In June, Apple held a WWDC keynote that was…well, all over the place. It announced new stuff, of course. But there were also jokes! Dancing! Loose-cannon celebrity guests! It was quite a spectacle and fun to take in, but also the least disciplined Apple event I’ve ever witnessed in person.
For whatever reason, Wednesday’s event at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Auditorium veered in a strikingly different direction. Apple had a lot to talk about: the iPad Pro and its accessories, the Apple TV, two new iPhones, and some Apple Watch updates. And it did so in a manner that was disciplined, straightforward, and low-key.
Even though most of the news leaked in the days before the event, actually seeing the new products today–and getting a little hands-on time with some of them–has me asking questions. Such as…
Force Touch, the pressure-sensing touch technology that Apple introduced in the Apple Watch and new MacBook, still feels interesting rather than essential. For the new iPhones, it’s been renamed 3D Touch, and seems–from the brief hands-on time I got–like it could be more immediately and obviously useful. It lets you do things such as press on an app’s icon to go directly to specific features.
Really, it’s akin to the right-click as we’ve known it for decades on the PC. That’s a compliment, not a criticism: Right-clicking is among the best interface features ever invented. If 3D Touch is just as significant, it will matter a lot more than Force Touch has so far.
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have been blockbusters even by Apple standards. The fact that they’re Apple’s first big-screen and even-bigger-screen phones presumably helped a lot: It eliminated one of the most obvious selling points for Apple’s Android-powered competition, and gave current iPhone owners a no-brainer of an excuse to upgrade.
From 3D Touch to their 4K video cameras, the 6s and 6s Plus pack a bunch of meaningful improvements. But as usual for the iPhone’s “s” models, they keep last year’s industrial design. Which means that they may not benefit from the pent-up demand for expansive screens that boosted their predecessors. If they sell well, it’ll be a sign that the commoditization of smartphones isn’t hurting Apple.
I do! I’ve been using an iPad as a primary computing device for years, and have often craved a larger display, a bit more raw computing muscle, and a serious pressure-sensitive pen. But I’m a whacko. (I know because so many people have told me so when they learn I spend so much time working on an iPad.)
I’m personally an advocate of using a loose definition of “PC,” so I’ve considered the iPad to be a personal computer since the day it was announced. But between the screen size and components and keyboard, the iPad Pro is the first iOS device that has been conceived from the get-go for PC-style productivity. It’s either going to be a niche product, or one that expands the world’s understanding of both the iPad and the PC.
Apple’s big tablet, keyboard, and stylus add up to a hardware package that’s a lot like Microsoft’s Surface Pro. On the software side, however, there are deep philosophical differences: The iPad Pro’s iOS 9 is a mobile operating system that’s been tweaked for a larger display, while the Surface’s Windows 10 is a PC operating system that’s been tweaked for a touch-screen device. People are already joking about the iPad Pro’s debt to the Surface; once the wisecracks are over, I’m curious to see whether consumers will lump them together.
Over on Twitter, when I lust over the idea of a giant iPad, I tend to hear from people who contend that it’s a bad idea on the grounds that it would be uncomfortable to hold. At today’s event, Phil Schiller seemed to address such concerns by noting that the new iPad weighs about the same as the original 2010 model, despite having a screen that’s so much roomier. My guess is that bulk won’t be a major issue: The Pro is aimed at people who want to use a tablet for professional-strength productivity and creativity, not just peruse the web over morning coffee.
This is the first year in the history of the iPad that the version we used to call the “full-sized” iPad–the one with a 9.7″ screen–didn’t get a hardware upgrade. That’s not a catastrophe: Last year’s iPad Air 2 remains powerful and capable, and it’s a logical part of the 2015-2016 lineup. But I still wonder: Now that the iPad Pro exists, will the Air become a second-class citizen in the iPad line? Or could Apple be working on an ambitious makeover for release at a later date?
If you treat Apple TV’s features like a checklist, it sounds much like other current boxes: Amazon’s Fire TV, Nvidia’s Shield, Roku’s Roku 3, and others. Voice control, universal search, games, and apps? All are available already in various forms in various places.
Of course, Apple’s most successful products rarely matter because they’re unprecedented from a feature standpoint. More often, the company just excels at polishing up existing ideas and integrating them with a level of sophistication which other companies have trouble matching. So I’m willing to believe that the Apple TV could be way better than the competition. It’s just hard to tell from an onstage demo.
For months–or has it been years?–the conventional wisdom was that Apple was holding off on a new Apple TV until it could put together a streaming subscription service with a real shot at competing with cable. Now it’s released a box sans subscription service, and the theory is that the service has been pushed into next year.
Even in the absence of an Apple pay-TV service, things are happening rapidly. (Sling TV, especially, is already a big deal.) But Apple still has a shot at coming up with a content-delivery system that instantly makes the Apple TV much more important–just as the iTunes Music Store did for the iPod more than a decade ago.
Gaming is a major part of the new Apple TV value proposition, and the box looks like it’s capable of delivering splendiferous graphics. But it’s not trying to take on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One directly–like an iPhone or iPad, it’s catering to casual players, not hardcore gamers.
Amazon, Nvidia, and Roku all offer gaming of one sort or another already for their TV boxes. As far as I can tell, none of them have had enough success with the concept to prove that there are vast quantities of people out there itching to play games on an unconventional, relatively inexpensive console. Will Apple take the idea mainstream?
Nobody was expecting a truly new Apple Watch today, which was good, because we didn’t get one. Instead, Apple announced new finishes, strap options, and a version produced in collaboration with luxury-goods maker Hermès. Its second-generation devices often feel like the realizations of concepts only partially hashed out in the first incarnations–think iPad 2–so we’re likely to get a much better sense of where Apple thinks its watch is going when it does unveil a significantly new version. I won’t start to get antsy until mid-2016.
Ten is a nice number, so let’s end this here. I’m sure I’ll wonder about other aspects of today’s news as I turn it over in my head. For now, I’d love to hear any questions that are on your mind–or your best guesses on the ones I just asked.