Give Apple a solid 'B' to 'B+' at WWDC 2013

The company set out to prove that it still has enough technological mojo to keep Samsung et al at bay -- and it proved the point even in the absence of a smash announcement.

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If you were expecting a wow moment during the opening of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, odds are that the litany of incremental changes to its hardware and software disappointed. No big surprises. No "one last thing" sort of announcements were in the offing.

But this year's developers conference also occurs at an unusual time for Apple. The company that brought the world smartphones and tablets is in the unfamiliar position of fighting the perception that Samsung and others are winning the technology race. And when the opportunity came to give voice to that frustration Monday, one Apple exec let it rip.

"Can't innovate anymore, my ass!," Apple Senior VP of Marketing Phil Schiller said to the delight of the 6,000 attendees.

Other executives on stage were less blunt. But the thrust of their respective presentations during the two hour keynote was directed toward the same goal: demonstrating the potency of Apple's design and engineering prowess. The session was packed with the usual blitz of product updates, statistical milestones, and technology teases for adoring fans. The show, held at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, sold out in 71 seconds.

Whether the totality of the announcements and the accompanying claims of awesomeness will do the trick is impossible to tell, especially on the heels of Google I/O. (Nothing about television and nothing about a so-called iWatch.) Wall Street's immediate reaction was to send the stock down nearly $3, but that could just as easily reverse on Tuesday.

Apple was on friendly ground and the frequent applause and clapping were guaranteed. The company covered a lot of ground, particularly with the first redesign of iOS since the iPhone's debut six years ago. The cynics might call it a face-lift with not a lot of new features, but it still was a significant -- and beautiful -- one. Users have increasingly clamored for fresh tweaks to the iOS interface and, as Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster pointed out in a note before the announcement, the risk of doing nothing was still greater "than the risk of disrupting the winning iOS formula." The iOS refresh also marked the first big update since Jony Ive was given authority over the operating system. Also, Apple used the event to roll out its much-anticipated streaming-music service, an important offering for the company's entertainment ambitions.

And Apple also offered something sweet for its computer users, with the new MacBook Air, as well as a peek at the coming Mac Pro.

The highlights from the first day at WWDC included the following:

  • iOS 7: An iOS face-lift offered a new, cleaner design for the mobile operating system. CEO Tim Cook called it "the biggest change to iOS since the iPhone." Discounting Cook's penchant for hyperbole, let's stipulate that this indeed constitutes an elegant redesign, which appears flatter and cleaner than the earlier version. Apple will deliver iOS 7 immediately to developers; the rest of us will need to wait until sometime this fall when the company is expected to announce its latest iPhone.
  • iTunes Radio: As we reported weeks ago, Apple has finally gotten into the streaming-music business, launching a new rival to the likes of Pandora and Spotify, among others. The potential here is enormous given Apple's 575 million iTunes accounts. And in an added incentive, any iTunes Match subscribers can use the service on an ad-free basis.
  • MacBook Air: Updated with faster chips and -- here's the ace kicker -- much-improved battery life . (Nine hours of battery life, for the $1,000 11-inch model, while Apple says the $1,100 13-inch Air will have 12 hours of battery life.) Also, Apple offered a sneak peek at the Mac Pro, which you can read about here .
  • OS X (Mavericks) : The next version of Mac OS X features faster ways to multitask with Finder tabs and now allows users to put full screen apps on multiple monitors. Jan Dawson, an analyst with Ovum, described the move as the continuation of Apple's "iOS-ification" of the Mac's operating system.
  • Upgrades to Maps so that it now works on the Mac: Flyover data is now available in Maps, which also will add travel time to users' calendars (nice competition for Google Now). Routes set up on the Mac can be sent right to the iPhone.
  • Safari: Updates that mesh the browser more closely to OS X Keychain, including refreshed Top Sites, tweaks to article reading, and much-improved memory management.
  • Siri gets a sex change: Now you can adjust the system to answer in a male voice.
  • New Photos app: Lets users zoom to view photo thumbnail collections. Also, AirDrop for sharing photos and videos with people within a stone's throw (or thereabouts).

Now the question turns on whether this will be enough to excite developers -- and Apple customers -- again about their devices. It's probably unfair to compare WWDC 2013 with other, more momentous developer conferences, such as the 2007 conclave when Steve Jobs revved up the faithful just before the iPhone went on sale. But Apple set out to show that it still has its technical chops, and if Munster and other Apple bulls are right, we'll look back at this event as a meaningful signpost for the subsequent launch of the iPhone 5S and iPhone 6, a cheaper iPhone, a television, and the iWatch over the next year and a half.

 

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