By Jason Snell
June 2, 2023 2:25 PM PT
What I’m watching for at the WWDC keynote
It’s almost time. Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is just days away. Come Monday morning, both Dan Moren and I will be somewhere on the Apple Campus, watching Apple unveil whatever it chooses to put in front of the world.
Here’s what I’ll be watching for:
The headset’s developer story. This is a developer conference, and Apple’s launching a new hardware platform. Presumably, that means that Apple is going to have a strong story for its developers about why they should develop for the new platform, whether it’s bringing existing apps over from iOS or creating entirely new AR or VR experiences.
The big question is, how are developers going to be able to build VR or AR apps without having access to the hardware? I’m sure there will be a simulator that’ll run on a Mac, but you can only simulate so much. And once Apple has announced the headset, it’s a lot freer to share it with members of the public—so developers may be able to sign up to try out the hardware at Apple’s campus or in other Apple offices around the world.
But a few days at Apple isn’t the same as having a headset to test with, day in and day out. That’s why I think it’s worth watching to see if Apple provides a pathway for developers to get hardware in advance of the general public. In the past, Apple has offered developer kits during Mac chip transitions and for the release of the tvOS app platform. Perhaps this summer, Apple will allow developers to sign up to be considered for a limited number of test units?
I keep hearing that the hardware is actually done, or close to it—and yet there are also reports that it won’t ship to the public until late this year. Maybe there’s an interim step that allows developers to build apps on final hardware that’s running a special developer build of the new headset’s operating system. It’s just hard for me to imagine Apple getting developers excited about its platform and then telling them all to wait many months until they can actually use the hardware. (Not only is that poor form, but it’s also how you get apps that don’t properly take advantage of the new hardware.)
The headset’s consumer story. Unlike those of us who have been bathing on Apple VR headset rumors for years, most of the general public is going to be hearing about the product for the first time on Monday. So what’s the first impression Apple wants to make?
I’m anticipating that Apple will highlight numerous potential areas of value, as it did nearly nine years ago with the launch of the Apple Watch. But what will those areas be, and how will Apple choose to show them off? Will games be a focus or a peer with other areas like fitness, media, and communication? Will Apple sell the headset as a portable computer with an enormous virtual screen you can use to work productively? The choices Apple makes in terms of how it shows off uses for the product will say a lot about the company’s priorities.
I feel pretty strongly that this product is designed to show the current state of the art in AR and VR, which is why it’s apparently using such pricey components. Apple wants to dazzle people with the synthesis of—stop me if you’ve heard this before—its hardware and software. But it’s also clearly just the first step on a much longer journey, which will include more affordable hardware coming in the next couple of years.
Apple famously doesn’t discuss future products, but the company could presumably blunt a lot of criticism if it made it clear that this is just the beginning of a long-term commitment. The company doesn’t want people to write off Apple or this category but to get excited about the possibilities. If someone walks away from the event thinking they might buy a product like this from Apple someday, that’s a win for Apple—even if they’re not sold on the current device.
How mixed is this reality? All through the development of the headset, we’ve heard reports that some people inside Apple have been very concerned with the idea that a VR headset fundamentally closes you off from the rest of reality. There have been reports that Apple has considered various approaches to counter this issue, from a Digital Crown-style dial that lets you switch between virtual reality and the real world to an external display that shows your face to anyone who’s watching you. (That second one sure sounds weird to me.)
But as someone who has spent dozens of hours using VR devices, I can see their point. Whether I’m home alone or if a family member is in the house, when I’m playing on my Quest 2, I have no idea if someone’s watching me or not. (Also, if a cat has come into the room and I’m in danger of stepping on them.)
My favorite Quest game is Eleven Table Tennis. I can play virtual table tennis in an arena or a ski chalet. But what I can’t do is choose to play it in my house. Part of that is down to the Quest 2’s external cameras being lousy, but assuming that Apple’s headset can provide you with a high-quality view of the world around you using external cameras, wouldn’t it be nice to have the option of playing that game in reality rather than being entirely cut off from the world?
