WWDC 2015 Keynote Impressions

Another jam-packed (ha, music puns) WWDC keynote with familiar faces, as well as some new ones. I don't know if there was anything particularly mind-blowingly surprising–I mean, besides open source Swift and the fact that they let Jimmy Iovine on the stage–since so much has already been announced in advance by Mark Gurman for those following along.

I wrote last year that I felt 2014's WWDC keynote was the first time Tim's Apple really had a chance to shine. He took a step back and let his team take the reigns. It was an exciting moment, because it felt like a new Apple that really embraced the changes Tim's leadership brought. Steve's Apple laid a great foundation by bringing incredibly smart minds together and uniting them under a singular mission. Tim's Apple sets them free to push for their own ideas. It's a company that feels like it's owned by many people, not just one.

Today's keynote amplified that. Leading up to the presentation, it was clear the tone had been set: Apple was aiming for this year to be a year of refinement. iOS 9, OS X 10.11, watchOS, all were expected to be polished, rather than pushed forward in huge ways. The presentations felt like honed versions of last year's, less awkward (for the most part), especially with Craig Federighi, who continued to dominate the stage in a way that few people at the company can match. We also got to see a little bit more diversity in the lineup, with two female executives taking the stage, something which has been missed up until now. Susan Prescott in particular, with her introduction of the News app, was remarkable in her inaugural keynote. She felt so comfortable, and the presentation was a friendly debut to a relatively exciting new feature. I hope they bring her back for future keynotes.

A few other things stuck out to me as well.

Apple's Playfulness

It feels like Apple's keynotes in the Tim era get more and more playful each time. Sometimes that more casual approach feels pretty dorky, but I like that they embrace dorkiness. Self-awareness sets them apart from the likes of other companies that treat keynotes as some sort of bizarre performance art, where their lack of awareness of their absurdity is just as dumbfounding as the show they put on in the first place.

Craig and Eddie had a lot of silly dad jokes that just reinforced their affable personas, and Susan Prescott was able to get in there with her own well-rehearsed segment that felt energetic. She seemed to really enjoy it, and that came through in her performance. Even Kevin Lynch's typically subdued speaking style felt well-timed, and he owned his moment on the stage, providing for some nice variety in not only presenters, but styles as well.

The keynote's opening sketch, starring Bill Hader and Charlyne Yi, amongst others, didn't feel as hokey as the Apple Campus Security sketch from a couple keynotes back. It was a nice way to welcome thousands of developers to San Francisco for what I'm sure will be an extremely fun and interesting week for them, and it gave a little nod to the fact that Apple doesn't need to take itself so seriously. However, there were a few times they inadvertently undermined that message throughout the show. I did see some immediate criticism on Twitter that appeared to imply that Apple should always stick to its ubiquitous inspirational messaging, rather than try and dip into comedy. I disagree, obviously, and I think comedy is a great way to break the ice and ground things in reality.

That's not to say that they should completely break their established format, however. There were a few instances where a more careful approach could have tightened things up. Specifically, I don't know if Jimmy Iovine and Drake were the best choices, especially the point at which their segments appeared in the keynote. Jimmy seemed a little befuddled on stage, and starkly unaware of the homage he was paying to Steve's announcement of the iPhone when he began discussing Apple Music. By the end of the presentation, that sort of uneasy rambling really made the minutes start to feel long.

Stumbles aside, it was great to see Apple continuing to open up and try new things. Most everything moved at a pretty steady pace. From the opening skit, to Epic's game demo, to Craig's open shirt collar, it seemed to me that Apple was having fun.

Apple's Passion

It wasn't all silliness, however. They definitely took time to ruminate on the importance of technology, how they're pushing things ahead, and making developers take true pride in the work that they're doing. This is classic Apple identifying that human element–the emotional element–and capitalizing on it. It's difficult not to get caught up in it, even as someone who knows next to nothing about creating apps. That's the power and beauty of Apple's marketing. They know how to reach to the core of a person better than anyone else. Some may look upon that with cynicism and see it as a reason not to trust anything they say, but I tend to fall on the side that sees Apple's messaging as a product of their internal culture. I trust Apple, and that helps me digest their messaging and see it as more than mere placating.

One of their videos really drove that idea home, with an introduction from Neil deGrasse Tyson referring to apps as "a watershed moment in civilization." A little heavy-handed perhaps (and also a little at odds with himself), but the message was clear and helped paint the picture that Apple isn't just patting themselves on the back. Their success can be attributed to so much more than merely the iPhone; developers have helped establish an ecosystem that has driven adoption of technology faster than damn near anything before it.

Apple wants to make it clear that they value its people, but its people isn't limited to its employees. They value their customers, and those who create things for their customers. Little love letters like this just further accentuate that and help breed continual passion for the company, challenging developers to continue thinking big.

