Every June the tech world looks on to Apple to see what changes Apple will make to its software and online platforms. These announcements happen at WWDC (The World Wide Developers Conference) in California. This year as expected we saw the release of macOS High Sierra, iOS 11, watchOS 4, and tvOS 11. Of all of these iOS 11 contains the most interesting new features. macOS High Sierra, watchOS 4, and tvOS 11 all contain quality of life fixes and small amounts of polish.
iOS 11 in many ways is a long overdue response to changes in the tablet and smartphone operating system platform war. iOS 11 gains a file manager, drag and drop support (for files, text, and anything else a developer wishes to support), a dock (task bar), and easier to use keyboard for iPad. Apple has long stated that it believes touch belongs with iOS and the mouse and keyboard belong on the Mac. Microsoft has bridged this strategy and uses a hybrid approach for Windows 10. iOS 11 is the response to Windows 10 and Microsoft’s latest product lineup including the Surface Pro, Surface Book, and Surface Laptop.
This brings up the fact that for the last number of years Apple has been playing catch up, in their own way, with the platforms of Microsoft and Google. There was a time when Apple was the leader of innovation and new technology. This brought Apple a great reputation and a massive user base of both mobile and desktop users. Once Apple garnered this user base they looked inward to build a platform focused on the Apple ecosystem. While building this ecosystem both Microsoft and Google sought to replicate Apple’s success and built outward looking ecosystems. Today we’re in a position where Apple applies polish to its ecosystem, bringing out new cosmetic features, and taking a slow step forward in the way of innovation. After this, what happens?
Apple’s period of greatness is often haled as the time a holy trifecta consisting of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. The iPod was the first easy to use mass storage MP3 player that gained traction. The iPhone changed smartphones and effectively put a computer in everyone’s pocket. The iPad provided and still continues to provide the opportunity for a paradigm shift in computing. The key to the huge success of these products is that they were both first of their kind in the marketplace and were highly innovative. At the time, MP3 players were small on capacity and didn’t have a user experience around them. Smartphones required stylus’s to use and had cumbersome touch interactions that didn’t work well. The iPad’s appeal was simple, there was no thin tablet outside of Microsoft’s basic attempts at a hybrid laptop/tablet PC of the time. Apple provided a next generation of technology hardware that had not yet existed.
The success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad brought a new attention to Apple that had not existed before. If someone had an iPod or iPhone they were more likely to look at their next laptop being a MacBook. The ease of use of these three devices set a new vision of what Apple was as a company and brought many into the Apple ecosystem. For the first few years of iPod, iPhone, and iPad there was very little of what we know as a modern computing ecosystem (cloud sync, shared apps, and shared data). Apple built their ecosystem in such a way that if you had an iPod, iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple Watch you were going to be much more likely to buy another Apple ecosystem product. Apple’s focus on their ecosystem was inherently inward looking meaning that interaction with Windows PCs and Android devices was and still is an after thought.
The downside of Apple’s splendid ecosystem is that during the time it was being built by Apple, Microsoft and Google were building outward ecosystems that could interact on Apple devices. Along side this came a good look at hardware from both Microsoft and Google. Microsoft built the Surface, which is a hybrid laptop and tablet design and later built the Surface Laptop which puts laptop first but still employs a major touch based focus. Google started by hiring firms such as LG and HTC to build their flagship smartphones. Later, Google built their own smartphone termed the Pixel which meets or exceeds Apple’s build quality.
To recap, Apple has built an ecosystem that is second to none if you use Apple devices. Apple is fine with this, Apple’s users are fine with it, and it works quite well. The downside? We have seen a lack of innovation in Apple hardware and software. Microsoft and Google have caught up to Apple interns of innovation.
Today’s culture at Apple focuses on incremental steps forward to improve Apple’s platform. This incremental nature can be seen in the updates this year to macOS and watchOS. macOS sees new incremental behind the scenes features that improve system stability. watchOS has received some quality of life changes and a few new Toy Story watch faces, Apple also loves producing new watch bands for the watch. We saw the iPod released in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. Given the pure span of time, it’s safe to say that innovation at Apple has slowed. What does this mean for the future of Apple?
Apple is slowly losing two key segments of its market: those who want an innovative easy to use platform and potential switchers looking at what Microsoft and Google have to offer. During the tumultuous years of Windows Vista and 7 the Mac OS X platform was the place to be if you wanted a modern sleek easy to use operating system. Windows 8 and Windows 10 both advanced the ease of use of Windows considerably. Windows 10 even has bash (a UNIX shell) support now, which could entice some who use macOS as a development platform to investigate or switch. Similarly the lack of new and interesting features (innovative features) on iOS could very well serve as a deterrent for someone to switch to an iPhone or iPad.
There is hope for the future. The massive changes brought to iOS this year including a file manager and drag and drop support show that Apple is aware of its competition. It also shows that Apple knows the exact place that the iPad needs to be competing. These changes also make their way down to iOS on the iPhone. With advancements on iOS in place for iOS 11, it’s not without hope that we will see a similar sort of advancement on macOS next year. I’d like to stress that this is all hypothetical and this years iOS changes could either be a fluke or the start of something very interesting for Apple. At this point Apple can either expand its influence once more as they did during the holy trifecta years or contract as they continue to rely more on their existing ecosystem and user base.