Friday, August 22, 2014

The new Apple: relaxed, playful, and trying to kill Google

Apple's Tim Cook has some ideas about Android. Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Apple is different now.

That was the overwhelming vibe during Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference presentation today, where the company announced new versions of OS X and iOS, each with tons of new features for end users and app developers. "We are not standing still," said CEO Tim Cook. "iOS 8 is a giant release ... you can extend your experiences and build apps you couldn't build before."

And it's a huge list of new features: the keyboard offers predictive typing, notifications are more powerful, a new app called HealthKit tracks your fitness, you can seamlessly make calls and send texts from an iPhone from a Mac, photos now seamlessly sync to the cloud, and on and on. Apple has the unique ability to present somewhat obvious new features as masterful flourishes, and the crowd at WWDC ate it up. Seriously: there was applause when Apple's Craig Federighi announced the ability to mute a too-busy group texting thread.

But look past the usual list of new features, and what Apple was really announcing was the next version of itself — a playful, relaxed, hyper-competitive giant that wants the next generation of products and services to be built on its platforms. That's the game now, after all — the mobile revolution is over, and the war is now between Apple and the Google / Samsung alliance for the hearts of developers.

That's why Apple spent fully one-third of its presentation today on new developer features, including an entirely new programming language called Swift. That's why iOS is opening up in entirely new ways, including previously-forbidden things like letting apps talk to each other and even share interface elements with the system. That's why Apple is building out the foundations of both health-tracking and home-monitoring platforms that big companies like Nike and Honeywell can tap into alongside smaller players like the smart lock maker August and speaker company iHome. And that's why Apple is adding all sorts of little features to its systems that only power users really want, like widgets in the notification shade and replacement software keyboards. Make the developers happy, and they'll stick around to write great apps that rely on the iPhone as the center of the universe.

Looking at Apple through the lens of dominant platform vendor also explains why the company just spent $3 billion on Beats — not for the wildly-profitable headphone business, but for the streaming service, which co-founder Jimmy Iovine clearly views as a platform for other businesses to be built upon. "People will pay for service. They'll pay for an experience," he said last week at the Code Conference. "They're not going to pay for access."

Of course, Google has bigger marketshare in mobile with Android, a dominant position in search, and a vast horizontal layer of terrific services like Gmail and Google Now that work across platforms. It is a formidable competitor that makes great products. But Apple seems more philosophically committed to its competition with Google than ever before. Cook noted that 130 million people had bought their first Apple iOS device in the past 12 months, and many were switching from Android. "They sought a better experience," he said. Then he chuckled. "A better life."

Apple's bet is on owning both the hardware and the software, and that means it can take interesting sideways angles at Google throughout its products: Safari on Macs and iOS will still feature Google search, but Apple's putting its own results on top when you start typing. The integrated Spotlight search pull results from Wikipedia and Bing to give you information before you ever need a web browser. Siri searches Fandango and Yelp and OpenTable directly when you ask it what movies are playing or what restaurants are nearby.

These things sound small, but they're enormously important. The next great wave of technological disruption isn't going to be larger phones or smaller tablets, it's going to be a universe of sensors embedded in the world around us that connect to apps on our devices and databases in the cloud, and every company in tech is scrambling to own the platform that unlocks and enables this so-called internet of things. A diminished BlackBerry is basically betting the company on the idea. Google bought smart-home company Nest Labs for $3.2b. And Apple is finally letting developers treat the iPhone more like the miniature broadband-connected supercomputer it actually is.

And that's really what happened today in San Francisco. Apple's Cook and Federighi seemed relaxed and confident — just as the company's Eddy Cue did last week at the Code Conference alongside Iovine. After a series of weird missteps, executive shake-ups, and hurried redesigns, it feels like Apple's organized around a clear new mission: to provide the dominant platforms where the next generation of innovation occurs.

That's a tough job; every other company in tech is after the same thing. But three years after Steve Jobs passed away, Apple seems to finally have emerged from under the shadow of its iconic founder. There were no reverently hushed tones about Apple's identity, no qualms about changing old ideas that haven't worked, and no hesitation in lifting the best features from competitors and pushing others out of the way. There's just a new plan, and a lot of new stuff for everyone to play with.

There will also be occasional phone appearances from Dr. Dre.

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