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🗞 News

Apple held its annual developer conference, WWDC, this week, and there was a huge number of significant announcements. It rebooted the iPad, pushed into machine learning and AR, and made a whole bunch of other interesting changes for the forthcoming iOS 11. I've not quite digested everything yet, but these are the main things. 

iPad: Apple announced a new slightly larger iPad with a new screen, but the real story is a radical reworking of the interface. Multitasking has been completely changed, there is a new file browser that integrate with third party apps, and you can drag and drop between apps. I've been using the beta for a week - it makes a huge difference to what it's like using an iPad. In addition, there are a bunch of new steps to try to make the Pencil useful for people who aren't artists using drawing apps, around annotation and notes. You still can't make charts in Excel for iPad, and the market for indie iPad productivity software is tough, but this feels like iPad 2.0. However, (glass half-empty), the iPad is fundamentally selling into the PC market, and that is steadily declining due to smartphones. Apple is looking for a larger share of a shrinking pie. Link

Apple announced a wireless speaker with voice control, the 'HomePod'. This was, unusually, a pre-announcement - not on sale until the end of the year. The obvious comparison is with the Amazon Echo or Google Home, but that's not quite right - those are end-points for a voice bot that can also play music, if you must, but they don't sound great - this is a $300 speaker that weighs 5x the Google Home, and that also has Siri. it can play Apple Music directly, using Siri, or anything on your iPhone or iPad (including Youtube or Spotify) using Airplay over wifi. I had a demo against the Echo and Sonos 3: it sounds very good (and you can pair two of them, and do multi-room). Glass half-full: Apple kills Sonos and makes another accessory that drives iPhone repurchase. Glass half-empty: Apple is focusing on sound quality because Siri isn't as good. Also, the pre-announcement is odd given there's no developer story. Long term, though, software eats speakers just as it's eating photography: this thing has the A8 chip that drove the iPhone 6, and that's a big part of the sound quality. Link

VR: Apple announced support for external GPUs for laptops, a new high-end 'iMac Pro' (starting at $5000) and support for VR in the next version of MacOS: there had been a lot of complaints that you couldn't work on VR on Macs. Link

CoreML - Apple has added a machine learning layer to iOS. This does several things. First, it gives developers who use it direct and power-efficient access to the GPU, to run their ML models as fast as possible using as little battery as possible. This might prefigure the widely-rumoured dedicated machine learning chip that might be coming in the iPhone 8 this autumn. Developers can import their models into this layer from a range of widely-used existing development environments, and more importers can be added. Second, Apple is including a range of its own pre-built models around image recognition and text recognition, that any developer can pick up and use. The question of where ML is performed is still unsettled: training raw models mostly needs vast computing power and data sets in the cloud, but Google as well as Apple favors running or even enhancing models (once they've been built) on the device. Google also talked at IO about federated learning, in which all the devices then share their incremental training data back to a central model. The deeper point: many ML techniques are getting commoditised and pushed into developer APIs and onto devices and apps very fast. There won't just be one Google or FB cloud that does all the 'machine learning' - this is a foundational tech that will be in everything. Much more to come here. Link

CoreAR - as was entirely predictable, Apple has added APIs for augmented reality. The phone uses the camera and motion sensors to do rock-solid positional reaching - you can tap on your screen to place a game on a table in front of you, walk around it, wave the phone around and all the action stays locked in place. This is hard for anyone without Apple's integrated model to match. Facebook announced its own AR APIs in the spring, but they don't have the hardware integration (nor a history of being a reliable development partner), and this is something that naturally belongs in the operating system. AR is the hot thing now, and the demos are cool, but this is also, of course, a natural building block for the mixed reality glasses that Apple is widely rumored to be working on for sale in a couple of years (equally, the Apple Watch and AirPods are probably hardware building blocks for this). When it comes, the first apps will already be there. Link

App Store - Apple has completely redesigned the iOS App Store for the first time since it launched. The focus is on improved discoverability: apps and games are split into their own sections (stopping games from swamping everything else) and there's much more use of video and editorial, allowing Apple's editors to suggest possible downloads in many more ways. Charts of top downloads are less prominent and the 'top grossing' list (which tended to be dominated by Candy-Crush-style free-to-play games with in-app payment) is gone entirely. Link

Apple also made a few interesting changes to the Store guidelines: the requirement to use Apple's own payment method seems to have been relaxed (a big deal for publishers), apps that download simple code for teaching programming are allowed, apps for buying followers (e.g. on Instagram) are banned, app generators are banned, and you're allowed to change your app's icon (for example, to show a sports team logo). Link 

You can now use Apple Pay to send money between individuals in iMessage - money received will be stored in a cash card within the Apple wallet app, and can be used for Apple Pay purchases but not cashed out (TBC - details are pending). iMessage is huge but Apple Pay is doing just OK, and adding P2P payments over iMessage might be a good viral hook to drive adoption. Apple is also pushing hard to get commerce merchants to adopt it, pointing to lower friction versus typing in a card and delivery address manually. Link

Business chat: Apple is making iMessage a platform. Customers can initiate a chat with a company from inside their app or from (e.g.) Siri, Apple maps or Safari; the chat happens inside iMessage and has access to all Apple APIs, so you can close a purchase using Apple Pay or send attachments or directions, without necessarily needing the user to install your app. The user has to start the session (unlike with Facebook Messenger, merchants can't contact them first, for example to say that a package is late). This was squeezed out of the keynote for time, and it seems like one of things where the devil is in the detail: it might be a really big deal or might, like ibeacons, fade away. Link

NFC - Apple uses NFC to implement Apple Pay when you wave it at points of sale, but (unlike those Android phones that support NFC) it was never open to developers. Now any app can use the NFC hardware in an iPhone or Watch. Use-cases beyond contactless payment and train tickets are not that widespread yet, but at least the capability is there. Link 

Apple is adding metrics to its podcasts app, so publishers will know how many people listened and for how long. Podcasts are an interesting emerging media form with a real ad business attached (possible several hundred million dollars already), but since consumption is in third-party apps no-one knows really knew what the audience was. Apple's podcasts app is probably the largest client, so this is a big deal. Link

Finally, screenshots. It's pretty clear that smartphone screenshots are the new PDF - a universal data exchange format. iOS 11 will have a dedicated workflow: screenshots now float in a corner once taken and you can tap to mark up, scribble and crop before sharing them right away. Now, if only metadata and a deep-link to wherever you took the screenshot was attached, this could be a whole new paradigm... 

Other news

Softbank is buying Boston Dynamics, makers of those creepy wolf-like walking robots, from Alphabet. Fits into their IoT thesis, perhaps.  Link

Google is digitizing fashion museums. All about training data for machine learning (and, perhaps, commerce). Link

🔮 Blog posts

Ben Horowitz: distribution. Link

Price-matching the new iMac Pro (it looks like Apple's pricing is pretty competitive in this instance). Link

Apple, Spotify and the benefit to smaller labels. Link

The hidden millionaires of ebook self-publishing. Link

😮 Cool thing of the week

Monument Valley 2. Link

📊 Statistics

The English version of the latest CNNIC report from the Chinese government on the state of the internet there has just been released. Lots of interesting data. Link

iPhone users take around a trillion photos a year (for comparison, film peaked at about 80bn in 1999). Link

Sony has sold 1m Playstation VR headsets. Link

Chicago taxi revenues have fallen 40% in the last 3 years. Link
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