WWDC 2018: What I really expect

Apple’s yearly developer conference is a marathon of information that sets the stage for the year to come

You’ll read a hundred stories between now and Monday about what to expect at WWDC 2018, but what they’ll all neglect is the experience itself. To understand what Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is all about and why it matters, it helps to know what it’s like to be there and absorb that momentous keynote first hand.

Start yer’ engines

It doesn’t matter if Apple holds WWDC in San Francisco or, as it is this year, San Jose (nearer its Cupertino headquarters), the process and vibe is always the same and the Day 1, often two-hr-plus keynote is, for much of the Apple-watching world, all that matters.

WWDC lines are always long.

Whatever the venue, I arrive early knowing that there’ll be a matryoshka doll set of lines. Once through one, you’ll be inside yet another. It’s usually two hours of jockeying for a position, just to position yourself to jockey for a spot on the next line.

From the curb to the Keynote stage, smiling Apple employees and security are there to greet you, guide you, and make sure you don’t try to sneak inside the hall early.

Even before we enter the convention center, Apple has separated the masses into media (and analysts) and developers. Developers far outnumber the journalists at WWDC (a flip of the situation at an Apple Product Launch Event). Last year roughly 5,000 developers attended the four-day event.

WWDC returns again to the San Jose McEnery Convention Center

There’s little to do during the wait outside except commiserate on dozens of rumors preceding Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote. Journalists line up cheek-to-jowl try to find shade — or use other tech reporters to shield themselves from San Jose’s hot June sun — as they pick over whispers about the next iOS and if there’ll be a hardware surprise. (Any hardware at WWDC is always a surprise since it’s generally considered a platform, software and coding event.)

Despite the scale and sheer number of people at WWDC, Apple is remarkably prompt. At precisely an hour and a half before the keynote is set to begin, Apple starts checking in journalists and performing the badge ceremony. Okay, it’s not really a ceremony, but people do get a little excited when Apple hands them one of their elegant and typically low-key WWDC tags and lanyards. If you want to see developers get emotional, watch as they pick up their Apple WWDC Developers jackets, hoodies, or t-shirts, which many promptly don.

Your smartphone is your best friend while you wait to enter the keynote hall.

As soon as I’m through that first line, I’m on the hunt for the next one since it will define where I sit for the keynote. I usually position myself feet from the hall doors and then, with an hour or more to go before Cook takes the stage, take a seat on the floor. Most of us fill the time by sharing on social media and livestreaming pre-interviews with other tech journalists (Apple employees will not talk on the record about what’s to come).

30 minutes before showtime, Apple opens the doors and then we ralk (that’s run/walk) to the front of the hall.

The press all sit together at WWDC and try to keep their elbows to themselves.

Since this is a developer event, Apple fills the keynote hall’s large center aisle with developers (along with a couple of front rows for special guests and Apple executives). Journalists like me sit in the left aisle, which means I get to look to the right for the entire presentation.

The remaining minutes are spent scanning the hall for notables (Apple execs, celebrities, board members like Al Gore) and sharing whatever you see and hear. It’s also an opportunity to scan the stage for any hint of what’s to come. In previous years, I noticed Macs running the very soon-to-be-announced next version of MacOS.

The air inside is electric as media and developers anticipate a laundry list of updates that will provide the Apple roadmap for the rest of the year.

Moments before Tim Cook took the stage at WWDC 2017. Somehow, I was already exhausted.

In this season of developers conferences, Apple’s keynote feels different. Where Google’s is open-air and colorful, and Microsoft’s is warm and business-like, Apple does what it can to intensify the hype favoring the all black stage with, usually, a singular figure (Cook, Schiller, Cue) on stage and the giant screen filled with platform interfaces or products.

Cook isn’t so much a showman as a Mark Twain-like story-teller. His cadence and Alabama drawl help ease you into what is typically a breakneck series of whirlwind announcements across four platforms. To be honest, I usually struggle to keep pace. My goal is always to tweet news as soon as it drops, but it’s not unusual for three newsworthy bits to drop in a minute.

After an hour of typing, tweeting, photography and video, many of us are glowing with sweat, but we’re only halfway through. And you can’t just watch and dumbly repeat everything Cook and company say. Everyone wants to know what it means and for us to explain when something presented as new or unique is not all that new or unique. Plus, we’re all watching for the big surprise.

Over the years, Apple has introduced new Macs, iPads and, just last year, its first smart speaker, the HomePod. It could happen again.

The rare, big WWDC hardware announcement. Don’t expect a repeat.

By the end of it, we’re usually relieved and maybe a bit disappointed. If the updates were incremental, we wanted more. If there wasn’t any hardware (not even a tease), we wondered why. There isn’t much time for reflection, though. If there is hardware, Apple employees are shepherding us to an adjacent space for hands-on time (which we usually share in real time). If not, I’m hunting for a place to sit and write.

This whole process works a lot better if I’m prepared, which is why I’ve been reaching out to my analyst friends for insights.

You, Me, and Technology

In the year since the last Apple WWDC, popular sentiment on technology and its global impact has taken a bit of a hit, led by Facebook’s failure to recognize how malefactors were using its platform to affect elections and to stop third parties from selling our data. YouTube, which is owned by Google, didn’t fare much better as parents discovered disturbing images and messages hidden in children’s videos on the platform and white supremacy ads running with other videos. There’s been a reckoning and virtually all the developer conferences this season have addressed the need for tech companies to do good and promote reasonable tech use.

Last month, Facebook used its developers conference to continue its apology tour and introduce tools that would help users regain control of their Facebook experience, Microsoft announced a major accessibility effort, and Google unveiled a time-spent dashboard for Android to help you understand your digital consumption habits and maybe get them under control (they also introduced YouTube break reminders).