Taking time to breathe

Like I said, it's obvious this year is the year for Apple to dig in and focus on things that matter under the hood. Regardless of the validity, their explosive popularity coupled with the sweeping changes made in the last few years' worth of OS releases has helped evoke a narrative that Apple's software isn't as polished or reliable as it once was. It seems the team has heard that and taken it to heart, taking a step back to make sure they prioritize refinement over renovation. They're even going so far as to play up how they'll continue to support models of devices that they would have normally dropped support for with these release, had they stuck to their pattern.

As someone who never had any direct frustrations with Yosemite or iOS 7/8, I can't help but think that maybe they're overcompensating for the vocal minority just a bit with their insistence of better battery life and faster performance with older devices. That being said, it's hard to argue that these aren't things worth pushing for in tandem with new features. This is one thing I hope they nail, as that extra polish will frequently go unnoticed as a feature demo, but will continue to serve as one of those intangibles that keeps people loving their devices and locking them firmly into Apple's camp. In the past, Apple has excelled at making the little things count, and those little things add up to an all-around better experience, even if you can't necessarily describe why you feel the way you do. It's good to see they're not losing sight of that, and are willing to pump the breaks on other things to make sure the experience still reigns king.

Also, I can't express enough how much I love that they've worked to reduce the over-the-air download size for iOS 9. It felt silly getting excited over that announcement, but can you really blame me?

Privacy, Proactivity, and Personality

It's not just Tim Cook talking privacy now. The company is doubling-down on it. Craig reiterated their focus on privacy multiple times, after various demos. They're continuing to take direct aim at companies like Google and Facebook, and that message was driven home today. Maybe a bit too hard.

Regardless, I am really curious to see how well they learn without complete access to our entire digital lives. I think think the enhancements to Siri and Maps over the years are good indicators that they're willing to go in for the long haul on doing data collection the right way. They may not start as big or flashy as Google, but slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

Speaking of Siri, the Proactivity stuff they showed off is pretty cool. I hope it works as well in practice as it does in presentation. Siri is something that always demos well, but it's taken a couple years for it to hit its stride. Maybe they'll have worked on this enough behind the scenes to really hit the ground running with something magical, but I can't help but be a bit skeptical.

However–we're still on Siri here–there were some subtle things that I really love that augment her personality nicely. First, rebranding Spotlight as "Siri" (looks like that's the case only on iOS, right?) and giving her a dedicated screen outside of the home button long press is a good move. Since her inception, they've tried to push her as the ultimate personal assistant, but she's always been relegated to a dark corner of the phone, waiting for you to find her first. Now, she's front and center, and often times helping you make the most out of your device before you even tell it to do anything. This is something that's extremely exciting to me.

Then there's the change in how she looks when you're speaking to her. Replacing the current stark soundwave animation is a beautiful array of undulating colors that transitions into a fun glance from side to side as she searches. It reminds me of a Cylon, actually, but without the whole destroy the entire human race thing. It's small, but really accentuates her role as the epicenter of the intelligence behind iOS.

They didn't talk about this (unless I completely missed it), but they're also replacing Helvetica with San Francisco as the system font. This was yet another Gurman win, and maybe not a huge deal to most. Though, as I wrote a couple weeks back, I think it'll be a great way to infuse a little more Apple personality back into their machines. Helvetica is pleasant, but it's forgettable.

Apple Music

After the keynote concluded, I messaged my wife and said that we'll be switching off Spotify at the end of the month when Apple Music launches. It's not that I was completely blown away by what they announced today, though there are some cool things in there, but it was the fact that they're hitting all the points they need to bring me on as a customer. They're marrying price point with integration into the OS of my devices with a model of service that I've become very accustomed to and reliant upon in my daily life due to its flexibility. I like Spotify. I like it very much. I'm not married to it by any means. It just happened to be better than iTunes for what I wanted at the time.

Speaking of iTunes, it's telling that this revamped service is called Apple Music. As my friend, John Morrison, and I discussed on Twitter, iTunes is long overdue to be put out to pasture. The brand itself doesn't hold the same weight as it once did when the computer was the actual hub of your digital life and iTunes was at the center of it. Now, iTunes is a bloated piece of software I seldom open. iTunes Match is a service I continue to pay for, even though I'm not quite sure why. iTunes Radio is fine, but not flexible enough for my demands. I don't think I'm alone.

Apple Music has the opportunity to change this, and I think Apple putting iOS and its associated devices (which thrive with a streaming model due to streaming's storage agnosticism) as the focal point is a good thing to drive this next phase of Apple's obsession with music. Do I think iTunes will get dismantled and rewritten? Not overnight, but I sure as hell look forward to the time when it does.

The only thing about Apple Music that gave me pause is their Connect section. I was obviously not alone in thinking that it sounded like a relaunch of Ping, and considering Apple's been pretty aloof if not downright dismissive of social media, it seems like a weird thing to try again. Maybe things will work out this time. Who knows?

Oh, and Apple is making an Android app.