WWDC 2014: Tim Cook's Apple comes into its own

cook waves
Credit:Apple

Under Tim Cook, Apple's thinking differently.

Reflecting on all the news from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this week, I find myself remembering a moment from last year's keynote: After announcing the new cylindrical Mac Pro, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller said "Can't innovate anymore, my ass."

The comment was a jab at Apple's critics and jilted fans, who have been saying the company had lost the ability to innovate, disrupt or create product categories, and predicting that Apple was more or less headed for irrelevance after the death of Steve Jobs.

Since then, we've heard Tim Cook say on many occasions that Apple would move into new areas and release a range of new products and services during 2014. We got a peek at some of those during Monday's keynote.

The keynote and the stories that emerged from WWDC throughout the week, however, represent the first real look into Tim Cook's Apple that we've had. There are three positives that stand out about the kind of company that Apple is evolving into under his leadership.

A focus on the long-term 

One of the biggest takeaways is Cook's focus on the long term. Many of the technologies unveiled on Monday were years in the making.

The most obvious example is Apple's new programming language Swift, which has been an ongoing project for years, but one that helps position Apple for the future. Swift could potentially expand the ranks of its developer community by making iOS and Mac development easier for newcomers.

Another is the evolution of Bluetooth low energy (BLE) into all manner of products and services. Prime examples include iBeacons; HomeKit and HealthKit for integration with a wide range of third-party devices; the Handoff feature that lets users shift tasks easily between iOS devices and Macs; AirDrop; and iOS 8's automatic hotspot feature that tethers a Mac to an iPhone without user interaction.

Apple adopted BLE in the iPhone 4S three years ago, but today we're seeing the value of the technology throughout Apple's ecosystem.

The expansion of location services is also a long term play for Apple. The company may have fumbled its first foray into navigation with its Maps app two years ago, but it has vastly improved Maps since.

Apple has also expanded the idea of location services. iBeacons as a proximity technology is one example, but a session at this year's WWDC showed that Apple plans to allow developers to tap into the M7 co-processor introduced in last year's iPhone 5s to create indoor mapping and navigation solutions. This is a huge long-term play that compete directly with Google's Project Tango and indoor positioning systems that rely on things like Wi-Fi infrastructure, iBeacons, RFID tags, and magnetic footprints of buildings to deliver indoor location data.

Building HealthKit itself took Apple assembling the right team of experts and getting key healthcare organizations like the Mayo Clinic and EPIC (one of the country's top health IT vendors and electronic medical records developers). This is a platform that, if successful, could revolutionize medicine and ensure Apple is an ongoing player in both the mobile health and health IT movements.

These are all efforts that have been going on in the background because they weren't things that Apple could put together quickly. And they are all forward thinking. These developments also position Apple for the immediate and long-term future.

The most important thing is that this strategy indicates that Cook is willing to take the heat from pundits and critics in the short term, if it means ensuring long-term success for Apple, which is a excellent quality for anyone in a leadership position.

Taking down the curtain - just a little

One of the biggest differences about WWDC this year from the past is that Apple is letting developers talk about the technologies they spent the week learning about -- at least within certain limits. In the past, attendees were barred by NDA from discussing their experience at all. This year, Apple let down the curtain that surrounds WWDC and its future products a bit.

Although there is still an NDA, it now allows developers to talk about things announced or shown off by Apple. That may seem like a minor change, but for a company that has been shrouded in secrecy since Jobs returned to it nearly two decades ago, it represents a significant shift. It's also worth noting that for the second year in a row, Apple streamed the WWDC keynote live this year, allowing the public access direct access to at least part of the event.

This is one example. Another from earlier this year was Apple's decision to publish detailed security data about iOS. The information was largely intended to provide greater visibility for enterprise customers, but the entire world got to see the layers of security Apple has built into its mobile platform and understand how they function.

Less need for total control 

One of the hallmarks that Apple under Jobs (and Jobs himself) was a need for near-total control. That was particularly evident in many of the ecosystems that Apple developed under Jobs. A great example is the closed ecosystem represented by iTunes, the iPod (and later the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV), the iTunes Store.

Apple has always controlled all three pieces in that ecosystem and rarely allowed any other company to integrate into it, the Motorola ROKR iTunes-enabled cell phone being the one major exception.

WWDC this year is all about Apple creating new ecosystems, particularly with HomeKit and HealthKit. What's striking about both of those is that Apple, rather wisely, is building ecosystems around iOS 8 without really building any product or service that's a part of them. It really just built the APIs and offered them to developers and connected device manufacturers. Those third parties, particularly the device makers, are going to be the ones building the ecosystem.

To use a construction metaphor, under Jobs Apple designed the blueprints for a house and then built the house. Under Cook, Apple appears to have a much more background role, as though Apple has drafted the idea and some drawings for a house, and now other companies will turn those ideas into blueprints and build the house.

Another, perhaps even more distinct difference between Apple under Jobs and Cook is iOS 8's support for third-party virtual keyboards, an idea that would've left Jobs apoplectic if someone would've suggested it.

It's very unlikely that Apple will ever go anywhere near making either iOS or OS X as open as Android, but the fact that the company is stepping outside of its über-controlled comfort zone will likely be a good thing for the company and its customers.

The big innovation of Apple is Apple itself

It was obvious that Cook would put his own stamp on Apple. It's been widely reported that Jobs even insisted that Cook do so, rather than trying to make decisions based on what he thought Steve would do if he were still here.

We're finally starting to see Cook do this, and the results appear to be a nuanced but positive shift towards an Apple that's a bit more open and more engaged with its customers. At the same time, the forward-looking strategies Cook is putting in place are very reminiscent of Jobs' passion for making "a dent in the universe".

To me, that implies that under Tim Cook, Apple will be different, but it will likely still be Apple. In some ways, it might even emerge as a better Apple.

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