Apple has been focusing on health technology for years, but at this WWDC, it too will turn its attention inward. The leading rumor is that Apple will introduce some sort of digital well-being tools.

“Some claim this is to catch-up on what Google announced at I/O,” said Forrester Analyst Thomas Husson in an email, “I’d disagree with this; I think this will be part of a broader plan to showcase Apple’s values and differentiate the brand a step further.” Husson expects more powerful iPhone parental controls and thinks they’ll double-down on differential privacy, which uses local data with a lot of anonymizing noise to come up with community trends that can improve individual user experiences.

Apple’s interest in physical health (they are constantly touting how the Apple Watch has helped save lives), will expand with a more robust Health app and HealthKit, which lets third-party companies tap into the health-related features on the iOS platform.

Time for an update?

Others I spoke to agree that some of the more interesting WWDC announcements will revolve around health. Longtime Apple watcher and Creative Strategies President Tim Bajarin believes, as I do, that there may be an update to the surprise “runaway hit” AirPods, one that adds heart rate and activity tracking. “It is time for an Air Pod upgrade with new features,” he wrote to me in an email.

Siri, AI, AR

If you want to have fun during the WWDC keynote, start a drinking game that tracks every time someone mentions Siri, AI, and AR during the event. Most agree that, at least in the voice assistant and conversational AI space, Apple is lagging way behind Google and Amazon.

“While the HomePod was announced a year ago and despite Siri relative adoption among Apple consumers and recent interest in Apple Business Chat,” wrote Forrester’s Husson in an email, “more brands plan to invest in Amazon Alexa and in Google Assistant than in Apple Siri. In fact, only 22% of executives [Forrester] surveyed told us they are planning to use Siri in their mobile consumer facing initiatives in the next 12 months, versus respectively 31% and 41% for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.”

We’ll get more AR (and, I hope, virtual dinosaurs) and Siri in iOS 12.

I expect Apple to get much more aggressive on the Siri front, demonstrating a radically improved conversational AI that could challenge Google’s stunning Duplex demonstration. Patrick Moorhead, President and Principal Analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy, thinks Apple might try to inspire developers by teasing a smaller, cheaper HomePod. Such a device could help Apple better compete with Amazon in the smart speaker space, where, so far, the company has reportedly sold roughly 600,000 units compared to the tens of millions of Alexa-powered Echos Amazon’s sold since 2014.

Apple will continue to expand AR capabilities in iOS but is unlikely to show off any new hardware. No one I spoke to expects to see Apple AR Googles.

Apple will continue its integration of augmented reality technology across its platforms and expansion of tools like ARKit to help developers tap into and use these tools in their apps and inside Apple’s own apps like Maps. Husson told me that, with the addition of 3D camera technology on future iPhones (at lower price ranges), developers should gain access to more AR tools for the iPhone camera.

The platforms

WWDC is typically broken down into major segments for each of Apple’s platforms: iOS, macOS, tvOS and watchOS. That should be the case again this year. However, this is not a sea-change cycle for any of Apple’s operating systems. Moorhead told me the company has “extended itself widely” and may approach this WWDC as a “catch your breath,” focusing less on major changes and feature updates than experience improvements.

Where you will see the most, and maybe most significant, changes will be with iOS 12.

“iOS is Apple’s strategic lever and I expect the company to add even more features to it with keyboard and trackpad support, advanced windowing, and even wider support for peripherals,” wrote Moorhead to me in an email.

While it’s unlikely Apple will ever create tools for running Mac apps on iOS or vice versa, Apple will focus some attention on improving developer tools for easing cross-platform development.

Apple’s watchOS updates will focus primarily on health and fitness tracking. I don’t expect much to change with tvOS aside from deeper integration of Apple Music and more details about Apple’s big studio plans.

The hardware

For the umpteenth time, this is not a hardware event. Consider last year an outlier and do not look for any major product introductions.

That said, there could be some fall and mid-summer hardware updates teased (a la the 2013 Mac Pro surprise introduction) at the keynote and even one near-term shipping product.

Remember that AirPower device Apple introduced in September 2017? You know, the pad that lets you wirelessly charge your iPhones, Apple Watch and AirPods all at once? It’s pretty much a lock that Cook will announce pricing and a ship date for the gadget.

AirPower is the most likely piece of hardware news.

Beyond that there are a lot of hardware possibilities. Most I spoke to think that MacBook Pro or MacBook Air updates to the latest Intel Core generation might get a mention (or more). Oddly no one thinks a MacBook update is in the cards. Moorhead wonders if we might finally see an iPad Pro with Face ID technology. I think that would be a great boon for businesses using the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard. However, would Apple consider putting the IR sensor on the long-edge, so people can use FaceID to log in when the tablet is docked with the keyboard?

Apple services is now a $9B (and growing) part of its business. It’s hard to imagine Apple won’t spend some time addressing Apple Music, iCloud, iTunes, the App Store. I expect another update on iCloud pricing, though, Bajarin told me he doesn’t think Apple will be offering any kind of Amazon Prime-like service bundle.

I wondered if this might be the WWDC where Apple introduces a subscription model for its professional software. But most experts tell me that, while they believe the model favored by Microsoft and Adobe, is coming to Apple, it may not happen until later this year.

Frankly, I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible when Tim Cook starts speaking on Monday. There will be many other small platform updates and new features that we’ll read like tea leaves for hints about what the next major iPhone update will look like and do. Apple will dive deep into various Kit updates and new features for Swift and Xcode. Plus, I expect retail and App Store updates and new user numbers. I still hope for a surprise or two.

Whatever comes, I’ll be there, tweeting as fast as I can.