In a line quoted by countless people — including Steve Jobs — computer-science visionary Alan Kay once said people who are serious about software should build their own hardware. He was right, of course, but the reverse is also true: people who are serious about hardware should make their own software.
That’s why lots of folks underestimate the importance of Apple’s WWDC, which begins in San Francisco on Monday with a keynote that I’ll be liveblogging beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern time / 10 a.m. Pacific time. Leading up to the conference, it’s traditional for folks to obsess over any tangible, physical objects that the company might unveil: iPhones, iPads, Macs, possibly even devices in all-new categories. This line of thinking is usually a recipe for disappointment: WWDC is a conference for software developers, about software, and usually doesn’t feature the year’s biggest hardware announcements.
But Apple the software company is at least as interesting as Apple the hardware company. The news it does make at WWDC — which, this year, will include the next versions of the Mac’s OS X operating system and the iPhone and iPad’s iOS — provides a clearer idea of where the company is going than any particular gadget does. And while I don’t know anything specific about Apple’s plans for 2013, I do know that this is a particularly pivotal year for Apple operating systems.
For one thing, this is the first year that Apple’s industrial-design honcho Jonathan Ive is in charge of the user experience on the software side as well as for hardware — a particularly literal example of a person who’s serious about hardware making software, and vice versa. Most of the scuttlebutt about Ive’s influence on software has related to a possible “flattening” of iOS’s interface into something simpler and less skeuomorphic.
I’m not that intrigued with the influence Ive will have on software aesthetics; we know that he has good taste and favors minimalism, and that iOS and OS X will therefore end up looking tasteful and minimalistic. What I’m curious about is any changes to how the two operating systems work — a matter that is much tougher to suss out based on Ive’s hardware-centric history.
And the time is ripe for changes to basic functionality in iOS and OS X:
- The iPhone is one of two superpowers in the smartphone business, the other being Samsung’s increasingly successful Galaxy S line. Samsung’s strategy for competing with the iPhone is obvious: add more and more features, from a fitness tracker to a language translator to a TV remote control. You don’t have to be much of an Apple expert to know that the company won’t respond to Samsung’s success by adopting a similar more-is-more strategy. But I think it does need to do something to reassert that iOS remains the most forward-looking smartphone platform.
- The iPad is still the tablet market’s dominant product. More important, it’s the flagship computing device of the post-PC era — a gadget whose influence has been so sweeping that it’s the single most potent rival that the Windows PC has ever faced. It is, increasingly, a general-purpose computer. I think that iOS needs to acknowledge that with more flexibility and more powerful features, without devolving into something that suffers from the same complexity, instability and security risks as a conventional PC operating system.
- iOS is going to run on new types of devices. TVs and/or watches? Something else? I dunno, and I’m not predicting that Apple is going to announce anything this week. But iOS is the future of Apple operating-system software. When CEO Tim Cook says Apple intends to enter new markets, he surely means that it plans to do so with iOS-based devices. That has huge implications for iOS, and must be a factor in the design decisions that the company has been making.
- The Mac must avoid malaise. After years of outgrowing the rest of the PC business, the Mac shrank, saleswise, last quarter, suggesting that it’s not immune to the industry’s overall woes. Like Windows PCs, Macs need to evolve to stay relevant in the post-PC age. So far, Apple has avoided radical reinvention of the sort that Microsoft is trying to impose on the PC in the form of Windows 8; instead, the past two major versions of OS X have drawn inspiration from iOS in ways that don’t upend the entire platform. Whether Apple can make that approach work indefinitely, I’m not sure.
- iCloud needs new ambitions. It’s very good at certain tasks: backing up and restoring the standard iOS apps and settings and syncing documents in Apple apps like the iWork suite, for instance. But third-party developers say iCloud can be a huge headache, and there are many things that it doesn’t do but could — like provide online storage that’s more akin to what you already get in Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive.
As I write this — early Monday morning, California time — I have no insight into how Apple will respond to all these challenges. Maybe it doesn’t even agree with me about the challenges it faces. (Stranger things have happened.)
The last-minute WWDC rumors and reporting involve relatively-minor-to-extremely-minor matters such as a streaming-radio service and redesigned icons. That leaves Apple with limitless opportunity to surprise us, in one way or another, with whatever the company is about to show off in San Francisco. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s going to be way more fun to write about this stuff starting at 3 p.m. Eastern time / 12 p.m. Pacific time on Monday, when the keynote ends and Apple’s future begins.