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Apple promises ‘best ever’ WWDC, but will it deliver?

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“WWDC is always one of my favorite moments of the year — and this one is going to be our best ever,” promises Apple CEO Tim Cook, announcing what’s to come at the company’s most important annual event, WWDC 2024

Will the company deliver on the promise?

The event takes place mostly online with some invited on site guests. It begins with a 10am PDT keynote speech on June 10, during which Apple’s leaders will talk about what’s coming to the operating systems and share some of its plans. 

There will be developer sessions, access to Apple engineers, the annual Apple Design Awards, and more. The show’s purpose is to guide developers through Apple’s old and new technologies to empower them to build applications for the platforms.

Exploring new worlds in spatial computing

This year’s focus appears to be around spatial computing and augmented reality, as implied by Apple’s social media snippet declaring, “Code new worlds.” The developer focus is also made apparent in the WWDC invitation, which says, “Coming in swiftly,” a nod to Apple’s programming language Swift. Both suggest new development tools, additional APIs, and some focus on its Vision Pro headset. 

The latter suggests Apple may announce international availability dates for the product, which has only been available in the US until now. That suspicion is also raised by the inclusion of a Spatial Computing category within the Apple Design Awards for the first time.

But will Apple’s understandable desire to promote its big bet on mixed reality be enough to satisfy company watchers? I don’t think it will.

Will Apple shine a light on AI?

That’s because the tech agenda is being set by artificial intelligence, particularly generative AI.

We’ve been hearing speculation about Apple developing plans to implement genAI across its platforms for months. Most recently, it seems Apple has reached deals with OpenAI and potentially others in the space to make their AI tools available to the iPhone in some form. These will backed up by Apple’s own AI solutions, expected to be elegant tools for specific tasks capable of running on the devices themselves, along with beefier solutions that require cloud support, potentially hosted on Apple’s own M-series servers.

The company is no doubt hoping that this partnership-friendly approach to genAI will give its customers to tools they need while securing customer privacy, at least some of the time.

Data privacy and security will no doubt be part of the company’s customer promise when it comes to the application and future development of these tools. The idea that you can transcribe voice memos without risking sharing the data with the cloud will be compelling to those in regulated industries. 

The cost and consequence

All the same, somewhere an industrialist is smiling over the energy use and environmental consequences of genAI solutions. Electricity grids worldwide are already feeling the strain — nearly a fifth of Ireland’s electricity is used up by data centers, and global demand is expected to increase sixfold in the next decade. 

Within that context, perhaps speculation that Apple plans its own data center server processors isn’t so far-fetched, given that the company leads the industry in power-efficient computational performance on consumer chips. That plan may help secure iCloud and should also help the company meet its ambitious environmental targets. It seems reasonable to expect iCloud+ to extend what it offers users — potentially any server-based genAI features may be protected by that system.

Apple for the rest of us

But for many Apple customers, even these announcements will be seen as less consequential than any operating system news from the company. GenAI tools to make an image or find a file may be useful, but creative and productive users will want to find out how the new systems make their lives easier for routine tasks. While most people now have used genAI, they still need to do the same tasks that existed before tech threw its LLM change-agent curveball.

Those customers will be hoping for improvements in iPadOS to fully realize the power of the new processors these tablets now contain. They will want usability, security, and privacy improvements. Some will want Mail to get a lot more attention to become the kind of powerful information manager other email packages are rapidly becoming. Nearly everyone will want Siri to grow up and get reliable — particularly on HomePod. 

The usual suspects

A very small coterie of users, developers, and regulators will want to learn more about Apple’s plans for opening up its platforms. The company needs to open up about this opening up at WWDC, lest it is accused of ignoring developers who choose to use these features.

I don’t think Apple can reasonably treat people prepared to pay the Core Technology Fee in a less helpful way than it does those choosing to work entirely within the Apple ecosystem. Pragmatically, Apple may not agree with the regulations that have been (or may in the future be) enacted, but those laws are here now, and it takes less energy to move forward than to roll back. There may even be new profit centers to be explored in doing so.

While it’s clear that Apple hopes to cast the spotlight on its Vision Pro range at this year’s WWDC, it really is going to be the company’s AI announcements (or lack of them) that defines the event. But don’t be too surprised if some of these announcements have spatial computing at their core.

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