For Apple, it's all about platforms now

For Apple, it's all about platforms now

Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is one of the company's most important events -- for two good reasons.

First, Monday's keynote is the closest Apple CEO Tim Cook and other execs ever get to showing a public roadmap for the company's hardware, operating systems and services. That makes this a much more important event than any of the Apple product announcements, including the release of new iPhones and iPads each fall, because it delivers a peek at Apple's vision for the future. The WWDC keynote showcases the breadth of Apple and, increasingly, that of its increasingly integrated platforms.

I use the word platforms rather than OSes or products because Apple has become less a hardware company, less an operating system developer, and less of a digital app and content vendor over the past couple of years. It has instead become a platform company that integrates a diverse set of technologies into a choreographed digital experience that extends across its mobile devices, desktop and notebook Macs, Apple TVs, and third-party hardware to meet the needs of its users.

Second, WWDC is the annual event at which Apple delivers guidance and training to developers about how to make apps and accessories that work with any and all new technologies the company plans to release. The audience includes those lucky enough to be among the 5,000 attendees as well as those that can view all the WWDC from home or office, almost in real time.

It's easy to make the case that Apple's continued success flows from its fanatical pursuit of simplicity, its premium hardware, its aesthetic or even its incredibly impressive supply chain. There is truth to each of those arguments. But there's another ingredient in Apple's secret sauce -- its incredibly passionate, devoted and very talented developer community. Most of Apple's successes, including the iPhone and iPad, are in large parts due to its developers. Engaging, inspiring, and training them is a very big deal for Apple, particularly if it is going to launch or compete in whole new product categories.

These two points are key to what I expect Apple will talk about on Monday and bring to market in the months ahead: an integration of devices, data and apps in a coherent form and on a scale of which we haven't seen in the mainstream electronics and technology markets. It will be Apple's first play to the Internet of Things and it will rely on pieces that Apple has been putting in place, for the most part right under everyone's nose, for the past few years.

There are several announcements expected (or hoped for) during the Monday keynote (which begins at 1 p.m. ET):

An Apple-designed smart home or home automation system.

An iOS 8 app designed to aggregate fitness and medical data across a broad range of categories, including metrics for tracking and managing chronic diseases.

A potential expansion of the capabilities of Apple's in-dash CarPlay system that could include wireless rather than wired connectivity and may clarify how Apple will choose apps available through the CarPlay interface as well as expand the list of allowed apps.

Advances in Apple's location and navigation services that will likely include mass transit data as well as indoor positioning technologies, perhaps leveraging Apple's iBeacon platform.

A next-generation Apple TV with greater capabilities and possibly its own app SDK and marketplace.

Official acknowledgment of an iWatch, if not substantial details about it.

New, larger iPhone models and the addition of Touch ID to all future iOS devices.

A refreshed iMac lineup at lower prices than current models.

Looking through that list, there's a consistent thread of solutions that aggregate data or content from varying sources and make it actionable on the part of users.

A home automation and media system, for which Apple just filed a patent application, would be a logical extension of the current Apple TV. A device connected to a home network that supports wired network, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity could aggregate a vast array of smart devices from light bulbs to deadbolts because it encompasses the handful of technologies used by the manufacturers of such products. A single interface, in this case likely a new version of an Apple TV that is more of an appliance than an iOS device -- or even a desktop Mac -- would be a great solution for a single point of control and offer a unified interface for users. Such a system could also rely on Apple's iBeacon support as a mechanism for automating home functions based on proximity to an iOS device as well as broadcast data to users.

The idea of aggregating wellness, fitness and medical data into a single device would likely rely on a similar convergence of technologies. Although there are rumors that Apple is building a sensor array into an iWatch that could handle everything from activity to blood glucose, blood pressure, respiration and even sleep tracking (Samsung is also developing such a device), there's already a range of connected devices that people use to collect this data. Among the devices already in use are various activity trackers, Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure cuffs and glucose monitors and Wi-Fi enabled scales. In addition to building its own hardware, Apple could attract a great many more users by accepting data from these devices -- and it would allow Apple to build mind share and market share before an iWatch comes to market.

Apple has already expanded on what location services can do with iBeacons. Integrating iBeacons in the home or in a variety of professional and commercial settings allows for a great deal of context-awareness on the part of iOS devices, particularly as the range and capability of beacon hardware expands. Combine that with the location data already available to iOS devices, indoor positioning systems and much improved map capabilities and you have an immense level of context for iOS devices to use. Apple could either use the data on it own or pair it with other technologies involving home automation, health or fitness data capture, CarPlay and services like iCloud. (This also plays into an area Apple has long been expected to make a move: mobile payments.)

What's it all mean? You can think of this Apple experience as an omnipresent Apple platform or infrastructure. Like most platforms, the real power and innovation isn't going to come from Apple alone, but from developers who would have access to an infrastructure that extends far beyond iOS and OS X. If this is, indeed, the course Apple is setting, then it will do more than create new product categories or disrupt existing industries.

It will transform how we live.

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