Apple software has never been more important. As we learned just this week, 2017 was the first year since the introduction of the iPhone that smartphone sales were basically flat year over year, according to venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s influential Internet Trends report. For Apple, its future depends on finding a business that doesn’t rely solely on achieving record-breaking smartphone sales year after year. The iPhone cannot last forever, and CEO Tim Cook has often positioned Apple’s growing services business as a core pillar of the company going forward.
But to find that way out of its iPhone dependence, Apple needs to figure out how to sell more consumers on its software and the broader Apple ecosystem, from Apple Music to Apple Pay to iCloud. Plus, the more you use and rely on Apple software, the more likely you might be to buy the new HomePod speaker, the latest version of the AirPods and Apple Watch, or even Apple’s rumored augmented reality device.
Unlike companies that live and breathe internet services, like Google and Amazon, Apple is in a tougher spot here. That’s because, for the longest time, the iPhone maker could trust its dominant hardware to sell consumers on its software. You bought an iPhone or a MacBook Pro, and you settled with iOS, macOS, and the many native apps and peripheral products that came with those platforms. For the longest time, that was just fine. Both operating systems have historically run very well, been updated neatly year after year, and provided for Apple a strong argument for why its integration of hardware and software was the superior approach to mobile and desktop computing.
That’s begun to change over the years, and it felt like 2017 was a bit of a breaking point. Coming off the disappointing reception of its new MacBook Pro line in fall 2016, Apple apparently rushed out iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra the following year without smoothing over all of the rough edges. In a four-month period starting in September, Apple faced a torrent of negative press about bugs, critical security flaws, and performance problems plaguing its phones and laptops. Since then, Apple has released 14 software updates for iOS addressing 67 bugs, a 46 percent increase from the 46 software issues addressed over the same period a year earlier, according to data tabulated by The Wall Street Journal.
The apparent disregard for quality and consistency tarnished those platforms’ good names among some of Apple’s most critical and vocal users. It also started to feel like not only was the Apple hardware you were buying misguided in design — with its lack of accessible ports and less-than-stellar keyboards — but so was the software that ran on it. It’s paramount that consumers still look to Apple software as dependable and high-quality. If users abandon the Mac and the iPhone (which contributes two-thirds of Apple revenue), they also abandon the company’s increasingly lucrative services business that underpins those platforms.
Now, as WWDC 2018 is set to kick off, Apple has one mission to accomplish: to regain the trust of its loyal fans, developers included. The company’s annual developer conference isn’t just when Apple reminds the public that it owns and operates the most lucrative and carefully curated mobile app store. It’s also the time of the year when Apple charts a path for the next 12 months of iOS and macOS.
According to reports that have been coming out periodically since the beginning of the year, that path is going to look a bit different going forward. According to Axios, Apple is reportedly focusing primarily on performance improvements and reliability with the upcoming iOS 12 instead of visual overhauls or flashy new features. In January, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that a number of high-profile changes — like a redesign of the iOS home screen and a long-rumored merger of the third-party apps running across iOS and macOS — will not arrive with iOS 12’s launch, but instead, they will be released in a staggered fashion throughout the following year. If this course of events plays out, it would mark both a drastic change in approach for Apple and a recognition from the company that it’s made big mistakes of late.
There are a number of other issues that affect both consumer trust in Apple products and faith that those products will work at the level of offerings from Google, Amazon, and other competitors. Addressing those at WWDC might go a long way in helping Apple repair its image.
Take, for instance, the company’s admission late last year that it slows down older iPhones to prevent spontaneous restart issues those devices suffer from degrading batteries. The moment — seemingly confirming long-held conspiracy theories around planned obsolescence — was a sloppy affair for a company so adept at massaging public opinion. Though it was ultimately a matter of a lack of transparency, it made Apple look disdainful of its customers and willing to obscure critical information from them about how its products actually function. Apple apologized, launched an affordable repair program, and updated iOS 11 to include a new software setting to manage an iPhone’s battery use. But by then, the damage had largely been done, and trust in Apple has suffered as a result.
As for faith in the quality of Apple software, it’s never been more important as the company shifts away from a business primarily propped up by iPhone sales to one revolving more around a software and services ecosystem. Apple is currently battling Amazon in the smart home, Spotify in the music streaming business, and both Microsoft and Google in the laptop market, not to mention its ongoing rivalry with Samsung in the phone market and Google over mobile OS market share.
Yet Apple isn’t dominant in any of those areas, and it often lags far behind the competition due to its high prices. (Granted, high prices are why Apple enjoys better profit margins.) Still, it’s clear one of Apple’s biggest opportunities for growth reside not in selling a number of expensive hardware products to a small base of loyal users, but in convincing more people to use its software and live in the Apple ecosystem.
The new HomePod speaker suffered worse-than-expected sales, one can imagine in part because of the device’s locked down design that keeps it from working well with services other than Apple Music. And Siri is nowhere the ubiquity of Amazon’s Alexa or the quality of Google Assistant. That’s largely because Apple’s approach to artificial intelligence research and data collection put it at a severe disadvantage against the formidable AI organizations of other Silicon Valley giants. In a grander sense, Siri has felt stagnant for years and is often the butt of jokes regarding AI’s lack of sophistication. To help Siri get on equal footing with the competition, Apple needs to overhaul the software and encourage its users to think of it as more than a subpar side project.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom at Apple. The company remains the most valuable on the planet, and the iPhone remains one of the most lucrative products in the entire technology industry. And recent successes, like the excellent first-generation AirPods, prove Apple is capable of designing a best-in-class product out of the gate that completely redefines a category. But as Apple software becomes ever more important to its business, those apps, services, and operating systems will face deeper scrutiny and inevitably carry more weight. At WWDC, Apple needs to be willing to show that it’s taken the criticism it’s endured to heart, or else it faces losing more consumers to Android, Chrome, and Windows.