Behind the glitz at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference

From the media you’d get the impression that Apple conferences are all glitter and glamour, filled with new hardware and gadgets inspired to make people shell out yet more cash on their latest toy. Well at the current Apple Developer conference, known as WWDC15 (Worldwide Develop Conference 2015), the reality is very different.

The media gives us the impression that Apple is all about hardware devices, and any public event should be about the announcement of a new iPhone, iPad, watch or something else. However, WWDC is about developers – those who write the third party software and apps that run on Apple’s platforms. It’s about their ecosystem, and how that serves their customers.

In nearly 30 years in tech I have attended numerous technology conferences and events. WWDC is different. Firstly, it’s the most professionally run event I can remember – everything runs just like clockwork, and no detail has been overlooked, from the vegetarian meal options to the precise timing needed to get between sessions.

The first day’s keynote is, of course, the media rock-star event where Apple really outlines its high level direction and software announcements. This is followed by its ‘State of the Platform’ address which immediately delves deeper into key new technologies being unveiled in the next generation of its operating systems. The first day ends with an awards ceremony for the best third party Mac and iOS apps from their ecosystem. No hardware announcements.

But the news of the day that most media picked up on was the announcement of Apple Music, the evolution of iTunes into a streaming service. Great for consumers and awesome for independent bands and artists but not of much interest to the core attendees – developers.

The rest of the week is about in-depth technical sessions on everything from how to build apps for the next versions of watchOS and iOS, to best practice for privacy and security in your apps. They also run ‘hands on’ labs with more than 1000 Apple engineers onsite to help developers solve problems or improve their apps. 

The sessions are highly professional, deeply technical, and packed with information, techniques and guidance on how to embrace the Apple platforms and maximise the user’s experience with your apps. Every session I have seen has been packed, with developers participating and applauding when some new technology or tweak is revealed that will make their lives easier and their apps better. But there is very little sensationalism or ‘fan boy’ attitude – this is business, these developers are here to learn more so they can create better apps, and maximise their use of Apple’s platforms, tools and ecosystem.

Personally, and for us as a Kiwi mobile-first development company, WWDC has been a great investment and will pay off as we build our product roadmap out, and see better ways to leverage the capabilities of these great devices for our iOS app users.

There are a few outstanding new advances announced at WWDC which are worth highlighting for their importance:

iOS 9 Multitasking on iPad
Apple has made major enhancements to iOS 9 for iPad that will allow users to run apps side-by-side on their iPad. This split-view paradigm will greatly improve user experience and productivity for iPad power users.  This requires app developers to do a bit of tweaking of their apps to make it work but, more importantly, they should optimise their apps specifically to ensure they behave well on cpu, memory and i/o, as they’ll now be sharing that with other apps.

watchOS 2 Native Apps
Barely 6 weeks after shipping Apple Watch, they are releasing a major update to the watch operating system. WatchOS2 now allows apps to run natively on the watch (in version 1 the app mostly ran on the iPhone and pushed visual components to the watch). This means that watch apps can run when the iPhone isn’t in range, and are now truly first class citizens. They will also run much faster and avoid the lag that occurs sometimes over the bluetooth connection between phone and watch.

Mac System Integrity Protection
For OS X, Apple has introduced new security technologies and policies that further lock down an app’s ability to modify the operating system. This significantly ups the level of protection for users, and will help maintain Mac’s reputation for being pretty much impervious to viruses and windows-style malware.

User Interface Testing
One of the great challenges for software developers is to be able to accurately test their software’s user interface. This is especially hard on mobile devices. Modern techniques for automated testing are great for underlying software but the UI is always a challenge. Apple announced a major breakthrough technology for UI testing in the next version of its Xcode developer tools. This makes it surprisingly easy for developers to create automated tests for their app’s UI, and will lead to much more reliable and better tested apps. 

An interesting and very Apple-like thing it has done with this is to build it on its Accessibility technologies, which help the visually impaired use their software. Apple has created great capabilities in iOS for the visually impaired but has sometimes struggled to have developers take the time to implement it fully in their apps. By building such a great developer-empowering tool on top of accessibility, developers will now have a huge incentive to make their apps more accessible, which is great for everyone.

Strategic Competitive Differentiation
Apple is really laying out a key strategic difference between itself and its competitors like Google and Facebook, and that difference is privacy.

Google and Facebook have a common business model – they are advertising companies. Everything they do is essentially funded by connecting advertisers to highly targeted users. To successfully target users, they need as much information about them as possible. So to feed their highly sophisticated algorithms, they suck up all the data they can. If they are good at it, which they obviously are, they make unbelievable amounts of money, which they use to do all their other stuff. Essentially, they mine and sell your information to advertisers, albeit they don’t hand the data over, they just leverage it to target you. And that is why things like Facebook and Android are free – you pay but the currency is your privacy.

Apple has taken the opposite approach. It doesn’t give stuff away free, you have to pay, and because of that, it doesn’t need your data. In fact, it doesn’t want it. Sure, it will provide you with the appropriate data services and backups and so on but they don’t mine it. 

At WWDC it is increasingly obvious that Apple is positioning itself as the safe place for your data. It  spent a good deal of time this WWDC drilling into developers that you should only store the bare minimum data you need on a user for your app and, as soon as you don’t need it, you should delete it. Apple’s recent Macs, iPhones and iPads all have special hardware designed for data security and privacy. Even Apple can’t read your secure data – things like your fingerprints for TouchID on iPhone 5S and later are stored in a special secure hardware ‘Enclave’ on the device and cannot be read or retrieved by anyone.

I see a war emerging on this front. Apple when you pay for services and get privacy, and Google/Facebook where everything is free but you pay with your private information. It will be interesting to see how consumers react. Do they care? Tim Cook has called privacy a ‘basic human right’ bu,t as with so many human rights, we happily trade them for convenience or lose them through ignorance. Which price are we willing to pay?

Richard is CEO of Cloud M