The 8 Best Hits and Worst Misses of Apple WWDC 2017

At its 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) Apple made its usual series of product unveils. We take a look at the 8 biggest announcements, for better and worse.
  • This week marked the 2017 edition of Apple's yearly Worldwide Developers Conference. Software-centric news dominated Monday's keynote (after all, it is an application developer conference), but Apple CEO Tim Cook and his lieutenants also made an atypically high number of hardware announcements. Let's break down the biggest announcements, from the potential hits to the possible misses.

    Click through to see the 8 biggest announcements from WWDC 2017.

  • New CPUs

    Apple announced no new consumer desktop or laptop models this year, only existing form factors with upgraded Intel processors. Instead of sixth-generation Skylake CPUs, Apple's iMac desktop computers and various MacBook laptop proliferations are now powered by Intel's seventh-generation Kaby Lake "engines.” Both CPU generations are built on a common 14 nm lithography foundation, but the latter's architecture optimizations lead to a supposed performance boost of up-to-20% with no battery life penalty. And an unannounced, pleasant surprise on the iMac side of things...socketed CPUs return!

  • The iMac Pro

    The current iteration of the Mac Pro, unveiled in 2013, is easy on the eyes but otherwise has proven to be a disappointment, being pretty much impossible to user-upgrade and having molasses-slow CPU, GPU, and other updates from the manufacturer. Apple promises that a superior successor is under development, but as a short-term stopgap, it's unveiled a Pro variant of the iMac.

    An 8-, 10-, or 18-core (depending on the model) Intel Xeon high-end CPU, an equally advanced Radeon Vega Pro 56 GPU, and a 5K-resolution display, along with sexy "space grey”-colored accessories all sounds good so far, right? But once again there is no user upgradeability – the factory-shipped RAM is even soldered down – and it comes with a hefty $5,000 price point (ouch).

    I daresay this one probably won't measurably stem the exodus of professionals fleeing the Mac Pro for "Hackintoshes" and...gulp...Microsoft Surface Studios. By the way, the iMac Pro also won't be shipping until at least December.

  • macOS

    Back at WWDC 2009 Apple unveiled Mac OS 10.6, aka Snow Leopard, with the goal of improving performance, efficiency, and reducing the overall memory footprint of the Mac OS. Since then Apple has gone to a yearly OS major upgrade cadence, frankly with hit-and-miss results. Some new versions have come out of the gate quite buggy. But what does this all mean for this year's WWDC?

    Apple unveiled Mac OS, sorry, macOS 10.13 High Sierra this week. If you think the name sounds a lot like last year's macOS 10.12 Sierra, you'd be right. And as with the Leopard-to-Snow Leopard transition that predated it, Sierra-to-High Sierra seems (at least from what's been publicly released so far) to be more of a spit-and-polish refinement than a more substantial advancement. Granted, the new Apple File System (APFS) file announced last year will finally be rolled in as the default (it had previously "gone gold" in iOS with March's 10.3 release, replacing longstanding but geriatric HFS+). Otherwise, I'm not seeing anything notable yet in what's been discussed about "High Sierra"...no matter that it's a great place to backpack.

  • iOS

    iOS 11, now in developer beta with a public beta to follow and a gold release forecasted for sometime this fall, largely seems to be another snoozer. The App Store has been revamped (woo hoo!) and an integrated file manager is finally now offered. More notable, albeit not necessarily in a good way, is that v11 completely drops support for 32-bit applications, along with all legacy hardware based on 32-bit CPUs – a move that is going to put a lot of otherwise just-fine iPhones and iPads into landfills sooner or later. After all, why would developers continue to generate 32-bit versions of applications for devices that Apple has abandoned? Can you say "obsolescence by design"? I can.

