Observers of Apple are always in a quandary about what kind, if any, hardware will be announced during the WWDC keynote. My own expectations were low, to be sure, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a refresh of the MacBook Pro line. The rest of the keynote went pretty much according to my expectations. However, there were some significant undercurrents in the keynote worth mentioning.
MacBook Pro Line
When I think about it, after all, it's been since October 2008 when the MacBook line was updated with the Precision Unibody Aluminum Enclossure, typically truncated to just Unibody.. Perhaps just as important as the new battery technology is the philosophical upgrade of the 13-inch aluminum MacBook to MacBook Pro status, thus saving some face for the re-introduction of FireWire. Consider Apple's face saved.
Here at TMO, we covered the details of that transition on Monday. My overall impression of the move is derived from the recent discussions of the netbook. Apple is essentially saying, "Hey. Not only are we not interested in doing a netbook right now, but we're going to put some price and feature pressure on the competitor's standard notebooks. Of course, another way of looking at that is the economy and Microsoft's "You Find It, You Keep It" TV ads that have put some real and imagined pressure on Apple's pricing.
However, the way Apple responds to those ads is very low key in that the response is directed towards Apple's customers, not towards the competition directly. That is, when Apple beats on Microsoft, for effect, they do it in the "Get a Mac" ads. But when Apple responds directly to competition, they do it in a glitzy way that gets customer attention and is designed to please them. That's a very considered and effective approach.
One of the things I really like about Apple is the careful, steady development of technologies over time. For example, back in 2003, Apple started selling 64-bit hardware in the Power Mac G5. Over the next six years, in a careful approach designed to bring apps, customers and developers along steadily, Apple has gone to a 64-bit UNIX, then 64-bit math libraries, then 64-frameworks, then 64-bit kernel, major system apps and the Finder. Somehow, I just don't get the feeling that Microsoft has taken such a steady progression because, after all, they never made the break to a more modern architecture as Apple did with Mac OS X. By responding to the sales imperative of the moment, Microsoft fails to make steady, well planned technical advances.
I also like the way Apple conceives of advanced technologies like Grand Central Dispatch (GCD) and Open Computing Language (OpenCL), seeks certification as an open source standard by working with the community, then exploits the technology to the hilt. In this case, I can see why Apple keeps the WWDC sessions under NDA. For example, competitors may not invest a lot of time and effort to attend WWDC as developers because they're too immersed in their own work. As a result, the competition never gets the full picture of what Apple is doing. Without that keen insight that Apple delivers to its own developers, the competition can't appreciate the scope of Apple's agenda and then falls hopelessly behind.
That's how Apple was able to preside over 50,000 iPhone apps and a billion downloads before anyone started to pay attention.
I noted with interest Phil Schiller's chart showing the number of apps available for other smartphones.
- iPhone/iPod touch: 50,000+
- Android: 4,900
- Nokia: 1,800
- RIM: 1,000+
- Palm Pre: 18
Mr. Schiller, calmly and nonchalantly, pointed out that the number of Pre apps was too small to show up on the chart. But then he showed the chart. Bam. Take that! Jon Rubinstein. (The former Apple executive who is leading the Palm Pre product.) It was hilarious.
Another thing I liked about Mr. Schiller's presentation was his low key, conversational, almost avuncular presentation. Unlike Macworld's keynote, during which Mr. Schiller seemed to be doing a sales pitch in the keynote, this presentation was relaxed, technical, and warmly enthusiastic. I hope Mr. Schiller continues that tone.
People wonder about whether Apple's old ways, philosophies and policies that kept the Mac from gaining a larger market share would perhaps interfere with the growth of the iPhone. It's true that, in some cases, the iPhone doesn't please everyone in business circles. Yet Apple is succeeding on its own terms because it has insisted on appealing to people with purchase authority. When people are free to chose, they mostly chose the best for themselves. That's why any phone that caters to business people first, then consumers second is doomed. And that's also why, when a product that's chosen by people who are free to chose succeeds, its popularity auto-percolates back into business. Win-win.
At recent Apple earnings reports, Apple executives have pointed out that they don't intend to leave a price umbrella for the competition. The announcement of a subsidized iPhone 3G, (not 3Gs), for US$99 takes a lot of wind out of the sales of companies just starting to seriously compete with the iPhone. Apple's head start and volume sales have allowed that price point. That's why when Apple does something new and cool and daring, the competition has to respond right away, in force, with resources, imagination, and salesmanship. Not many companies can manage that, recession or not.
On the whole, I was pleased with this Keynote. It struck a great balance between new hardware, new developer tools, new OSes, and inspiration. The only complaint I had was that Mr. Schiller didn't do a performance demo of Snow Leopard and OpenCL to close the deal with people who watched (or will watch) the public keynote. I'm betting that it was on the agenda but got axed for the sake of time management.
Finally, I was amused by the people who fantasized that Steve Jobs would make a cameo appearance. It was a case of wish fulfillment twisted into an attempt at self-fulfilling prophesy. One should never give much credence on those kinds of rumors.
This was an exciting, technical and highly agenda driven Keynote. It didn't match the Steve Jobs introduction of the iPhone in January 2007, but it was one still of the best keynotes in recent times at either Macworld or WWDC.