At its Worldwide Developers Conference this week, Apple rolled out Mac updates, iOS enhancements, new iPad Pros and the HomePod smart speaker.
Most of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is skewed heavily toward the legions of developers who create software and hardware for the Mac and iOS ecosystems, as you would expect. The sessions are satisfyingly technical, the conversations wide-ranging and the details are tailored for its nerdy (I say as a compliment) audience.
But even compared to previous WWDC events, the keynote and news for this year’s show had an overt appeal to developers: Apple is working hard to make you happy.
And for Apple, that means hardware.
Developers usually want the heaviest iron they can afford to reduce the time it takes to compile builds of their applications, and the absence of an updated Mac Pro for years, and an underwhelming MacBook Pro redesign late last year, has them feeling nervous.
Most Read Business Stories
- 'A dream come true': Original players rescue hipster chain Rudy's Barbershop from bankruptcy
- 'Hundreds of millions of dollars' lost in Washington to unemployment fraud amid coronavirus joblessness surge
- Mitsubishi cuts hundreds of jobs, shuts Washington operations as it slashes SpaceJet budget
- PCC Markets CEO Cate Hardy leaving to run huge wine company
- Even if you want to buy a home, it's harder now to get a loan. Or tap home equity.
Part of Apple’s response was to roll out updates to the iMac and MacBook Pro, each with faster Intel “Kaby Lake” processors and greater graphics-processing power. The screens on the new iMac models are 43 percent brighter than before, and they now add Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) connectors to the existing USB 3 ports. The MacBook Pro models are largely unchanged except for the processor speed bumps.
(It’s worth noting that this processor update doesn’t remove the 16 GB RAM limit that the 2016 models had, which is something I wrote about in October. So, I’ll admit I don’t have much buyer’s remorse for purchasing my TouchBar MacBook Pro in November.)
The bigger hardware news, though, isn’t coming until December. Apple offered a sneak preview of the new iMac Pro, a space-gray-colored all-in-one that will put all of the company’s other Macs to shame.
Running Intel Xeon processors in 8-, 10- or 18-core configurations, the iMac Pro will be capable of up to 22 teraflops of performance power. The price starts at $4,999, so it’s definitely for people who need that kind of computing muscle. Apple also noted that the iMac Pro doesn’t replace the upcoming Mac Pro redesign, which is expected sometime in 2018.
What would one do with that type of hardware? Apple introduced macOS High Sierra (version 10.13, arriving in the fall) with an assortment of new and improved technologies, such as Metal 2 for graphics processing (including, for the first time, support for external GPU hardware, boosting graphics capabilities on any Thunderbolt 3 Macs), improved video and image codecs, new editing capabilities in the Photos application, and welcome tweaks such as blocking annoying website trackers and autoplay videos in Safari.
Apple also showed off virtual reality capabilities on the Mac, teaming with Bellevue’s Valve for its ValveVR platform using HTC Vive headsets and controllers.
iOS 11 and new iPad Pro
The Mac was only part of the two-hour-plus keynote, since today’s reality is that most of the attendees in the audience likely develop for iOS first. Apple’s iOS 11, also available in the fall, gains a ton of new enhancements that range from detailed floor plans of airport and mall interiors in the Maps app to a redesigned App Store.
A few iOS items particularly stood out to me. A new Do Not Disturb While Driving option can tell when your iPhone is in a car and the car is moving, and not distract you with incoming notifications. It can be turned off, say if you’re a passenger, and you can allow messages from certain people that you’d want to be interrupted by in the event of emergencies.
Apple also unveiled its work on augmented reality, which is impressive. Using an iPhone or iPad’s many sensors, the device can identify surfaces (like a tabletop) and display interactive items within the environment on-screen, in real time. Imagine playing Carcassonne in 3D on your dining-room table with family members hundreds of miles away who are seeing the same thing. I’m eager to see what developers come up with.
In terms of little details, I’m also looking forward to the ability to use the camera and the Notes app as a document scanner, and send money person-to-person using Apple Pay payments via the Messages app. A new Files app finally lets you access documents using a variety of services such as iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Box and others.
On the hardware front, Apple introduced new iPad Pro models, each with faster A10X processors and a minimum of 64 GB of storage. The 12.9-inch model gains performance updates, and also a new sibling. Replacing the existing 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a 10.5-inch model. The size refers to the diagonal screen dimensions, and it is notable because the new tablet itself is only slightly larger than the 9.7-inch model. Both can be ordered now and will start to become available June 12.
Both iPad Pro sizes have improved screens that feature ProMotion, Apple’s term for the ability to redraw at 120 Hz, double the current rate. Faster redrawing results in smoother motion such as scrolling and other interactions, as well as lower latency (20ms) when using the Apple Pencil for drawing. The refresh rate is also dynamic, so if the contents of the screen are static, the rate drops to save battery life.
As part of iOS 11, the iPad finally gets some extra attention. You’ll be able to drag and drop items between applications that are visible using the Split Screen or Slide Over features and access apps from a macOS-style dock that can be summoned from the bottom of the screen.
Perhaps the item that will get the most attention is HomePod, a new smart speaker Apple has been developing for a few years that promises to bring great-sounding audio into the home, controlled via Siri voice commands.
Apple focused most on its capabilities as a speaker, pointing out technologies for determining where it is in a room to deliver the best sound and the ability to manage audio using multiple networked HomePods throughout the house. It’s powered by an Apple A8 processor and will cost $349 when it appears in December.
My initial reaction is that unless HomePod is truly magical, the multi-speaker competitor Sonos doesn’t need to worry too much, and Amazon’s Alexa will continue to have a lock on the lower-priced market. But then again, I didn’t expect much from AirPods early on, and now I think it’s one of Apple’s best products, as I wrote in January. By the time December arrives, and we know more about HomePod’s abilities — Apple was light on Siri information — it could be a more compelling product.
WWDC excites developers and gives them directions to take their apps and creations into the year, but a lot of the other announcements have the rest of us looking ahead, too.