  • APIs, VR, and AR

    Although the latest versions of Apple's two tentpole operating systems may not impress, newly announced APIs and other software supplements that pair with iOS and MacOS are more notable. For iOS, we have ARKit, which will enable developers to add augmented reality (AR) capabilities to their applications, and Core ML, which leverages systems' CPUs, GPUs and other heterogeneous coprocessors (both existing and potentially to come) for computer vision and other machine learning purposes.

    With macOS 10.13, virtual reality (VR) will also finally comes to the Mac in a meaningful way...in the spring of 2018 by Apple's estimate. Version 2 of Apple's Metal API now supports VR. It will also officially support external graphics enclosures without the need for a bit of hardware hacking, which will neatly provide an alternative means of upgrading a system's integrated graphics shortcomings. Apple is even selling its own AMD-based external graphics developer kit, and partner Valve will now support Macs with its SteamVR platform.

  • The iPad Pro

    There was no official news on next-gen iPhones. The iPad mini remains on life support, albeit for who knows how much longer. And the mainstream iPad wasn't upgraded at WWDC, although it just received update attention a few months ago.

    All of Apple's mobile-device attention at WWDC 2017 was focused on the high-end, high-margin iPad Pro. Both form factor variants are now powered by Apple's latest A10X Fusion" SoC (no matter how else I might fault the company, I have to give it credit for having a crack chip design team). And the smaller 9.7" version has been replaced by a 10.5" successor, which is actually only a bit larger, due to the newer model's slimmer bezel around the LCD. Apple's longstanding aspiration to, with the combination of an iPad Pro and mated keyboard, compete against Windows-based Ultrabooks is admirable if only for its tenacity. And it explains the earlier-mentioned file manager in iOS 11, along with other tweaks like bolstered multitasking and cut/copy/paste facilities, and a customizable dock. But I'd wager it largely remains a delusion.

  • The Apple Watch

    With Apple Watch, the company's so-far only significant new product category since Steve Jobs' death (although the product's development kickoff reportedly predated his passing), Apple has admittedly cultivated a notable presence in the wearables market. Problem is, the overall market is pretty small in size (both units and revenue), and not growing much. And newly unveiled v4 of Apple's WatchOS doesn't seem likely to transform this trend. A bit more Siri integration? Okay. But "rich" data-exchange pairing with a short list of exercise equipment manufacturers' gear isn't sufficient to kickstart a moribund technology category, no matter that studies suggest fitness is one key reason for folks to make a smart watch purchase in the first place. Beyond these two particular WatchOS 4 enhancements, there's not much more to note here.

  • Siri and HomeP

    When Apple announced the Siri intelligent personal assistant in 2011, it made a big splash in terms of bringing awareness of artificial intelligence (AI) technology to the larger consumer market. But since then, ongoing development at the company has been comparatively moribund in contrast to the lightning-fast technology evolution from competitors like Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Microsoft's Cortana.

    The newly unveiled Siri enhancements don't seem like they'll move the needle much for the company either. Language translation, for example, is nice when the data source is understood by the service. But Siri's fundamental comprehension capabilities remain subpar. As a personal anecdote. While I blather at my Android smartphones and tablet all the time nowadays, and my wife and I both regularly chat at the various Amazon Echos scattered around our house, she's pretty much thrown in the towel on Siri both on her iPhone 5S and iPad 3 (in favor, ironically, of both the Google Search and Maps apps for iOS).

    Maybe this explains why Siri support was low on the feature list when Apple announced HomePod, its venture into the smart speaker space currently dominated by the Amazon Echo and Google Home. But while supposedly superior sound is all well and good, at $349 HomePod will cost around twice what you'd pay for an Amazon Echo ($179), and about three times the price of Google Home ($109 at a slight discount). Not to mention the fact that, like the iMac Pro, the HomePod is not scheduled to ship until at least December.

    Amazon rolled out the initial Echo in November 2014 (with even cheaper family members following it) and Google followed with Home mid-last year. Late to market? Overpriced? Yeah, sure, this is all going to end well...

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[All images source: Apple]

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