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WWDC: No new hardware, but Apple's platform advantage grows

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Apple fans will be disappointed at the lack of sexy new hardware at WWDC 2018, but Apple’s focus on software significantly expands what its existing solutions can already do and extends fresh developer opportunities across the next year.

To understand this, think about some of the significant items mentioned during the WWDC keynote. Not only do most of these work across multiple Apple platforms, but they reveal a great deal about how the company sees the future.   

Talking Group FaceTime

With up to 32 participants supported, FaceTime looks a lot more compelling as a collaboration solution. After all, conversations are encrypted and secure. That Apple is clearly moving toward AR support within the service (what do you think Animoji’s are, really?) means FaceTime has a pretty powerful future. It will be interesting to see if developers like Slack or Trello are given the chance to integrate their products to work with Group FaceTime, as doing so may make Apple a peer player in a sector currently dominated by others — all it lacks is cross-platform or app-based multi-platform support. It certainly provides a credible alternative for Microsoft Skype and Google Hangouts.

Think about CreateML and Core ML 2

There aren’t enough developers on the planet to deliver all the AI features enterprises need and consumer electronics/software firms like to promise. That’s why Apple is pushing so hard to boost Swift learning, and it’s also why it introduced CreateML, which will let developers train new AI models far more quickly than they could before.

Core ML2 also sees significant improvement, it is 30 percent faster at on-device processing and creates AI models (the software that lives on Apple devices that helps get things done) that are 75 percent smaller in file size. This is useful, as it means enterprises can realistically develop AI models for their business that doesn’t hog huge amounts of IT resources and end user device space.

That Apple is working closely with so many of the big data analytics software companies on this shows it is interested in figuring out how to make its platforms, not just great consumers of AI solutions, but also to ensure they are the go-to products for the creation of machine intelligence solutions. Apple’s understanding of this was also evidenced when the company noted that external GPUs when used with a MacBook can significantly accelerate the process of developing such solutions.

Let’s talk about ARKit 2

ARKit is not a game. Apple may be using games as a way to show what ARKit can achieve, but the introduction of peer-to-peer AR experiences, along with the capacity for other people to watch those experiences opens up new opportunities far beyond this. The consequences on collaboration, project work and the potential of using AR in training, education, technical support, health, and military applications means developers in sectors Apple never traditionally had a presence in now have a very good reason to develop first on a Mac for deployment across the increasingly iOS enterprise.

Apple also unveiled the Measure app for iOS, which uses AR to quickly gauge the size of real-world objects — think how this could be used in future to create on the fly objects within interactive AR experiences. All you’d need to enable those would be some kind of open file format to help define and personalise those objects.

Eager to extend its platform advantage, WWDC also sees Apple present just that: In collaboration with Pixar, Apple introduces a new open file format called USDZ, which is optimized for sharing AR objects nearly anywhere in iOS, including Messages, Safari, Mail, Files, and News.

Let’s talk about Siri

Apple has not launched itself into machine intelligence with evangelistic glee. It’s focus on privacy shows it is mindful how the digital information created by intelligent machines can be exploited (hello, Cambridge Analytica), and the company’s disappointment with Facebook’s handling of such information was made pretty clear when it revealed plans to make it much harder for data capture companies to exploit browser data in Safari. Instead of looking to convenience above common and political sense, Apple is trying to figure out how to make AI tangibly useful in people’s lives.

Trust is currency, and Apple understands this. That’s why rather than racing to make claims of features people won’t use, the company maintains its progress toward augmenting what we can do using machine intelligence on the device. Siri can now figure out what you do and make recommendations that fit to your normal actions and habits.

Apple’s newly announced Siri Apple Watch watchface is an excellent example of this, as are the powerful image analysis and discovery features the company introduced inside of Photos. As, too, is the new Shortcuts app.

Let’s talk about Shortcuts

Shortcuts is Apple’s implementation of Workflow. It lets users create shortcuts to get things done, combining different actions across multiple apps to achieve results. Shortcuts ships with a large library of popular actions, and developers will enable their apps with their own actions for users in future using new code Apple is providing.

Shortcut’s integration with Siri and support across Apple hardware is the powerful element to this. It means you will be able to initiate Shortcuts using HomePod, Apple Watch and its other hardware solutions. This is Apple’s response to Alexa Skills.

“Shortcuts has the potential to level the playing field with Amazon, which previously had a huge lead in third-party developed Alexa skills for Amazon Echo products. If developers add Siri shortcuts to their existing iOS apps, the quantity and quality of voice-enabled apps for the Apple ecosystem — including iPhone, CarPlay, Apple Watch, and HomePod — will greatly increase. In the living room, HomePod could be much more on par with Echo in terms of utility,” said ArcTouch’s founder and CXO, Adam Fingerman.

Student ID and why it matters

This didn’t merit too much attention, but news that Apple is developing a solution that lets students present their Apple Watch as their student identification credentials shows that not only is it working to replace everything you once held in your wallet with not just an iPhone, but also an Apple Watch and iPhone. You can now use Apple Watch to make calls, pay for things, get directions, get onto a plane, and more. Will Apple eventually replace passports? I think so.

Digital health

There’s an emerging argument that Apple is being hypocritical with its new digital health tools in iOS 12. These allow users (and their children) to vet how they use their devices and how long they spend in apps. The argument seems to be that at the same time as trying to empower people to control their tech addiction, Apple is also working to make its tech more addictive. It’s a silly argument, addiction is almost always easier to manage when you have better information.

What these tools will do is empower Apple customers to figure out how to spend their time more productively, exposing addictive apps that don’t actually provide much award. Enterprises should take a deep look at this, of course — digital transformation demands that users are engaged in using enterprise solutions, but those solutions should be easy to use.

I’ll be returning to all of these matters, and more, in deeper analysis over the next few weeks. Now I’m racing to the Apple Design Awards.

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