Rolling & Disrupting at WWDC

As usual, the rumors surrounding this year’s WWDC reached a fever pitch, and, again as usual, the actual product announcements failed to live up to the incredible hype built up by not only enthusiasts, but also by people who make a living as professional analysts. The Mac Pro was going to get a serious redesign. Siri was going to become ubiquitous across all of Apple’s device. Apple was going to unveil an HDTV as a successor to Apple TV alongside a TV-specific variant of iOS and a developer SDK. Some even hinted at the possibility of a MacBook Touch. None of these radical changes happened, and absolutely no one should be surprised, least of all the people who have been following Apple for years and decades.

This is not to say Apple doesn’t have an iOS-powered television in its labs. I would be surprised if a few touchscreen Macs aren’t floating about the Cupertino campus, and Tim Cook assures us that the Mac Pro will indeed see some love in the future, though not necessarily the near future. Still, Apple very seldom disrupts their product line or enters new markets without very good reason. They need to feel a certain level of inevitability when entering a new market – not that their entrance in the market is inevitable but that their success in that market is inevitable.

Rolling Momentum

Changes at Apple roll out slowly – or they seem slow due to Apple’s relatively rapid release cycle. Take their laptops as an example. From the PowerBook G4 to the current MacBook Pro, you’d see little change from model to model if you bought a new one every year. (Note: I don’t recommend buying a new laptop every year.) If you jumped from the original PowerBook G4 to a more recent model, however, the differences would be more striking. The same is true of OS X, iOS, or even the iPhone hardware. Each iteration is very similar to the one directly before it, but those iterative changes add up over time to a product that is much more advanced than the one upon which it is built.

I’ve linked to this article before, but I think it’s worth revisiting. When the iPad came out, John Gruber wrote for Macworld about Apple’s process in a piece called This Is How Apple Rolls. In it, he states:

They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. They polish those features to a shiny intensity. At an anticipated media event, Apple reveals this core product as its Next Big Thing, and explains—no, wait, it simply shows—how painstakingly thoughtful and well designed this core product is. The company releases the product for sale.

Then everyone goes back to Cupertino and rolls.

…The iPhone is following the same pattern. In 2007 it debuted with no third-party apps, no 3G networking, and a maximum storage capacity of 8GB. One year later, Apple had doubled storage, added 3G and GPS, and opened the App Store. The year after that, Apple swapped in a faster processor, added a compass and an improved camera, and doubled storage again. The pattern repeats. We may never see an iPhone that utterly blows away the prior year’s, but we’ll soon have one that utterly blows away the original iPhone.

Neither does Apple feel the need to be first-to-market with their products. They had already had phenomenal failures with PDAs and digital cameras that were early entries into fledgling markets. After Steve Jobs returned and stripped the company down to its core components – software, desktops, and laptops – Apple remained very hesitant to trail-blaze new markets. Instead, they have watched for markets that are struggling to grow and bring out a product more compelling than the existing competition. When the iPod came out, it was far from the first digital music player; it was merely the easiest to understand. The iPad was not the first tablet computer; it was just the first to be truly friendly to fingers.

iPhone was the exception. It really was the first smartphone to do away with the hardware keyboard and ship with the screen-as-input model the majority of phones now follow. Still, how long did rumors persist that Apple was looking to get into the phone market before it actually happened? The development of the iPhone was long, and it wasn’t until they were convinced that they had something that would succeed that Apple shipped iPhone. The same will be true if they bring a television to market. The device will have already rolled through several iterations in Apple’s labs. It will be pared down to the features with the most polish, and it will be released to the lamentations of the press. But it will only happen when Apple feels they have a winning solution. That’s how they roll.

Quiet Disruptions

Apple is unafraid to disrupt themselves, however. Their method of doing so, however, is usually so muted it hardly seems a disruption. Yes, the company that rolls out every iteration of their iDevices as the Next Big Thing is never quick to lay the most attention on their greatest changes. Even when they made the tectonic shift from PowerPC to Intel processors, Apple did so using the same enclosures as the previous model. They looked exactly like their predecessors despite being built upon a wholly new and entirely different architecture.

Yes, Apple has given Siri and iCloud a great deal of attention in the media – Siri, in particular. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing an ad featuring Siri during prime time. But what we see is a product in its infancy, a product that is growing through use and is subtly changing the habits of millions of iPhone (and soon iPad) users. Speech recognition has been around for years, but how many people have actually used it? Speech-to-text has been around for years, but how many people dictate to Word? Even my 2001 PowerBook G3 had speech control functions in Mac OS 9, but they always seemed like a niche feature, and a buggy niche at that. What Siri is doing is bringing a speech interface to the masses through the two most popular mobile devices available.

Slowly, Siri is overhauling how we interact with technology, and it’s changing how we think about searching for information. On top of that, the goal is to do these things in a way that is natural, even conversational. It’s ambitious, and it has been and will continue to be bumpy as the technology evolves. One indicator of where things may be going with Siri, though, is the Eyes Free feature coming in iOS 6, a feature that allows you to interact with your iPhone or iPad without the display ever being active. Now consider the efforts Google is putting into hands-free computing with Project Glass and what is theoretically possible with a screen-free device using Siri. The possibilities are positively staggering, but Apple will continue to roll with Siri until we’re at that destination without realizing how we got there.

Consider also iCloud. It’s a simple way to access data over the cloud, but there’s something very important at work here. Yes, you can access files, photos, music, and other data from the cloud using services like Dropbox, but user intervention is involved to make it happen. With Dropbox, for example, you have to remember to save the file you want available to your Dropbox folder. As hard as this is to believe for many readers of this site, a great number of people will get hung up on that basic step because they have little knowledge of how their computers are organized or even how to change the directory in which a file is saved. iCloud seeks to erase that barrier, and I’ve already seen it in action with my own device running iOS 5.

The first time I launched my iPod touch, my Address Book was full the first time I launched it. A month’s worth of photos were instantaneously on the device. There was no syncing involved I didn’t have to tell the device to search the information out. It was simply there.  iCloud does the same with my iWork files. If I’m editing a presentation on my MacBook, the changes are already on my iOS device the next time I pick it up. I don’t have to worry about syncing through iTunes. I don’t have to worry about saving to specific directories. In fact, the way iCloud integrates with Apple’s apps depreciates the file directory. It just works. I have to admit that I was initially dubious about iCloud; after all, iTools, .Mac, and Mobile Me before it were all pretty bad. iCloud is great. It’s ambitious, and it makes cloud computing accessible to anyone.

Always Another Horizon

Because Apple keeps such fluid releases, there is always a sense of momentum to their products. The fact that the iPhone 3GS will see few of the new features in iOS 6 hints that the iPhone 4 may soon be taking its spot as the lowest-end iPhone. The Retina Display MacBook Pro brings Apple’s entire line of traditional computers into question. Like the MacBook Air before it, the Retina Display MacBook Pro is an expensive niche product now that is signaling where their other products will inevitably head. The improved screens will slowly roll into other devices as it becomes less expensive to manufacture them, and, in a couple of years, they will be another feature we take for granted. And it will be another feature competitors will be scrambling to match while Apple is busy rolling toward another subtle disruption.



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