Apple’s back in a tricky position heading into this year’s developer conference: playing catchup.
It’s a familiar situation. Apple’s usually not the first to leap into new markets — think smartphones or tablets. But when the company finally commits, it adds a level of polish that gets consumers salivating for its products. The iPhone changed the way we live, while the iPad spawned scores of copycats. Even the Apple Watch managed to shake up fitness bands and the traditional wristwatch market.
This time around, some of the areas where Apple’s behind are ones that may be, in the words of CEO Tim Cook, as big as the iPhone. That’s augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Apple’s done essentially nothing in the first two, and it’s largely seen as lagging in the third with the quasi-useful Siri digital assistant.
That could change Monday. Apple will kick off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference with a 10 a.m. PT keynote by Cook and other executives. Here’s how you canand all our coverage.
This year, Apple’s got a long list of things to talk about. Along with those two-letter buzzwords (AR, VR and AI), the company may update its Mac and iPad hardware, as well as the operating systems for all its products. And it could show off its first new device since 2014’s Apple Watch: a smart speaker that uses Siri to respond to spoken commands.
Apple still generates billions of dollars each quarter from the iPhone, but unit sales have dropped in the past four out of five quarters. People just aren’t as excited by phones anymore, which means Apple has to look to new areas, like AR, to maintain its crown as the world’s biggest public company. The key is getting into those markets before it’s too late and rivals like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft take an insurmountable lead.
WWDC marks Apple’s chance to lay out its vision for those new markets — and hopefully wow us with some innovations.
“They don’t have to be ahead,” said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. “They just can’t be too far behind.”
Apple declined to comment ahead of WWDC.
Battle of the voice assistants
WWDC comes just a few weeks after fellow tech giants Google, Facebook and Microsoft hosted developer conferences of their own. It also comes after Amazon introduced the latest devices powered by its Alexa assistant, the Echo Show and Echo Look.
The companies are targeting artificial intelligence as a key way to interact with our devices, from phones to smart speakers. AI is software that lets machines act more like humans. It often takes the form of friendly voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. Even Samsung, which has traditionally struggled with software, has its own assistant, called Bixby.
Digital assistants respond to your spoken commands to do things like tell you the weather, call a Lyft or turn on your phone’s airplane mode. And in the case of smart speakers, they can do things like order you a pizza, adjust your living room lighting or close your garage door.
While Siri debuted in 2011 with the iPhone 4S, it’s had growing pains. It wasn’t until last year that Siri could even work with third-party apps, and it still tends to respond only to specific commands, and if you change your phrasing, it gets confused.
Compare Siri with its rivals. Ask the Google Assistant what’s on your calendar and then have it text the person you’re meeting to say you’ll be late. Google remembers your first question, so you don’t have to start over with a new command. Like a real person, it builds off what you were talking about earlier.
Amazon’s Alexa has more than 10,000 “skills,” or third-party apps that let you control your home appliances or play music through Spotify on one of your Echo devices.
“Because Siri was the first one, the expectation is she should be way better than she is,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said.
At this year’s WWDC, Apple is expected to improve Siri, as well as introduce a Siri-based smart speaker. The device reportedly will emphasize sound quality and work with Apple’s various other products. It’s also expected to help people control their smart home appliances.
Augmented reality overlays digital images on the real world using special headsets or your phone. Many of the early examples of popular AR include games like Pokemon Go or filters and lenses that go over your face on Instagram and Snapchat. Virtual reality, meanwhile, transports you into a different, digitally created world when you don bulky goggles like Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Samsung’s Gear VR.
AR is expected to be a huge market. ABI Research predicts that the industry’s revenue — combining consumer and business software and hardware — will total $96 billion in 2021, up from $1.4 billion this year.
That’s a lot of money, and Apple wants a piece of it. “There’s no question they’re working on something,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau said.
Cook has been hinting for some time that Apple is interested in the market. Earlier this year, he compared the technology to the impact of the smartphone on the world’s population.
“We don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: It’s for everyone,” Cook said during an interview with The Independent. “I think AR is that big, it’s huge.”
Google, at its Google I/O developer conference last month, unveiled a big push into augmented reality through Google Lens. It’s a way to use your phone’s camera to recognize objects. Point it at a book, and you get information on the author and see reviews.
Facebook at its F8 conference said it’s working on AR glasses. It also unveiled a platform that lets outside software developers create AR experiences for the social networking site.
As for VR, it’s likely Apple’s eyeing that market too, but it’s unclear when we could see anything from the company. Cook has been more vocal about AR.
The lucky thing for Apple is it’s still early. Microsoft has talked up its AR-powered HoloLens for years, but it’s still not available to consumers. Much of Facebook’s vision for AR is still largely theoretical. Google’s Lens hasn’t yet launched either.
One thing is clear: Apple needs to get moving soon.