Apple’s annual WWDC always brings forth the latest developments by the pioneering tech firm, and this year was no different, with Apple finally unveiling its own entry in the burgeoning smart speaker market, the HomePod.
The voice-activated speaker is being marketed primarily as a music player that integrates with Apple Music, the streaming service that was launched in 2015 to complement Apple’s existing iTunes service. Like Google Home and Amazon Echo, the HomePod will incorporate a digital assistant, in this case Siri, which will enable to device to respond to questions, trigger smart home devices and more when instructed using voice commands.
Apple has lagged behind competitors, both in terms of entering the smart speaker device and in making improvements to Siri, which has been surpassed by Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa in terms of capabilities and responsiveness. With the HomePod, Apple is placing a clear emphasis on the speaker part of the equation, promising spatial awareness to better fill rooms with sound, and a ‘Musicologist’ feature to provide trivia on songs, albums and artists.
By focusing on the HomePod as a music device, Apple are clearly hoping to avoid direct comparisons with devices powered by smarter virtual assistants. Still, the device will enable Apple to claim the smart speaker territory in a number of households, with advancements in Siri presumably planned for further down the line.
“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” said Phillip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing. “HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than seven inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion free music and be a helpful assistant around your home.”
The HomePod is set to launch in the US, UK and Australia in December and will retail for $349 (£270). It features a seven-speaker array of tweeters and a four-inch upward-facing subwoofer, as well as an Apple A8 chip to control everything. It can pair with an iPhone 5S and onwards in a similar manner to AirPods, simply by holding the two close together, and will be compatible with Apple’s newly announced AirPlay 2 multi-room audio solution.
Of course, the HomePod wasn’t the only announcement made during the keynote speech. The firm also unveiled iOS 11, with the promise that the new iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system would improve the ‘core technologies’ as well as introducing new user-facing features.
iMessage will now synch across devices using iCloud, meaning that messages and notifications can be read or deleted on your iPhone and will almost instantaneously update to match on your Mac, iPad or other device.
Apple Pay is being expanded to include person-to-person payments, attempting to break into a space dominated by apps like Venmo and Square Cash. The system will exist within the iMessage app, enabling payments to be included in texts, and will also introduce an Apple Pay Cash Card, where users can store received funds from peer-to-peer transactions before moving money into their personal bank accounts.
The iPhone camera gets its usual annual upgrade, adding optical image stabilisation to portrait mode photos, images taken with a flash, or in HDR. Live Photos, Apple’s partially animated format, gets two new effects, and images will now be stored using a High Efficiency Image File format (HEIF), with the aim of reducing the amount of space that photos take up on a device.
The iPad received extra focus with iOS 11, further blurring the lines between tablet, laptop and desktop. The iPad’s dock now more closely resembles a Mac’s, a drag-and-drop feature will let users quickly move information or media between split-screen apps, and ‘app pairings’ will enable users to save commonly used-together app settings so that they automatically return to split screen view when switched to.
A new Files app, which was leaked earlier on Monday, provides users with a simpler view of what files are stored on their device, as well as an overview of those kept on cloud storage services such as iCloud, Dropbox, etc.
Apple Maps is introducing indoor maps for select locations, primarily shopping malls and airports. Mall layouts will be available in Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and eight US cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, while maps for 20 major airports, both in the US and internationally, will be accessible.
Maps is also improving its navigation capabilities when used in a car, with lane guidance and speed limit reminders to help when tackling unfamiliar territory. iOS 11 is also introducing a ‘Do Not Disturb While Driving’ mode which will help drivers filter out unnecessary distractions unless they are marked as ‘urgent’.
Siri, Improve Yourself
Among the improvements on iOS 11 were a raft of changes for Siri that will occur across the various hardware platforms that now support the digital assistant, including the HomePod. Siri is getting a new, more natural sounding voice, along with a more visual interface on devices like the iPhone to provide suggestions and follow-ups to your original query.
A new translation feature is being introduced in beta, which will provide language services for English to Chinese, French, German, Italian and Spanish, with more combinations and languages planned for the future.
Perhaps most important, Siri will now have ‘on-device learning’ which will help it predict what you want next, based on previous usage. That intelligence will be synched across all your devices, but remain private to you, according to Apple.
