June 11, 2012 at 9:43 AM ET
Much of the buzz surrounding Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco has been around maps, and how Apple will cut the remaining cords from Google Maps by launching its own highly visual map service. Maps are great, but you know what else is great? Email. Also, photos.
Though Apple has made it further than any rival in bringing a serious mobile-desktop hardware-software ecosystem together, there are plenty of holes in it, and what is there doesn't always work together seamlessly. Apple execs will talk about a lot of things when they take the stage today. What I'm most eager to hear about is what steps the company will take to glue it all together — before the competition learns from the iGiant's mistakes.
Don't get me wrong, I am happy to share all of the news with you as I cover it live here on the Gadgetbox blog and on Twitter at @wjrothman. You may be drooling over the prospect of new MacBooks, or hoping for TV-sized apps that run on the $99 Apple TV box. Maybe you're just looking forward to a new set of features for the iPhone or iPad you already own. Most or all of that will likely be announced, so by all means tune in by 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern.
But Apple's biggest concern should not be offering more shiny objects. Right now, the biggest email service on iPhones is Google's Gmail. And iPhone users are most likely to share photos via Facebook or Instagram (recently purchased by ... not Apple). And while Apple's own Safari for OS X has fans among Mac users, the biggest threat to Internet Explorer is Google's Chrome browser, which syncs across computers, tablets and phones — and runs great on Macs.
Apple has two or three legs up in the content business, but the iTunes Match cloud music service still feels like it's in beta. Also, I have yet to hear an argument for buying iBooks (compatible with all Apple-built hardware) over Amazon's Kindle books (compatible with all Apple-built hardware, plus nearly every other computer, phone or tablet you might own).
What does this mean for the upcoming keynote? We should see lots of smallish features that help tie everything together — the mortar between Apple's shiny bricks. The rumor mill has much of the upcoming iOS 6 covered, and Apple revealed plenty in its spring announcement of the next OS X, 10.8 a.k.a. Mountain Lion. In fact, Mountain Lion promises to eliminate many of those stupid scenarios where you pull out your phone while sitting in front of your computer.
Here's how the stuff you use will change — or ought to:
Browsing, reminders and notes - There are rumors that a new version of Safari will have tabs that sync across iCloud, meaning what you've got open on one device can be readily viewed on another. The Mountain Lion preview already includes the ability to create reminders and notes that sync across devices as well. On top of this stuff, there needs to be a send-to-my-phone sort of feature, that lets you shoot anything from the Mac to an iPhone or iPad without batting an eye. The Share Sheets feature in Mountain Lion is likely to be where this would happen, but I have not seen it yet.
Mail and messages - In truth, Apple doesn't need to win your heart with an @me.com email address, it just needs to get you hooked on iMessages. Bringing Messages to the desktop (and fixing some of the bugs in the system) means never having to turn elsewhere to keep your conversations going. Until Facebook has an actual decent mobile messaging system, or its own smartphone platform, iMessage will be huge.
Video - One of the nicest features of Mountain Lion is the ability to send any video from the computer to the Apple TV box or other AirPlay device, allowing you to mirror what you see onto a big screen. This will be mostly used by people who own an Apple TV but don't get all their video from iTunes — currently a small population, but one that could grow. (You can already send video from iPads and iPhones to an Apple TV.)
Music - Let's face it, Apple has the music business sorted out, at least better than any other company out there. What they need to do is to improve the back end of its iTunes Match cloud service. Right now, when you use it, it skips songs and even just refuses to play, even when you're in a Wi-Fi network with lots of bandwidth. It's still an early adopter thing, but as someone who regularly reaps the benefits from it, I can say that it's worth the extra investment.
Photos - Apple phased out its MobileMe Gallery, and didn't really introduce anything in its place. Photo Stream is a personal photo back-up system; it's not for sharing. And while the new Journals option in iPhoto for iPad and iPhone is an attractive way to share photos, it's about building an album, not tossing up a photo or two, like people usually do. Also, Journals have yet to be introduced to iPhoto for the Mac.
To tell the truth, I'm a little worried that Apple is backing away from photo sharing, as it appears to be increasingly integrating Flickr into its software. But I will hold out hope, at least through to the end of the keynote, that the company is planning some new, awesome way to share photos on the Internet.
Social networking - Further integration of social networking is nice, and I welcome the rumor that Apple will include Facebook sharing straight from iOS and possibly Mac menus. I use the native Twitter integration on the iPhone a lot, particularly with photos. But is that giving too much weight to these outside networks? I suppose Apple has no choice, with no hope for a social network of its own. Maybe the company should buy Twitter.
The biggest threat to Apple may end up being Microsoft, all over again. Google rolls out features that individually trump Apple features, but the overall package is never as promising. Amazon and Facebook are challenging Apple in their own ways, but they are both so far from having a credible competing hardware-software ecosystem, they will be seen as supporting characters for the time being.
But Microsoft has so many users that even if only a fraction of them bought into Windows 8, it would rival the Mac user base. And in addition to its new strategy, that blurs the computer, tablet and phone together, there's also the Xbox, a cloud-connected HDTV entertainment console that lives in millions of homes already. Try as Google might, it can't seem to find hardware success beyond the phone, though to be fair, Microsoft will have to start selling more phones if it's ever going to cause quaking in rival boots.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but rest assured that relationship has zero impact on my commentary.)
I bring all this up so that we can focus not just on the toys, but on this whole ecosystem concept, which industry observers say really is what separates the winners from the losers. Apple has a head start on everybody else, but if it doesn't take steps to patch the holes in its Mac/iOS iCloud/iTunes ecosystem, it will risk losing customers to competitors who work harder at harmonizing.
Bonus reading: Jesus Diaz's piece at Gizmodo about what to expect from the upcoming keynote.