I’m very curious how much Apple will lean into the idea of mixing VR and actual reality. A device that fundamentally prefers that software work in either mode—an overlay on what’s really around you or something entirely manufactured—would be pretty interesting philosophically. (And even in a “pure” VR environment, those cameras could do things like alert you when there’s a cat or a person in the doorway.) I’m curious how much Apple tries to lean into the idea that just because this thing is a headset, it doesn’t mean you’re cut off from the world.
The headset’s price. Or more specifically, is Apple going to announce a price? On the one hand, if the price is going to take people’s breath away (in a bad way), maybe it’s better for Apple if it lets people get used to that price for a few months. On the other hand, if the product’s not for sale and not going to be until fall or winter, what’s the rush? Apple is rarely a company that discloses anything until it has to. It could go either way.
The presence of Mac hardware. WWDC isn’t traditionally an event focused on hardware—except for all the times when it is. The fact is, there are only a handful of times a year that Apple can declare that it’s having a media event and draw the attention of the world—really, WWDC and the iPhone launch in the fall are the only ones you can bank on. And this year, interest is higher than usual because of the headset rumors.
If Apple wants a lot of people to see new Mac hardware, this would certainly be a good time to show it to them…. right? The problem is that the top headline or two or three coming out of the event will certainly be that shiny new headset, not some new Macs. Rumors have been swirling that Apple’s got a larger M2 MacBook Air laptop ready to ship, and since there’s an event, the company could release it. But is that a more effective strategy than waiting a few weeks, when headlines about the headset have faded, in order to put a new product in the spotlight?
I can see both sides of that argument, though I lean toward the idea that Apple can launch new Macs whenever it wants and doesn’t need to do it on Monday. And while reliable reporter Mark Gurman of Bloomberg keeps suggesting that new Macs are on the agenda, he’s mostly using phrases like “as early as at the conference” and “testing Macs ahead of the conference.” This doesn’t actually show a lot of confidence that those Macs, waiting in the wings though they are, are definitely making an appearance.
Gurman has also suggested that a revision of the Mac Studio might suddenly be on the agenda—after quite a long time when it seemed that the Mac Studio would skip the M2 generation entirely. (As Dan Moren and I discussed on Friday’s Six Colors podcast, it makes you wonder if the Mac Pro has been bumped back to the M3 generation, leaving the M2 Ultra chip nowhere to go but into a late revision of the Mac Studio.)
Again, seems like a weird thing for Apple to do—but given Apple’s supply chain since 2020, weird things do happen. The only case I think I can make for such an announcement to be made on Monday is to tie it specifically in with the rumors of the headset. What if an M2 Mac Studio was pitched as the perfect device for developers to use to create new AR/VR apps? At least there would be some thematic coherence.
In any event, I’m prepared to not see any new Mac hardware at WWDC, but if Apple has decided this is as good a time as any to revise the Mac product line, it can do what it wants—and balance the benefit of the increased attention with the fact that the new Macs will be lost amid the other announcements.
And hey, Apple could always tease the Apple silicon Mac Pro. Again.
A new page for watchOS. As I mentioned earlier, we’re coming up on the ninth anniversary of the announcement of the Apple Watch. watchOS has grown and changed a lot in the intervening time, but some of the basic assumptions of its design—watch faces with complications over there, apps over here—haven’t really been touched. Six years into the iPhone, iOS 7 totally reimagined the iPhone experience. It would seem like a good time for Apple to take a step back and reconsider some fundamental aspects of the Apple Watch rather than just tinkering around the edges. Will this be the year? I hope so.
Steady on, other operating systems. Reports suggest that this will be a lighter year for other Apple operating-system updates, given all the effort that has gone into launching the headset. But what does that mean? Historically, even “light” macOS releases like Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion boasted hundreds of new features. If this operating-system cycle is a little different, where has Apple decided to focus its attention? Which features are being introduced for specific platforms, and which ones are being spread across many of them?
Last year’s WWDC felt disorganized, in a way, because so many of the features Apple introduced were available on Mac, iPad, and iPhone—but the company chose to introduce those features in segments devoted to individual platforms. The result was disjointed—oh, this Mac feature is also on the iPad! Surprise!—and didn’t really sell the advantage of a single feature being available simultaneously across most of Apple’s devices. I’ll be watching to see if the company has rethought how it introduces new features for every operating system that isn’t a mixed-reality headset.
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