Putting the WWDC Keynote in Context

This piece will publish early Monday morning ahead of the first day of Apple’s WWDC developer conference. Some of you will read it before the keynote, and some of you will be reading it after Apple has made its announcements. Last week, I shared what I’m hoping to see at WWDC today, but here I want to step back a bit and provide some context for what’s announced at WWDC, in two ways: firstly, by showing which topics have dominated the keynotes at the other major developer conferences this year, and secondly by outlining the topics Apple has spent time on during this event in the past.

Apple’s WWDC Keynotes Have Become More Crowded Over Time

If there’s one pattern that comes out of looking at Apple’s WWDC keynotes over time, it’s that they’ve become increasingly crowded with a growing range of topics to be covered. As that’s happened, some existing topics have been either squeezed out entirely or in more cases have been condensed, with some announcements actually moved out of the keynote entirely and into pre-WWDC press releases or in some cases into later WWDC sessions. The chart below shows how Apple has spent its time during WWDC keynotes over the last four years:

The four new topics that have taken time at recent WWDC keynotes are two new operating systems – watchOS and tvOS – a programming language (Swift), and Apple Music, a new service which was covered in its own right in 2015 but wrapped back into the iOS section in 2016. iOS is actually the part of the keynote that’s been most predictable despite all the other changes, with roughly an hour devoted to it each year for the last three years. macOS, meanwhile, has been squeezed considerably as other new topics have grown in importance, falling from roughly a quarter of the total keynote time in 2013 and 2014 to just a quarter of an hour in 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Cook’s introductory remarks have also shortened considerably. Hardware last made an appearance in 2013, though I’m expecting it to be a theme next week across at least a couple of different categories.

This Year’s Other Developer Events Have Covered Many Diverse Topics

Whereas Apple’s keynotes have largely covered the same topics in different proportions as new areas of coverage are added, the other major developer conferences are nowhere near as predictable or consistent. In addition, each of the other three big events – Facebook’s F8, Microsoft’s Build, and Google’s I/O – have become sprawling affairs, with at least two keynotes each, meaning that the major announcements are now spread across hours and hours of keynote time. I haven’t gone back and done the same historical analysis for those events, but I have broken down this year’s keynotes in a couple of different ways.

The two charts below show first the overall topic breakdown of the various keynotes held at each event, and then secondly the composition of the major first-day keynote alone, which I’d argue is something of a guide as to which topics the companies consider most important.

This big-picture view of the total keynote time at each company’s event is illuminating – the picture looks very different for each player. Build’s time was split fairly evenly across a number of big topics including VR/AR, AI, individual apps, developer tools, and its PC operating system, with Cloud the single biggest topic by time spent. At F8, meanwhile, VR and AR dominated total time spent, with AI, the Messenger Platform, and a variety of other topics including human-brain interfaces taking up the rest of the time. Lastly, Google’s I/O again saw the biggest single block of time spent on AR and VR, almost all of it on VR specifically, while its Assistant was another major focus, and it also spent time on AI, cloud, and Android.

If we look at first-day keynotes alone, we see a different picture emerge again – Microsoft relegated all its operating system material to its second day, while Google gave relatively short shrift to Android, which used to dominate this event, and instead spend lots of time on VR/AR, AI, specific apps, and its Assistants. Facebook devoted nearly half its total first day keynote to VR/AR, mostly to its smartphone-centric approach to AR with some social VR thrown in.

Overall, AR/VR feels like the big winner this year, with significant time spent at all three major events, while AI in its own right was a major focus and also a recurring theme as part of other presentations, with cloud another significant topic at Microsoft and Google’s events. But each of these companies’ developer events is now a mishmash of many different topics, some of them designed specifically for the developer audience and other parts appearing to be more about appealing directly to consumers or burnishing a brand. Indeed, though it’s hidden in the “Other” section in the above charts, each company spent time telling stories that were about being a force for good in the world, often through videos or images.

Context for WWDC 2017

What, then, should we make of all this as it relates to Apple’s keynote this year? Well, I mentioned that AR/VR, cloud, and AI were major focus areas, and it’s very unlikely they’ll be such dominant themes at WWDC. AR might make an appearance – Tim Cook has now been talking about AR for long enough and with enough enthusiasm that it feels like we might be on the cusp of some sort of announcement, likely as part of iOS. But VR won’t likely be mentioned much at all and certainly won’t be the focus of any announcements, while cloud will only be mentioned inasmuch as Apple provides cloud services to help developers create apps for its major platforms, and AI will likely only be mentioned in passing.

Apple, more than any of these other companies, prefers to focus on showing rather than telling when it comes to AI, and will likely spend far more time demonstrating great AI-based features than talking up its AI chops. However, it has seemed to recognize that it’s developed a reputation for being behind in AI, so it may spend at least a little time demonstrating its investment and specifically reinforcing the point that it believes machine learning and AI don’t have to require sacrificing privacy.

Beyond that, it’s fairly certain that Apple will be the only company among these four to devote a substantial period of its keynote to its mobile OS, likely using almost half the time to talk about it as it has for the last several years, while Microsoft’s mobile Windows strategy was entirely absent this year at Build and Google related most of its Android discussion to a secondary keynote. That’s highly symbolic of the relative importance each company places on its mobile platform.

Of course, Apple is sticking once again to a single two-hour keynote, so above all what we’ll see the most of from Apple that has been absent from the other companies’ keynotes is focus. That will mean leaving out some details and hitting just the highlights perhaps more than Apple has ever done before. But it’s also reflective of Apple’s focus as a company, which remains narrower than these other major companies, largely centered on a handful of hardware products and the developer tools and platforms that create value around them. That means Apple isn’t competing in a number of categories the others are, but that in turn also makes it easier to convey its key progress across its business in the course of a single two-hour keynote. It will be fascinating to return to these charts after the keynote is over and compare Apple’s 2017 version with not just its own earlier editions but this year’s other events too.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

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