Closed Apple WWDC 2017: HomePod, new Pro, AR and iOS11 unveiled

Tim Cook speaks during Apple's annual developer conference in San Jose

Long queues of app makers gathered in San Jose on Monday to hear Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, at the annual developers conference. After a focus on software and services at previous annual events, this year Apple unveiied a host of new hardware items, including a Siri-powered speaker system to compete head-on with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, as well as a new Pro model and new Mac offerings. On the software front, an overhaul of its iOS operating system, as well as an update to the iPad software, plus an augmented reality kit were launched to rally the faithful. Tim Bradshaw and Hannah Kuchler followed the event.


App store bonanza

Ahead of Monday’s keynote, Apple said last week that developers’ earnings from the App Store since it launched in 2008 have now reached $70bn, doubling in the last two years.

App Store downloads are up 70 per cent in the last 12 months and the number of paid subscriptions delivered through Apple’s portal have increased by 58 per cent.

Apple has been emphasising the growth in its services division during recent earnings calls, suggesting in January that it could double revenues by 2021 to a nearly $50bn-a-year business.

For most in-app payments other than some subscriptions, Apple splits revenues 70:30 with developers, taking its commission for payment processing and running the store that lets users find software to download. The split is more generous to developers for subscription-based apps that have been in use for a year or more.

The App Store continues to grow steadily, driving huge revenues for both Apple and the app makers who rely on its platform to reach their customers.

Despite Android’s larger reach in sheer smartphones sold, the iPhone’s higher-end clientele means the App Store is still more lucrative for developers than Google Play.

“Subscription music and movie revenues have been growing, but games is still the dominant category on Apple’s App Store,” said Jack Kent, analyst at IHS Markit, which forecasts that consumer spend on mobile apps for Apple’s App Store will total $39bn this year, compared with around $19.5bn for Google Play.

Developers’ total App Store earnings has increased from the $60bn figure Apple announced in January. Tim Cook said in a tweet last August that developer payouts had reached $50bn, which was up from $30bn in June 2015.


All signs point to this keynote being at least two hours long… get comfy!

https://www.twitter.com/asymco/status/871756281429729280


For a quick catch-up before the event starts, read Tim’s preview on how Apple is getting ready to talk up Siri at the developer conference. He writes:

For much of the iPhone’s first decade, the main canvas for developers has been its touchscreen: the face that launched a thousand apps. As Apple’s smartphone reaches its tenth anniversary, the company is starting to open up the iPhone’s ears and eyes to new apps too.

FT Confidential also has this interesting run down on the state of the iPhone in China, where Apple is facing increased competition, especially for female buyers.


Whooping

Random whooping from the assembled developers, although to be fair this crowd will cheer for almost anything. It appears we may be about to start…


And the lights are coming down…


We are starting with a comedy video showing the ultimate dystopian tech future: someone unplugs the App Store, apps disappear and civilization grinds to a halt.


Tim Cook takes the stage

The video ends with the slogan: “Keep making apps. The world is depending on you.”
Now Apple chief executive Tim Cook takes to the stage. “This is going to be the best and biggest WWDC ever.”

But of course.


“We have six important announcements to share with you this morning,” says Mr Cook.

We are starting with tvOS, with Amazon’s Prime Video coming to Apple TV and its TV app later this year – a longstanding holdout over what appeared to be a commercial dispute.

“You’ll be hearing a lot more about tvOS later this year,” says Cook. And we are moving swiftly on to Apple Watch.

Strange not to have much stage time for the Apple TV at its main app event when the company has declared apps to be the future of television.


Apple Watch new range

Kevin Lynch is running through the latest Apple Watch features, leading off with a range of new faces.

Most interesting is a new Siri-powered “proactive” face that will update with “relevant information to you”, from Apple’s own services and third party apps, every time you raise your wrist.

https://www.twitter.com/tim/status/871778330592202752

There is also a new range of faces based on characters from Pixar’s Toy Story.


Still trying to crack fitness tracking on the Watch

Fitness tracking is the main use case for wearable devices and there are various updates to Apple Watch’s Activity app coming, including more advanced features for swimmers and high-intensity interval training.

More interesting is a tie up with several gym equipment makers such as Matrix and Cybex to allow wireless data transfer from the Watch to the training machine and back again.

The first products to support this will come out later this year from manufacturers that Apple says make around 80 per cent of the equipment used in gyms.

Expanded Bluetooth capabilities for apps developers will mean that other equipment, from glucose monitors to tennis racquets, will be able to share data directly with the Watch, rather than having to go via the phone.

We are also seeing another redesign of how users navigate the Apple Watch with a rejigged dock that lets you scroll through apps using the Digital Crown.

It still feels like there is plenty of scope for experimentation here – nobody has really cracked how users handle a large number of apps on such a small screen as a smartwatch.


