Apple’s annual developer conference may lack the pizzazz of an iPhone launch, but it often contains subtle clues to the company’s longer-term strategy. As Apple lays down new foundations in its iOS operating system and its tools for app makers, it will hint at potential new accessories, iPhone features and markets to enter.
This year’s Worldwide Developer Conference is taking place at a particularly controversial moment for Apple, as the App Store faces new legal challenges in the US and Europe. Bureaucrats and campaigners in Brussels and Washington will be watching Tim Cook closely on Monday to see if Apple makes any concessions to its critics or opens itself up to new allegations of anti-competitive behaviour.
Here are five themes to watch out for at WWDC 2019.
The economic impact of apps
Perhaps Apple’s best defence against the App Store’s opponents is the more than $120bn that the company has generated for developers both large and small since its inception in 2008.
Monday’s opening keynote gives Apple an opportunity to highlight the economic impact of the App Store, which it credits with creating more than 1.5m jobs in the US and 1.6m across Europe.
Despite the iPhone’s smaller global market share compared to Android, analysts still believe the App Store is more lucrative for developers who charge for their apps and services than its rival Google Play.
The iPhone maker is keen to demonstrate that the App Store offers a level playing field for large companies and independent developers, with efforts to making coding more accessible to larger numbers of people and training initiatives such as Apple Entrepreneur Camp.
Shocked to be Sherlocked
However, while the App Store does offer a low-cost route to market for independent developers, some app makers will be nervously watching Monday’s keynote to find out if Apple itself is launching a competitor to their software.
The phenomenon is known as “Sherlocking”, after a notorious incident in the early 2000s, when Apple’s Sherlock search tool for Macs was seen as copying an independent rival called Watson.
More recently, there have been particularly vocal complaints from several companies behind apps that help parents to track or control their children’s smartphone usage, which they say were rendered redundant by Apple’s own Screen Time tools. (Apple argues that it booted some of these apps from its store because they “put users’ privacy and security at risk”.)
Last year’s unveiling of iOS 12 also included group FaceTime calls, which rivalled start-ups such as HouseParty, as well as Skype and WhatsApp features, and another app called Measure, which mimicked several apps that had used Apple’s ARKit technology to measure short distances using the iPhone’s camera.
What’s next for iOS
The 13th iteration of the iPhone’s operating system is unlikely to mark a radical overhaul, but instead a series of incremental improvements. Most highly anticipated among these is “dark mode”, which will make the iPhone’s screen easier on the eyes and, some might argue, less addictive. Apple’s Watch, TV and HomePod accessories could also gain new features.
“We believe iOS 13 will be focused on speeding up devices, applications, and reducing some lingering bugs,” said Dan Ives, analyst at Wedbush. “There will be a myriad of updates around Maps, iMessage, and the Health app in our opinion along with a number of new keyboard options/interfaces also on the docket.”
Points for privacy
Apple’s latest ad campaign promises: “Privacy. That’s iPhone.” Security and data protection have become a key differentiator for Apple, both against rivals such as Huawei from China and its Silicon Valley neighbours Facebook and Google. Expect Apple to drive home this advantage again and again on Monday, especially as it pushes further into sensitive markets such as healthcare and payments.
But a Washington Post investigation last week found that some free apps that depend on advertising for their revenues are sending detailed personal information to data brokers. The same problems exist on Android but if Apple is going to hold itself to a higher standard on privacy, critics say it needs to go further still.
On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple plans to limit this kind of tracking within apps targeted at children.
The wild card: new hardware
WWDC is mainly about software, with Apple typically saving its biggest hardware unveilings for September and October. No new devices were launched last year but two years ago, Apple did reveal its new smart speaker, HomePod. This year is rumoured to see the arrival of new high-end Macs — the kinds developers like to use to write code.
However, according to 9to5Mac, one surprise could come in the form of a new Apple accessory: a small Bluetooth tracker similar to those made by Tile, which can be attached to a key ring to prevent lost keys.
The long-running Apple blog has also posted leaked screenshots showing that the Find My iPhone and Find My Friends apps could be merged into a single tracking app simply called “Find My”, which could act as a hub for the new wireless accessory.