The digital assistant is also being opened up to more third-party support, providing developers with the opportunity to integrate Siri into the apps and access more functions, including task management, when they do.
All Aboard the ARKit
Developers are also getting new resources to create augmented reality apps and experiences on iOS. Tim Cook has been vocal in the past about his preference for AR over VR, and this year’s WWDC announcements seem to support it, with no sign of VR hardware or software, but a powerful new tool for those working in AR.
ARKit will provide advanced AR capabilities on iOS, allowing for “fast and stable motion tracking” that will enable objects to feel more rooted in the environment, rather than simply hovering over it. Apple demonstrated some of ARKit’s functions by mapping the flat surface of a table and placing a digital teacup on it, but that’s just the beginning of its potential.
Wingnut AR, the studio founded by Sir Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, showed off a complex AR landscape it had created using the Unreal Engine, a preview of a game it plans to release later this year. Unity and SceneKit, two other popular game engines, are also supported by ARKit, providing developers with multiple options for approaching this new technology.
While Apple is still, to a certain extent, playing catch-up with Google, which has already launched its Tango AR platform, the release of ARKit across iOS 11 could prove a significant leap forward, and will create what Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, called “the largest AR platform in the world”.
Apple Watch Keeps Ticking
While the Apple Watch may have failed to usher in a new age of wearables, Apple hasn’t given up on the device, and announced watchOS 4 during the keynote, which is set to arrive this autumn and bring several new features.
Among the updates are new features for watchfaces such as complications that change based on the time of day or your location, and a new Siri-based watchface that will use machine learning to determine what information is most useful to you at any given point, from smart home controls to boarding passes for flights.
For more cosmetic updates, users can also access a kaleidoscope watchface, or Toy Story-themed character watchfaces, as Apple extends its deal with Disney that previously saw Mickey and Minnie Mouse options introduced for the Apple Watch.
Beyond the visual upgrade, WatchOS 4 will improve the watch’s fitness tracking capabilities, including a new user interface for the workout app, and new integrations with gym equipment, thanks to partnerships with manufacturers. Users will be able to connect their watch to gym equipment through NFC, and these integrations will then enable the watch to access information like incline and intensity, to provide more accurate workout tracking.
The dock has been redesigned with a vertical interface for scrolling through recent apps, and music management gets a boost, with the Apple Watch now automatically importing playlists from Apple Music, and supporting multiple playlists.
The App Store Gets a Refit
In a move that will interest both developers and brands, the App Store on iOs is getting a significant overhaul, with an all-new interface that focuses on discovery and instruction. The landing page will now feature just a single new app every day, reducing the opportunity to get the spotlight but providing a potentially huge boost for developers lucky enough to land that crucial territory. The App Store will also get some editorial curation, with a ‘top story’ every day that focuses on how-to guides for complex apps like photo editor VSCO, or longer, article-style descriptions for apps.
The redesign brings the App Store closer in line with Apple Music and Apple News, with cleaner edges and a more colourful look. Games will get more emphasis, with their own tab to separate them from general purpose apps, while in-app purchases will now be accessible on the description page, not just within the apps themselves.
And The Rest…
There were a number of other announcements from Apple, including the introduction of a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, new functions for the Apple Pencil, and the announcement that Amazon Prime Video was coming to Apple TV. Apple Music got music sharing with friends and a developer kit to enable it to be integrated into other apps, while Apple’s camera will finally have native support for QR codes – no more need for third-party apps you only use twice a year.
Perhaps one of the most interesting changes, which could have a number of ramifications, is the removal of something. Social accounts have been removed from Settings in iOS 11, and third-party apps no longer have access to those signed-in accounts. That means that you will no longer be able to easily log into an app using your Facebook or Twitter ID (or any other social network for that matter).
While there appears to be a fairly simple workaround (logging into Facebook on mobile Safari, then logging into the third-party app using your social network details), it’s a significant extra hurdle that could either drive users back to individual accounts for these services, or make them less likely to use them on an iOS 11 device.
With a large number of apps relying on users’ Facebook credentials, from mobile dating to WhatsApp to OpenTable, this could be something Apple faces considerable user pushback on. The company may already have a solution in mind, with a software engineer involved in WWDC session later this week tweeting that he is “thrilled to introduce Password AutoFill for Apps”, but this seems to be Apple solving a problem it has decided to create, and robbing users of convenience in the process.