Apple Mac: High Sierra

Tim Cook comes back to the stage to introduce what he calls a product that is “in some ways the heart and soul of Apple”: the Mac.

That hasn’t quite been the narrative among the Apple faithful lately – we’ve seen considerable grumbling that the latest Macbook update has been lacklustre and that the iMac and Mac Pro desktops have gone far too long without a meaningful update.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software engineering and a popular executive among developers here, follows him onto the stage to talk about the new version of Mac OS, High Sierra.


New version of Safari

The next version of Safari will be much faster, block autoplay video and has “intelligent tracking prevention”, to prevent annoying ads that follow you around the web.

Interesting to see what impact that might have on Facebook and Google.

https://www.twitter.com/benbajarin/status/871781854910619648


Blocking auto-play

The announcement that Safari will block autoplay video is going to worry publishers and platforms, most obviously Facebook, where all videos play automatically. Though most of Facebook’s usage is in its mobile app.


VR arrives at WWDC

Here’s a small first, I believe: a mention for virtual reality on stage at an Apple keynote. Developers will be able to use a Mac to develop VR apps for the first time, through partnerships with dev platforms Unity, Unreal and Valve, as well as using its own Metal graphics tools.

Mr Federighi hints that we might be hearing more about VR later in the keynote.

That might explain why I spotted Chris Milk, a leading VR filmmaker, among the WWDC attendees earlier today.


Graphics upgrade

We are now hearing about a range of internal graphics-based updates to iMacs, which will also help to make an Apple desktop better equipped for making VR content.

No obvious changes to the iMac’s external hardware or design, though, which the rumour mill suggests is more likely to come next year.

The new graphics chips in the latest iMacs come from AMD, which will come as a blow to its larger rival Nvidia.


Most powerful Mac ever

Here comes the Mac update that developers have been waiting for: a new “iMac Pro” with a 27-inch screen coming later this year, with a space grey finish and 5K display.

Apple claims this will be “the most powerful Mac we’ve ever made” (topping the aging Mac Pro) with workstation class performance in an all-in-one. The iMac Pro will come with options for 8-, 10- and 18-Core Xeon processors, and AMD’s latest Radeon Vega graphics.

We are also seeing performance bumps across seven existing Macs and Macbooks shipping today.

There was a little chuckle from the presenter on stage just now, as half of the audience suddenly looked at their Apple Watch simultaneously, as it issues its hourly reminder to stand.


The iMac Pro will start at $4999 coming in December.

Audible intake of breath from the room here at that price point.


Now we are moving on to iOS 11

“Today we are going to take the world’s best and most advanced mobile operating system and turn it up to 11,” says Tim Cook.


Craig Federighi is back on stage talking about Messages, which will have a new improved way to discover its App Store, introduced last year, and new Apple Pay integration. Apple Pay will now be able to do person-to-person payments too.


Updates to Siri – say hello in Spanish

We’re seeing more updates to Siri now, which is getting language translation services as well as a new, more expressive voice.

With an update to Sirikt, a wider range of app developers will be able to tap into Apple’s voice assistant, for example to add items on a to-do list.

Until now, Siri has been out of bounds for app developers unless they are part of a select group of app categories, such as ride-hailing and photos.


New camera capabilities in iOS 11

App developers are also getting access to new camera capabilities in iOS 11. Mr Federighi skipped over this quickly but it’s a significant one: app makers will be able to use the depth information generated by the iPhone 7 Plus’ twin cameras.

That means that photo apps will be able to incorporate the artificially blurred background of Apple’s “Portrait mode” pics.

But it also could open up new augmented-reality capabilities – think Pokemon Go, but with the monsters able to see where the floor or table is.

This new developer capability is also preparing the way for what we expect will be a big camera update in the next iPhone in September, bringing twin sensors to the front-facing camera.


Magic phrase: machine learning

There’s been a gentle sprinkling of the magic phrase of the moment in Silicon Valley: “machine learning”.

Apple has been seen as lagging behind Google and Facebook in artificial intelligence capabilities but it is showing a lot of AI-powered features across the new products it is talking about today.

The latest example shows Siri spotting a new interest inferred from reading an article in Safari and using that to suggest relevant stories in the News app.


Apple Maps much-needed upgrade

Some much-needed updates to Apple Maps, which is still a pretty poor experinece compared to Google Maps and Waze.

The next version will see indoor mapping for places such as airports, as well as speed limits and lane recommendations for driving.

To help combat distracted driving, Apple is also introducing a new “do not disturb while driving” feature, including an auto response that tells people texting you “I’ll see your message when I get where I’m going.”

Distracted driving has been blamed by an increase in road fatalities in recent years and smartphone makers have come under pressure from regulators to do more to tackle it.


Threat to Sonos?

