WWDC 2024: Yes, we live in interesting times

Apple has a lot to prove at WWDC 2024. Not only must it fend off the negative attention it has been picking up from regulators, but it must also galvanize loyal developers and disabuse the industry perception that it has fallen behind on AI.

That’s a big sentence for a big collection of big challenges — and while doing all of this, Apple will also be seeking to pepper its platforms with great big dollops of its customary consumer-friendly magic.

Strength through adversity

Apple has pushed through challenging times before, and I understand why executives are likely furious that the company — forced to forge its own path in tech — is now being accused of antitrust violations for doing so.

Back when Apple didn’t have an iPod and had a shrinking 2% share of the market, the company decided to build its own beautiful closed system; that made sense as it sought to compete with the behemoths of the time.

That same approach has been a guiding star to everything Apple has achieved since. It’s only now that it’s built platforms, operating systems, and services arguably better than anything else on the market that regulators want to break those walls down, no matter the costs. Presumably, the idea is to give competitors who already lost the war another chance to win again.

All in all, company execs could be forgiven for believing they live in “interesting times.”

Changing the narrative

It’s in this context that Apple will seek to drive home a positive story about its platforms and change the critical narrative around its own brand. One way it might achieve this would be to introduce the world’s biggest smartphone artificial intelligence platform with the announcement of the backwards-compatible iOS 18.

Called by some the “biggest iOS update” in company history, Apple’s next-generation AI fueled smartphone operating system will run on hundreds of millions of devices from the get-go. (Every Apple Silicon chip released in the last few years has untapped capacity.) It seems likely it will run across all of Apple’s devices, and it is also likely you’ll be able to use third-party AI services such as those from Baidu or Google Gemini alongside Apple’s own, as the company is allegedly speaking with them.

Morgan Stanley analyst Erik Woodring in January wrote: “We believe Apple’s efforts to bring these features to market are accelerating, increasingly the likelihood of an ‘AI iPhone’ launch as soon as Fall 2024.”

Will Apple AI sink or swim?

I’ve written before to explain how I think AI in iOS 18 will manifest itself as an edge intelligence built into the device to enable people to get important stuff done while maintaining privacy.

These powerful tools will be the big announcement at WWDC. But we’ll have to wait and see whether industry perception will cast the company as forging ahead or repeat the mantra that it is still playing catch-up.

I suspect some lazy thinkers will stick with the latter, if only because Apple seems likely to focus on narrow task-specific AI that’s really good at specialized tasks, supplemented by public LLM systems such as those from Chat GPT.

That’s also why you’ll be able to choose third-party AI services at a new App Store, some industry observers believe. I think the use of AI in specific tools is absolutely the direction of travel for AI generally, so Apple’s critics will be proved wrong.

The other piece in this is that the intelligence will also be available in Macs, iPads, and through Vision Pro. That latter point is the pre-dawn horizon in this big picture, and as visionOS evolves and new hardware appears you should expect a great deal from the combination of wearable computing and context-aware AI.

Developers need a hug

WWDC 2024 should provide additional insights into Apple’s plans, but it’s possible the biggest challenge will remain unmet. Years of lobbying by competitors and some developers have led to a revolution in regulation, and the company must figure out how to reward the developers that continue to support it and motivate them going forward. Given the direction regulators are taking, this suggests some new developer-focused titbits to keep people on side.

But will Apple’s product and platform news (and a few nice nuggets) be enough to maintain the big buzz around WWDC, or might this year’s event one day be seen as the nadir of Apple’s star?

The future will be better tomorrow

I tend to think it unwise to bet against Apple — but it is true to say the company faces big and existential challenges at this stage of its story.

WWDC 2024 opens for business June 10 with a keynote speech to a small audience in Apple Park and to developers everywhere via streaming services. This year will also be the first time the company makes all its developer sessions available via YouTube.

You know the tech world will be watching. It always does.

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Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


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