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What actually matters at Apple’s WWDC keynote

We’ll be watching for real progress with Siri and Apple’s AR efforts.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Apple is expected to show off the latest version of iOS and some of its other big software platforms today as it kicks off WWDC, its annual developers conference, in San Jose, Calif.

But now 10-plus years into the iPhone era — with global smartphone sales flat and Apple and Google the long-crowned platform winners — it’s unlikely any of the new iOS features Apple announces today will have any profound impact on the company’s success.

What really matters is how Apple is setting itself up for the future, and that will be seen in two main areas:

Siri and AI

It’s pretty clear that ambient, voice-driven computing is going to be something, and that artificial intelligence is going to be a key part of it.

Apple was early with the Siri assistant in 2011, but Amazon and Google have caught up, and in many ways, have surpassed Apple. How serious is Apple about leading this push? Can it leapfrog its competitors while maintaining its privacy stance?

For Apple to impress here, it will need to show real progress in both how Siri “hears” and responds to questions, and how it’s creating tools for developers to build elegant but useful voice apps.

Apple recently hired Google’s AI chief John Giannandrea, who reports directly to CEO Tim Cook. It’s probably too early for him to have had any significant effects on whatever Apple announces today, and I don’t expect him to have much, if any, stage time.

But if Apple has any chance of competing here, it needs to show that Siri is on the way to becoming a real platform and not just a semi-reliable demo feature.

AR

Augmented reality — drawing computer animations over a view of the real world — is also seen by many, including Tim Cook, as one of the key computing platforms of the future. This is still a few years away from being a mainstream thing people use all the time, but it’s another chance for Apple to get in early.

Last year at WWDC, Apple launched ARKit, the most impressive AR developers toolkit in the world. A “2.0” version is expected today. At least in these early stages, AR is a technology that favors Apple’s tightly controlled software and hardware ecosystem. So if AR is going to really matter in a few years, Apple has a good chance to lead. But Google and Facebook are moving fast, too.

The key for Apple now is to continue shipping the best tools possible and to help developers figure out real, useful applications for AR — video games alone would be a disappointment.

One vision of the future is that a slim, subtle set of AR glasses is one of the devices that could eventually replace your iPhone. No one is expecting Apple to introduce AR glasses today. But it needs to continue pushing the platform forward so that in a couple of years, the transition could seem natural.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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