We are still waiting for the expected “Siri speaker” to be unveiled but in the meantime, Apple is adding new features to HomeKit and Airplay, its wireless home control and audio streaming platforms.

In what looks like a distinct threat to Sonos, Airplay 2 will offer multi-room audio (something which Google’s Chromecast Audio has been able to do for more than a year, incidentally).

Apple Music, meanwhile, is getting some new social features by letting you see what your friends are listening to.


App Store update

Here’s Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, to give us an App Store update.

There are 500m weekly visitors to the App Store who have downloaded a total of 180bn apps since the store launched in 2008.

These new stats fit Apple’s recent pattern of revealing figures that are more like the active-user numbers of Netflix or Facebook.


App store overdue resdesign

The App Store hasn’t had a redesign for many years. The new look somewhat resembles Apple News, with the Today tab offering a richer look at a daily highlight.

Games – the most popular category on the store – now have their own dedicated tab.

Developer lore suggests Apple has always been reluctant to put games front and centre because Steve Jobs thought they were a waste of time but to be fair, it has done a lot to spotlight the best games in recent years.


Big news on how Apple is opening up the camera to developers: ARkit.

This system will allow the iPhone to identify services such as a table, allowing app makers to placing a virtual object onto the real world in a way that looks uncannily real.

Craig Federighi is showing a cup of steaming coffee, with realistic shadows thrown by a virtual lamp.

Cameras, high-performance CPUs and GPUs, and motion sensors combine with this new ARkit software, on “hundreds of millions” of compatible iPhones and iPads – making ARkit “overnight the largest AR platform in the world”.

You can play with AR lego, AR coffee cups and AR IKEA furniture.

“With multitouch we’ve really changed the way that you interact with the world on the screen of your iPhone,” says Federighi. “With the camera we’ve allowed you to capture the world around you. When you bring these together, the results can be profound.”

There’s a demo here of Pokemon Go looking more realistic – so a “poke-ball” bounces realistically on the pavement.


iOS updates for China

A quick slide on some iOS updates for China including QR code support – an attempt to pull in some of the features that have made WeChat one of the dominant app platforms in China and a rival to the App Store in many ways.

QR codes are still oddities in the US and Europe but in China they are ubiquitous.


Importantly, the Apple Augmented Reality kit will improve Pokemon Go.


iPad Pro with 10.5 inch screen

Apple is introducing a new iPad Pro with a 10.5 inch screen, in between the two previous sizes.

It can display a full size onscreen keyboard and a new keyboard will include Chinese and Japanese JIS.

It will have a better screen, with brighter and more colourful screens, able to display HD video for the first time on an iPad. It has a 6-core CPU, 12-core GPU and 40 per cent faster graphic performance.

Apple has also doubled the refresh rate so that it is crisper and more responsive (or “buttery smooth”), particularly important if you are drawing on the iPad.

https://twitter.com/hannahkuchler/status/871802453385150464


Now showing off the features of the new iOS 11 on iPad: you can drag and drop so much Apple says it is a “drag fest”.

Apple is also launching a new app, Files, for iPad, for people to find their documents in folders.

https://twitter.com/hannahkuchler/status/871803720274776065


Apple is trying to ensure people can use an iPad Pro as their main – or only – work device.

It can now scan in paper documents, use machine learning to recognise your handwriting with the Apple pencil and index it so you can search your scribbled notes, and insert drawings into notes.


3 hours and more to come

We are now entering the third hour of Apple’s keynote… and we have more to come.


Tim Cook is back on stage with “one last thing”.

“Just like we did with portable music we want to reinvent home music,” says Cook.

Stand by for the Siri speaker unveiling.


Emoticon HomePod – home speaker

Apple’s new speaker is called HomePod, which it says will reinvent home music like the iPod transformed on-the-go listening.

Phil Schiller promises this will be a “breakthrough home speaker”.

Here’s why it will beat Sonos or Amazon Echo, he says: it has to “rock the house”, be “spatially aware” so it sounds good wherever it is in the house, and an on-board “musicologist” (that’s Siri).


Apple marketing guru Phil Schiller presenting the HomePod, says it is a “remarkable experience” to see such a spacious sound that will really rock your house.


HomePods pair automatically for synchronized listening and are powered by the same A8 processor that is found inside its latest iPhones.

The cylindrical device responds to voice control through Siri and integrates with Apple Music, so it can understand questions such as “who’s the drummer in this” or “Play more like that”.


New, improved Siri has had an in-depth musical education to work on the HomePod


Play it again, Siri…and then turn out the lights

The main focus here is on music, which analysts say is the main use case for connected speakers such as Amazon’s Echo.

But thanks to its Siri integration the HomePod can also be used to set timers and reminders, send a text with Messages, control lights and other connected devices through HomeKit and read the news and weather aloud.


But first tell me what the weather is tomorrow

HomePod may be music focused but it can complete tasks like Alexa and Google Home too: reminders, sports, weather, news, transportation.


HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo: Is that the price?

The HomePod will cost $349 in white and “space grey”, shipping in December in the UK, US and Australia, before coming to the rest of the world next year.

That’s quite a price premium to Amazon Echo and Google Home, which both cost under $200.


Tim Cook wraps up

The long keynote ends with Tim Cook announcing that Michelle Obama will address WWDC attendees tomorrow, talking about “empowering people from all walks of life to change the world”.

In the meantime, we’ll be heading to the press demo area to try out the new iPads and HomePod.


Much of the early reaction to the HomePod focuses on the price: can it really be worth that much more than Alexa and Google Home?

https://twitter.com/ow/status/871809554241159171

https://twitter.com/vivian/status/871810210737926145

https://twitter.com/vindugoel/status/871810768567750660


Apple hardware fest

Overall, WWDC saw more hardware than in recent years, with the new HomePod, updated iPad Pro and MacBooks.

Caroline Milanesi, consumer tech analyst at Creative Strategies, said the announcements would provide return on investment for developers today:

https://twitter.com/caro_milanesi/status/871809985910423552

There were two key planks to the software announcements: augmented reality and machine learning.

Apple said it had become the largest augmented reality platform by rolling out new AR tools to developers (just weeks after Facebook said it became the first augmented reality platform).

Machine-learning is behind improvements to Siri, sorting photos and searching handwriting on the iPad Pro.


What was missing from the keynote?

More TV. Tim Cook opened by saying Amazon was now coming to Apple TV – but said nothing else about the company’s TV strategy for the rest of the presentation.

Virtual reality. While Apple watchers believe the company is working on some kind of VR or AR spectacles, the only mention of VR came in the Macbook section, making it easier for developers to produce VR on Macs.

Apple Car. No one was expecting Apple to unveil its plans for a vehicle today but it is good to remember that features like Do Not Disturb while driving are just a tiny step towards what could one day be a transformational driving experience.


Oh and some people think Apple missed out on designing its version of the latest craze: fidget spinners.

https://twitter.com/zchmz/status/871815922264272896


Secret star of the show: Augmented Reality Kit?

While the HomePod is garnered new attention as the new shiny piece of kit, Apple’s augmented reality platform may be the secret star of the show.

Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight, said Apple may be late to augmented reality but stands to deploy its kit just as the technology hits an inflection point.

Apple will play a big part in taking AR to the masses and defining the user experience.

Brian Fung from the Washington Post has an even bolder prediction:

https://twitter.com/b_fung/status/871816310883319811


Sir Jonathan Ive checks out HomePod

Jony Ive, Apple’s design whizz, seems to be just as intrigued about its new product as the journalists gathering around to try it out.

https://twitter.com/stevekovach/status/871814175428755456


Credit positive for Apple

Moody’s, the credit rating agency, has commented on the Apple Pay announcements, saying it is important that Apple is catching up with PayPal, Google Wallet and Zelle, a venture by big banks yet to be released, by offering peer-to-peer payments.

Gerald Granovsky, senior vice president, said it would cement “loyal users for life”.

These developments are credit positive at the margin, with the biggest factor being Apple’s continued expansion of products around the ecosystem.


Testing the new products: HomePod vs the rest

I just had a brief chance to hear Apple’s new HomePod alongside a Sonos Play:3 and an Amazon Echo.

On sound quality alone, Apple’s new speaker is in a different league to the Echo – a far better sound with crisper vocals and deeper base than Amazon’s tubular rival. But then, the Echo is almost half the price of the $350 HomePod. (I wasn’t able to try out Siri integration, just hear some music.)

Compared to the Sonos Play:3, which costs a little less than the HomePod at $300, Apple’s device was again the superior device. I suspect, however, that a better comparator would be the next Sonos model up, the $500 Play:5 – more testing will be needed on that.

Either way, Apple’s main advantage here is 360-degree sound, which means listening to music is a richer experience from anywhere in the room compared with the more directional sound of the Sonos.

I also had a chance at WWDC to hear a combination of two HomePods together, which packs quite a punch. Even with a single speaker, it’s clear that Apple does not envisage this as a kitchen-countertop speaker or a deskside assistant: this is a high-fidelity sound system that should have the likes of Bang & Olufsen and Bose just as worried as Amazon, Google and Sonos.


Features, features, features

In spite of two and a half hours of presentations of new products, there are still yet more features in the new iPads and latest iOS 11 to digest than were discussed on stage at the 2017 developers conference keynote.

Overall – with an extensive range of new hardware and a richer software update than we had expected, especially in terms of the AR camera – this feels like one of the more substantial WWDC keynotes we have had in a while.

Stay tuned to our tech coverage on FT.com for further analysis as we see how Apple’s latest developments stack up to the likes of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon.