later this year but, for now, it looks to be firmly targeting the lower end of the connected home market.
Siri becomes friendlier
While the headlines focused on Apple bringing Siri to its new MacOS desktop operating system, a more important development was its decision to finally open up its voice recognition platform to other companies.
Apple is famous for its insular approach, so breaking down the walls between Siri and the outside world is a significant step towards openness that goes against the general grain of the company’s tendency to keep its technology to itself.
Apple’s hand has been forced by Amazon’s acceptance to let developers integrate Alexa into their products, leaving it playing catch-up to make sure it doesn’t lose ground to its rival. That said, its SiriKit tools won’t play nicely with all and sundry – only certain types of services will be supported, including taxi booking, payments and messaging, while Apple Music will be the only music platform that Siri can interact with.
One area where Apple badly needed to demonstrate greater innovation is in the artificial intelligence that backs up Siri, which has lagged behind some of its competitors in terms of sophistication. While the new API for continuous speech recognition is welcome, as is the addition of new content sources such as YouTube to Siri’s universal search protocol, there was little evidence to suggest that Apple is breaking new ground with Siri’s artificial intelligence.
A more intelligent Apple TV
A new version of tvOS was unveiled at WWDC, bringing a few substantial changes and several minor improvements that knits the Apple TV more closely to the rest of the Apple product family. Siri plays a prime role in these changes, allowing quick access to live TV from selected channels and making HomeKit interaction possible via the AppleTV. The latter is a definite bonus and suggests that Apple is placing multi-device home control at the centre of its efforts, reflecting the way a user would naturally want to interact with the home rather than confining everything to a single app.
Another indication of this multi-device approach is the new remote app for iOS, which allows homeowners to turn their phones into Apple TV remotes. This, combined with a new Single Sign-On authentication process for services such as HBO, are designed to remove as many potential pain points for users as possible without disrupting the basic flow of Apple TV as a platform.
WatchOS 3 rings the changes
The massive overhaul that takes place in the new version of WatchOS was more a matter of fixing pre-existing problems rather than setting out a whole new vision for the connected watch. Some of the new developments do provide a significant boost to the Apple Watch experience – notably Instant Launch, which opens apps up to seven times faster than the previous OS was capable of, and the ability to make a call to the emergency services anywhere in the world just by holding down the side button. Yet many new services – particularly the Scribble handwriting function and new watch faces – felt like Apple was simply catching up to Google’s Android Wear 2.0 platform.
Exercise is a large reason why many peoples elect for a smart watch; Apple has doubled down on its fitness app in an attempt to capitalise on this. It has been reconfigured to tailor it better for wheelchair users, while extra socialising and sharing functions along with real-time tracking have been included to allow users to interact more with their friends when exercising.
A conservative gamble
It was obvious where Apple would need to focus ahead of WWDC and, by and large, the company addresses each of the areas that required a substantial upgrade. Whether it has gone far enough in each of these regards remains to be seen; the suspicion is that Apple has not revealed anything here that is enough of a game-changer to give its rivals sleepless nights. It still hasn’t managed to shrug off the tendency to retain as much control over its ecosystem as is physically possible – while this has traditionally been one of their great strengths, it now feels like an unnecessary defence mechanism holding certain parts of its business back from truly realising its potential.