Your next iPhone or Mac? Apple's WWDC offers the best tease

Apple's developer-focused event offers consumers software clues for the next wave of hardware.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

Apple will kick off its developer conference Monday. 

James Martin/CNET

At WWDC 2019 2019 on Monday, Apple may be talking to developers. But it's really all about you.

Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference is an annual gathering at which Apple hosts designers and engineers making apps for iPhones , iPads , the Apple Watch and other Apple devices. Thousands will descend on the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, at 10 a.m. PT on Monday to hear CEO Tim Cook and his team outline their strategy for the company's software. They'll spend the rest of the week at sessions about the new technology and walk away with plans for updating their apps.

Tune in: How to watch Apple's WWDC 2019 keynote.

WWDC typically isn't where Apple launches new devices. Instead, it updates its iOS  mobile software for iPhones and iPads, MacOS for its computers, TVOS for Apple TV and WatchOS for the Apple Watch . Even with all that news, most of what Cook will unveil won't be available until later in the year -- at best. Even if you're a big software fan, some of Apple's announcements, like discussions about the Swift programming language and application programming interfaces, get technical pretty fast.

Watch this: iOS 13, MacOS 10.15 and MacPro: Everything we’re expecting at WWDC 2019

That's why it may be easy to think WWDC 2019 doesn't have anything for you. You're not going to see the next iPhone there, and Oprah's not going to show up. She's already been to one Apple event this year, after all. So what could a developer fest really offer you?

But if you look past the talk about Swift and APIs, you'll find quite a lot. It's also Apple's way of teasing the features and services you'll see in products coming later this year. You'll have to wait until September (as usual) for the new iPhone, but you will see what its software interface looks like with the expected iOS 13. You may not get the long-overdue Mac Pro  high-end computer, but at the very least, Apple will try to make you feel like it hasn't forgotten the creative professionals. 

And there will be various health, augmented reality and privacy advancements you'll soon get to access.

The twist this year, though, is those new features and services are increasingly coming directly from Apple -- in some ways a source of tension for the company. As iPhone sales slow -- we're all holding onto our phones longer than before -- Cook has been trying to turn Apple into a services powerhouse. It has jumped into TV and music streaming, introduced a gaming service called Apple Arcade and news subscriptions. It even plans to launch its own credit card, the Apple Card, this summer.

But just because it's doing more on its own doesn't mean Apple doesn't need developers. After all, it's their apps that keep you reaching for your iPhone. And Apple will give them even more ways to improve those apps you use everyday.

"Apple's not going to have a service for everything out there," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "At the end of the day, developers drive engagement, drive new use cases and drive the link the consumer has with their device."

Apple declined to comment ahead of WWDC 2019.

App battle

This year's WWDC comes at a tense time for Apple's App Store, which hosts more than 1.8 million apps. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that iPhone owners can sue Apple for allegedly operating a monopoly through its App Store, which is the only way you can add apps to your iPhone and iPad. And there's been an outcry from parental control app makers that Apple unfairly banned their software because their apps compete with Apple's own software. 

Amazon , Netflix , Spotify and other heavyweights have also criticized Apple's App Store model.

Even the man who used to run third-party app approvals for Apple called on the company to "own up" to irresponsible policies against direct-competitor services, saying "Apple has struggled with using the App Store as a weapon" for years. Apple takes a 30 percent cut of all apps and in app-purchases. 

Consumers say Apple's tight control over the App Store causes higher prices. Some developers say Apple's policies, like charging a commission for any subscriptions, make it harder for services that compete directly with Apple's own. Apple, for its part, says its App Store policies keep its customers safe and help maintain high standards. It also says it welcomes competition.  

While Apple likely won't completely overhaul the App Store, it's got to find ways to keep its developers -- and in return, you -- happy.

At a time when rival Google is touting its artificial intelligence prowess, Apple's software also needs to be smarter. Apple's Siri Shortcuts feature from last year lets the company's digital assistant complete complex tasks with a single voice command -- or sometimes without a voice command at all. But Siri still doesn't match up to the assistants from Google and Amazon.

The breadth of apps in the App Store isn't the advantage it used to be.

"I don't know the last time I downloaded a new app from the App Store," Milanesi said. "We're now in a very mature part of the market. Apple can't tell the same story."

Beyond the iPhone

This year, there could be two major announcements by Apple that actually have very little to do with its iPhones: the launch of a Watch App Store and a bigger push with Project Marzipan, the effort to make iPhone and iPad (iOS-based) apps run on Macs.

Apple's installed base of iPhone users has made developing for the iOS App Store an easy sell. At the end of 2018, there were 1.4 billion Apple devices actively used around the globe, the company said in late January during its quarterly earnings report. More than 900 million of them were iPhones

Apple's biggest milestones

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That same focus hasn't extended to Apple's other products, though. The Mac App Store never really took off, with most software on computers coming through Web browsers. Not all developers have made companion Apple Watch apps, and Apple TV has largely centered around video, not the gaming platform Apple once envisioned. It can even be hard to find apps optimized for Apple's various iPads.

The next version of Apple's WatchOS is expected to make the Apple Watch more "independent." You'll be able to download apps directly from your watch -- even if your phone is nowhere around. Today, Apple Watch apps are companions to the main iPhone app. You currently add them, update them or change their settings through your smartphone, not your watch.

"The watch is an area where Apple has an enormous lead over the competition," Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart said. "There's still a lot of headroom on the watch."

Mac attention?

The biggest advancements from WWDC could come to Apple's long-neglected Mac computer line.

Apple still generates about 10% to 15% of its quarterly sales from its computer line, but it hasn't given its Macs as much attention in recent years as the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. In October 2016, Apple redesigned the MacBook Pro laptop for the first time in four years, but the "butterfly switch" keyboard it's used in every new laptop since then has been criticized. Two weeks ago, Apple said it would replace all defective butterfly switch keyboards for free -- even on the new MacBook Pro models it just unveiled.

Apple's Mac Pro is no longer persona non grata in Europe.

Apple's Mac Pro is long overdue for an update.


Power users, like graphic designers, also have been waiting for more pro-friendly features for years. The company hasn't made big changes to its high-power Mac Pro since 2013. Notable for its cylindrical design, the Mac Pro is favored by creatives who need a lot of horsepower for professional purposes. Apple said in April 2017 that it's working on a big refresh of the computer, but a year later, it said the device wouldn't hit the market until sometime in 2019.

It's unclear whether Apple will actually launch the Mac Pro at WWDC, but it likely will spend a big chunk of its keynote on its computer line.

At the end of Apple's WWDC presentation last year, the company gave a sneak peak of Project Marzipan, its effort to make it easy to take apps developed for iOS devices to Macs. Its MacOS update released in September included four of Apple's own apps that originated on iOS -- News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home.

This year at WWDC, Apple is expected to open that capability up to third-party developers, as well as port more of its own iOS apps, like Podcasts, to the Mac. Marzipan brings Apple's mobile devices and computers one step closer -- without actually merging them.

Like much of WWDC, it may seem wonky and pretty removed from your actual devices. But listen closely, and you'll see the future of those Apple products already in your hands.

Originally published May 30.