WWDC wish list: Surprises, wild cards, and one more things

Real tech surprises don't happen that often, but Apple has a knack for pulling them off.

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We’re just a few days away from Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference kick-off keynote, and while the rumors are flying faster and more furious than a Vin Diesel movie, there’s still a general feeling that we’ve only scratched the surface of what Apple plans to discuss.

That impression was only confirmed earlier this week as Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller briefed several press outlets on coming changes to Apple’s App Stores, explaining to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber that the company had “a busy enough keynote” that it wanted to do these announcements beforehand.

Well done, Phil—you’ve piqued all of our interest. Given the substantive nature of the App Store changes, it leaves me wondering, what else so important is in the keynote that all of this got pushed out ahead of time?

The truth is, Apple’s got its fingers in a lot of pies right now, so it’s hard to know exactly which ones will make it to the forefront next week. While some seem like gimmes—new versions of iOS and OS X (now MacOS, perhaps?)—there are a number of other areas into which Apple might make a foray for that vaunted wild card spot.

Voice-activated speaker

Ever since the success of the Amazon Echo took much of the tech world by surprise last year, there’s been talk that some of the other big tech companies might decide they want a piece of that market too. Google delivered in its I/O keynote last month by announcing the Google Home, which offers a lot of the Echo’s same features, plus integrates with Google’s other devices and services.

google home purple

The Google Home is a speaker and microphone that brings Google Assistant into any room in the house. 

Some, including my esteemed colleague Mr. Snell, expect Apple to follow suit. Me, I’m still on the fence. Given the popularity of voice-based interfaces, I do believe Apple will be putting a lot of emphasis on Siri on all of its platforms: Mac, iOS, TV, Watch. Does that mean rolling out yet another device? Maybe. But I think that presents challenges for Apple, not least of which is adapting to a device where the only interface is voice. If that’s how you’re going to roll, your voice processing better be top notch.

What I’d like to see instead is Apple figuring out a way to leverage all of the Apple devices already in our house to create a sort of ambient computing network. Rather than adding another device with seven microphones, use the seven microphones I already have between my iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Macs to figure out what I’m saying and decide the best method and vector in which to provide a response: have my Mac say something if I’m near it; have my Watch buzz me if I’m wearing it; have my iPhone pop up the answer if I’m looking at it. The meshing of software, hardware, and services is supposed to be Apple’s secret sauce, so let’s see that sauce in action.

Virtual reality

Speaking popular new devices, there’s also been some noise about Apple doing its own virtual reality headset. Earlier this year Tim Cook said VR had “interesting applications” and commented that he didn’t think it was a niche. Avid Apple watchers might remember Cook uttering similar statements about wrist-based wearables and the TV, areas where Apple eventually released products.

Does any of that point to a VR headset appearing next week? I sincerely doubt it. There’s always a possibility it could come out of left field, but I think at the moment Apple is still trying to lock down how those “interesting applications” intersect with the kind of things it wants to do. Right now, games are proving to be the hot spot for VR, and while Apple’s mobile devices have proved to be popular gaming machines, the company’s never shown itself to be devoted to gaming to the extent that it wants to build hardware specifically for it. (Despite pushing the new Apple TV as a game machine, for example, the company has still left compatible game controllers to third parties.)

Even more to the point, the VR sector is extremely unsettled right now, and it’s unclear whether it’s going to be a flash in the pan or a technology that’s here to stay. The Apple of the last decade or so isn’t traditionally the type to commit a lot of resources to hardware that it doesn’t think has staying power, so I think the company is still in wait-and-see mode where VR is concerned.

TV subscription service

While it still hasn’t supplanted traditional television, streaming is gaining fast. Apple’s made a hard play into the streaming music space with Apple Music, but a companion streaming video service has, by all whispers, been stopped in its tracks a few times now. Much as I’d love to see Apple roll out a subscription TV service, there’s a lot that needs to be done first, most difficult of which is getting reluctant content providers onboard.

SlingTV channel menu

Perhaps Apple’s new App Store subscription rules will lead to more streaming services on the Apple TV, like Sling TV, while we wait for Apple’s own service. 

The company also seems to have its hands full with streaming music, so I don’t believe it’s ready to jump into a second media service quite yet. And the Apple TV, as much as I still use it, is in need of some tweaks and improvements before it’s ready to take on the weight of such a major new initiative.

The wild card

I must confess, I’m looking forward to what the wild card slot will bring at this year’s keynote. Apple’s one of the few companies that can still deliver on surprising announcements, and that’s one reason it guards its privacy so zealously. As someone who’s paying close attention to tech each and every day, being taken by surprise is a rarity—even less so when it’s a positive surprise.

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