Technophrenia

Technophrenia

Apple emphasises social responsibility and new features but is superficial on both

Homeless in San Francisco. Author

Apple’s world-wide developer’s conference (WWDC) kicked off today in San Franisco with a keynote that many expected to be low on new product announcements. As it turned out, the conference was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Orlando plus the announcement by Microsoft that it is planning to buy LinkedIn for a massive US $26.2 billion.

In fact, the keynote started with CEO Tim Cook asking for a moment’s silence in remembrance of the Orlando victims and those touched by the violence. Two hours of presentations followed with no announcements of new hardware but instead, an outline of upgrades of Apple’s four platforms, iOS, watchOS, tvOS and the newly renamed macOS.

The new features range from redesigns of apps, like Apple Music and News on iOS, the arrival of existing functionality on new platforms, like Siri on the Mac and Apple Pay on the web, through to significant extensions of existing apps, like the new features in Apple’s messaging product and Apple’s Maps.

Apple has also opened up access to Siri, Apple Pay and iMessage to developers, which means that many more enhancements and capabilities will arrive when those developers integrate this functionality into new apps.

Some of what was shown today could best be described as “eye candy”; cute things that you can now do in iMessage like having new animations in messages, larger emoji that are auto-suggested and much cleverer text and image recognition that result in possible automatic replies. Other features are possibly more likely to impact on productivity like having Siri on the Mac. Being able to craft quite sophisticated searches for files for example through the use of commands to Siri is likely to be significantly simpler for many people than the current way of interacting with the desktop file system. Being able to use Apple Pay on the web, that is authenticated using a nearby iPhone or Apple watch is also going to make using Apple Pay for web-based transactions much easier and potentially more secure

More disappointing were the announcements of new “health” features in the Apple Watch including a new “health” app. This turned out to be simply different ways of accessing activity information on the watch with an app that emphasised mindful breathing. Given that there are already hundreds of this type of app on the App Store, it was hardly a radical new feature for a device that at one time was going to be positioned as a sophisticated medical device that would manage a wearer’s overall health.

The social theme discussed by Cook in his opening remarks was picked up again towards the end of the keynote. Cook stated that every child should be taught how to code at school and that Swift, Apple’s primary programming language was an ideal language to learn. To enable this, Apple will release a new application for the iPad called Swift Playgrounds which provides people starting to learn to program with guidance for coding whilst developing code to control the movement and interactions of animated characters in a very sophisticated way.

The app and programming environment looks engaging and in all likelihood captivate kids, at least initially. Personally, I am skeptical that most children will retain any significant interest in coding, any more than they retain interest in learning a second language. It is simply one of those things that you are either interested in, and good at, or not.

Continuing the theme, Tim Cook highlighted the importance of using technology to drive social good. He introduced a video that highlighted app developers from around the world who had addressed issues like power outages in Beirut, giving support and advice to women experiencing domestic violence. He finished the presentation with the words:

“At Apple, we believe that technology should lift humanity and should enrich peoples’ lives in all the ways that they want to experience it”.

Perhaps one of the ironies of the presentation however was missed completely by Apple and CEO Tim Cook. The Bill Graham Civic Centre that the keynote was held in is located in one of the most run down areas of San Francisco that is the open-air “home” of a large number of San Francisco’s 6,686 homeless people. In fact, standing in line to get into the auditorium, a homeless woman was asking for money and explained how “mondays are the hardest”.

As an outsider visiting San Francisco, you are overwhelmed by the problem that most locals seem to have developed an inability to see. Given that the Bay Area is home to some of the wealthiest people and companies on the planet, you are left wondering why it is that they can be so focused on “enriching peoples lives” whilst being comfortable with the humanitarian disaster on their doorstep. For Apple, helping enrich the most deprived people of their own society would be truly revolutionary.