Apple's WWDC 2018 highlights little things adding up, especially in iOS 12

It's more about polish, less about jaw-dropping changes.

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Tangible improvements to Siri may have people actually using the assistant again.  

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

If you were looking to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference for big game-changing leaps or new hardware, you might have walked away a little disappointed. Monday's keynote, it turns out, was about the little things. 

That's not to say the changes were insignificant. Indeed, the myriad tweaks and additions represent a polish that will hopefully mean a better experience with Apple gadgets

Apple unveiled improvements to Siri and its augmented reality platform, ARKit, among many additions coming in iOS 12. It also introduced changes to make it easier to use Macs and the Apple Watch. Craig Federighi, head of Apple's software business, touted the performance improvement that would come with the next version of its mobile software. 

"We're working top to bottom to make it faster and more responsive," Federighi said. 

While  WWDC isn't known for hardware unveilings, its focus on software serves as a tease for what future iPhones  and Macs will look like. Indeed, it's the seamless integration of hardware and software that sets Apple apart from rivals. Apple 's ability to control every aspect of its products -- something that began when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded the company 42 years ago -- has been key to making Apple the most powerful company in tech.

The focus on subtle but effective improvements is a smart bet. We've entered an era of mobile maturity in which it's tougher to introduce jaw-dropping changes to smartphones , which are the Swiss Army knives of our lives. Ensuring that Apple continues to deliver a smooth experience -- which hasn't always been the case with the sometimes buggy iOS 11 -- is critical to ensuring its users stay loyal to its universe.

"As consumers hold onto their phones longer, this is an incredibly important move for Apple's long-term success, but it also meant that Apple did not have a lot of splashy new features to show off, and no hardware announcements at all," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data.

Compare Monday's news to last year's WWDC, when Apple unveiled ARKit, a brand new platform, as well as teased the HomePod smart speaker. The announcements represented wholly new areas for the company, although the consumer response has been cool. 

Apple tackles phone addiction in iOS 12

That Swiss Army knife capability has meant we spent a lot of time on our phones -- perhaps too much. Apple has addressed this with the introduction of new features on iOS 12, including an enhanced version of Do Not Disturb, as well as a Screentime app that gives you weekly reports of your usage. 

Parents, meanwhile, will be able to get reports on their kids' usage and to set different allowances. You'll be able to limit your own usage, too, getting warning messages that pop up telling you when you've nearly used your allotted time for certain apps. 

Monday's announcements represent a response to the backlash from investors and device users over concerns about phone addiction among children. A 2016 report by social agency Influence Central said the average age for children to get a phone was 10, and Apple's devices remain among the most desired by children and teens. 

Of course, the initiative to get us to use our smartphones less may end up conflicting with the other new features introduced Monday. 

Apple's Animoji, one of the highlight additions to the Messages app that came alongside the iPhone X, got new icons, as well as the new Memoji, which let you create a cartoon version of you. It's similar to Samsung's AR Emoji, which debuted with  the Galaxy S9

Then there's FaceTime, which gains the ability to handle group calls with 32 parties. Animoji and Memoji will also be able to feed into the video-chatting app too. 

No, it's nothing ground-breaking. But it's more palatable to Apple's huge base of users. 

"Best to take a series of smaller steps for developers and ultimately users will wrap their brains around [it] instead of one huge step," said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas.

What about Siri?

While Apple's voice assistant burst out the gate ahead of rivals, it has lagged behind the likes of Amazon 's Alexa and Google Assistant in usefulness. The latter two have helped their creators to dominate the market for smart speakers in the home.

On Monday, Apple unveiled Siri Shortcuts, a feature that lets you create command prompts for specific apps. Siri will also offer suggestions on your phone or Apple Watch for activities or actions based on your regular use, like a fitness app for when you hit the gym at a certain time of day. Apple talked up the ability for you to create your own shortcuts across multiple applications, somewhat similar to the routines capability that Alexa and Google Assistant allow for. 

Siri is critical to making Apple's HomePod speaker more useful. The smart speaker already gets criticized for its $350 price tag -- for that amount, you can buy seven  Echo Dots  or  Google Home Minis  -- but its lack of abilities comes down to Siri. 

WWDC 2018: Everything from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference

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The home is one of the next big battlefronts for tech companies. That not only includes TVs but also a home's security system , lights, washing machines and other appliances . It's a major part of the concept known as the internet of things, which links not just computers and phones to the internet, but also countless doors, cars, traffic signals, security cameras and sensors.

AR takes center stage

One of the first features that Apple presented in iOS 12 was AR. Augmented reality overlays digital images on the real world using special headsets or your phone. Early examples of popular AR applications include games like Pokemon Go or filters and lenses that go over your face on Instagram and Snapchat.

A year ago at WWDC, Apple unveiled ARKit to let developers make augmented reality apps for iPhones and iPads. It also said it was working with Valve to bring the Steam VR platform to its desktop Macs. Previously, VR rigs didn't work with Apple computers.

This year, Apple touted a new file format for AR called USDZ. While this is a bit of wonky news more relevant to developers, it represents some of the foundational work on AR to make it more accessible and broadly available to users. Adobe got on stage to announce that it would support the format. 

Apple also introduced ARKit 2, which enhances what you can do with AR. For example, a new Lego AR game showed people  setting up a building in augmented reality and then opening to see what's going on indoors. 

A Lego game in AR. 


VR and AR, while nascent markets today, may well explode over the next several years. Consumers are expected to buy 22 million VR and AR headsets and glasses this year, according to a report from CCS Insight. In 2022, the number should soar to 120 million units, the analyst firm said, noting that the market could be worth nearly $10 billion at that point.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has nothing but praise for augmented reality, saying it's a technology that's potentially as important as the iPhone. He has been quieter about virtual reality. Once touted as the next hot tech trend, VR has failed to resonate with consumers despite heavy investment from companies like Facebook's Oculus, Google and Samsung.

Apple has been working on a high-powered headset capable of running both AR and VR technology, CNET reported in April. Plans so far call for an 8K display for each eye -- higher resolution than today's best TVs -- that would be untethered from a computer or smartphone. Instead, Apple's headset would connect to a dedicated box using a high-speed, short-range wireless technology.

The story originally published on June 4 at 12:16 p.m PT.

Update, June 5 at 9:11 p.m.: To include additional background.

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