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  • 06.02.17

WWDC Preview: Four Platform Upgrades, AI Everywhere, And Maybe A Siri Speaker

Get ready for a keynote that will tell us a lot about Apple’s next moves as it takes on Google, Facebook, and other tech giants.

WWDC Preview: Four Platform Upgrades, AI Everywhere, And Maybe A Siri Speaker

Apple’s annual developer conference kicks off this Monday at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. The official purpose of WWDC is to keep developers fired up–and well educated–about developing apps and services on and for Apple’s operating systems and platforms. But the event is also a statement about where Apple is in terms of consumer-tech competition on an array of fronts.

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New features in the company’s operating systems–iOS, MacOS, WatchOS, and tvOS–will likely dominate Monday’s two-hour keynote presentation. Unfortunately–for preview writers like me, at least–precious few details have leaked about Apple’s plans for the next versions of these platforms.

Whatever the specifics of Apple’s announcements on Monday, it’s wise to look at them through the lens of two key strategic themes: artificial intelligence/machine learning and camera-related technologies such as computer vision. Throughout the keynote, we’ll likely hear repeated references to these themes as Apple both pushes its own stated goals in those areas, and responds to competitive pressures from companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Some of the new AI features will be presented as Siri assistant functions. I predict you’ll hear Apple people mention the term “Siri” onstage approximately 237 times in 120 minutes at WWDC. Okay, probably less than that, but a lot.

iOS (and New iPads?)

I’ve heard some smart people say Apple will bake some significant interface changes into its mobile operating system. Though the specifics about iOS 11 haven’t leaked, it makes sense for Apple to focus on improvements to the most popular user-facing functions on the iPhone, the company’s most important product.

From Facebook’s Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp to Microsoft’s Skype, messaging is a key battleground among the major tech platforms, which are fighting vigorously to get and keep daily users. The more features they build into their messaging environments, the less reasons people have to go outside of them. For instance, last year Apple began allowing users to play YouTube videos and Apple Music songs within the Messages app.

Apple also announced new third-party integration possibilities in the iMessage service last year, like the ability to send Square payments and order food deliveries. This year it’s likely to expand the ways third parties can offer goods and services within the app. It may even talk about adding full Apple Pay support in iMessage.

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At last year’s WWDC keynote, a new version of Messages packed with features designed to help it take on Messenger and Snapchat got plenty of stage time. This year, some Apple watchers believe that the app could get some new image filters a la Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.

The company will likely talk at least a little about Maps, perhaps adding new features that more intelligently understand the user’s intent and the context around map searches. “My expectation is for a number of changes as Apple tries desperately to keep Google Maps within reach,” Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart wrote in a brief.

Apple Music is likely to see some significant design changes, while sticking with its ultra-simple black-and-white-with-big-letters theme.

As iPad sales have struggled, Apple has been working both to make its tablet more of a business tool and to make sure it’s relevant in a changing consumer market. So now might be a great time to add a bunch of new features to iOS just for the iPad. This could mean anything from new multitasking and screen-splitting features to a more work-ready Safari browser.

Speaking of the iPad, the rumor mill has been working overtime on the rumor that Apple could unveil a new 10.5-inch iPad on Monday that may or may not replace the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. We know very little about the device except that it would have significantly less bezel and more screen space. It would likely also contain a faster chip than the other (9.7-inch and 12.9-inch) models in the Pro line, raising the possibility that Apple could announce chip upgrades for iPads in other sizes.

MacOS (and New Macs?)

Apple has managed to keep a lid on its plans for the next version of MacOS. Actually, much of the chatter seems to concern whether the company will finally ditch its “California landmarks” nomenclature and call the next version of the OS MacOS 11, which would look nice alongside the new iOS 11. (Apple changed the OS name from OS X to MacOS in 2016 but called the new version “Sierra.”)

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Lots of people would by very happy if Apple would finally reinvent iTunes. As wireless devices and music distribution models have evolved over the years, the iconic music app looks less and less relevant and intuitive. A redesign might feature Apple Music in a more central role.

More likely, Apple will focus more on integrating MacOS with iOS in new ways, as it did last year with a clipboard that let you copy something on your iPhone and then paste it on a Mac. We may also see the company continue to export iOS features to MacOS. It brought Siri to the desktop last year, and there’s plenty of opportunity to make that experience richer. Other iOS features may follow.

We may hear some talk about Mac hardware too. In early March Apple brought a few journalists to its Cupertino campus to say that it’s still devoted to its pro users–people who use their Macs for demanding work, such as the software developers in the audience at WWDC. Apple will probably repeat this message at WWDC. Though the new iMacs and Mac Pro models the company mentioned at that event may be a long ways off, Jason Snell, writing for Macworld, points to rumors that Apple might announce processor upgrades for the MacBook Pro models that were released last fall. There’s also been scuttlebutt about a new version of the 12″ MacBook.

tvOS

Apple won’t likely spend a lot of time talking about tvOS, but it may crow about a new content agreement that will make a difference to lots of people–a deal to bring the Amazon video app to Apple TV. We’ll also likely see Apple add some new Siri integration to Apple TV to help users find new content without having to click the remote.

WatchOS

Don’t expect massive differences as the Apple Watch’s software segues from WatchOS 3 to WatchOS 4. Notifications, the control center, and the app dock will likely remain largely the same in form and function. We may see some further emphasis on the Watch as a health device with the addition of new fitness and wellness functions. We’ll likely see some new watch faces and complications.

The “Siri Speaker”

Rumors have intensified in recent weeks about a new Apple smart speaker device that will look something like Google Home and Amazon Echo. A report by Bloomberg‘s Mark Gurman and Alex Webb on Wednesday said the new device is already in production and will feature “virtual surround sound” courtesy of some fancy speakers and software. If this is true, it may get announced on Monday.

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The device would act as the vehicle for the Siri assistant in the home, and would act as the front end for several major Apple services (notably Music).

You’ll note that I didn’t mention HomeKit in the iOS section above. Well, that platform might end up getting a lot of attention on Monday. The new speaker device could assume a key role at the center of the Apple connected home. For consumers who own smart-home devices that support HomeKit, a speaker could be the go-to natural-language interface for home control.

I’m betting we will indeed see the announcement of this product Monday. The popularity and influence of the Amazon Echo is simply too great for Apple to ignore. The risk is that some users might bail out on Apple services such as HomeKit if there’s no ambient way to call them up by talking. Even an announcement far in advance of when the product can actually ship might mitigate that risk somewhat. (Note that Google announced its Google Home speaker at last year’s I/O conference, six months before it shipped.)

Augmented Reality

Finally, some people are wondering if Apple will use this year’s WWDC to finally make some nods at augmented-reality features. The company has repeatedly expressed interest in the technology, which superimposes digital imagery over the real world as seen through a camera lens. And some believe Apple is beginning to feel some pressure from rivals like Google that are advancing the technology.

One of the new iPhones coming this fall will indeed contain a 3D sensor, my sources say, which could enable the phone to process the real-world images shot by the camera and position 3D digital images in that environment. On the other hand, that 3D sensor could be used in the new phone for some other function, like iris recognition for securely locking the phone.

Predicting when or if Apple will announce anything related to AR or VR is risky, but it’s worth acknowledging that such an announcement gets less farfetched every day.

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The WWDC keynote party begins at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET on Monday, June 5. You can find Apple’s live stream here. My colleague Harry McCracken and I will be on the ground at the event in San Jose. We’ll be delivering news and commentary throughout the keynote.

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