Apple crammed a lot of announcements into its two-hour-plus WWDC keynote Monday. While there was nary a hint of hardware to speak of, there were oodles of software features announced all across Apple’s family of operating systems and no platform was left behind. MacOS, iOS, and watchOS all saw significant updates, and developers no doubt left the keynote feeling that Apple was back on top of its game following a year of uncharacteristic missteps.
But when the dust cleared and the excitement faded, there was one thing that was sorely missing from WWDC: innovation and originality. While iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches will be loaded with new features come September, none of them are all that innovative. And nearly all of them have been done before.
Now, fans will trot out the old argument that Apple doesn’t do things first, it does things best. That may be true, but I didn’t see anything announced at WWDC that made me think iOS 12 and macOS will be anything more than a collection of long-overdue additions and fan-requested features. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to have them. But there was a reason Apple’s presenters kept asking, “Isn’t that cool?” after a new feature was demoed. Because the wow factor just wasn’t there.
Major features on loan
While there were a slew of announcements yesterday, only a handful of them stood out as being truly transformative: Siri Shortcuts, Memoji, Screen Time, Group FaceTime, and Measure. All of them are catch-up features.
Memoji is an Apple version of Snapchat’s Bitmoji and Samsung’s AR Emoji. Screen Time is basically a mash-up of Google’s Family Link and Android Dashboard. Measure is a copy of Google’s own AR measuring app (also called Measure). Skype and Hangouts have been doing group calls for years. Siri Shortcuts is easily the most original of the group, and even that’s basically a version of Alexa Skills and Google Actions mixed with a little Workflow and IFTTT.
Again, that’s not to say any of these are bad features, and I’ll be the first to admit that they’re all sorely needed on Apple products. (OK, maybe not Memoji.) But even with the new stuff here, Apple hasn’t added much more than a coat of paint. Apple’s design team has done a great job of making the new features in iOS 12 and macOS Mojave look fresh and new, but when you strip away the prettiness, they might be the most unoriginal OSes Apple has ever released. Dark mode is nice, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Even watchOS’s premier feature, Walkie-Talkie, was done on Nextel phones back before the iPhone even existed.
Of course, little of this will matter to iOS users. Just like Android fans have Apple to thank for Nougat’s notifications, Oreo’s badges, and P’s gesture-based navigation, both platforms liberally borrow ideas from each other to fill out their yearly updates. Once millions of people download iOS 12 to their iPhones, it won’t matter which company did what first. All that will matter is how it works.
But while Screen Time in iOS 12 argubly looks nicer than Dashboard in Android P, will it be as useful as it is on an Android phone without user accounts? FaceTime might support more more people than Hangouts or Skype, but do we really need to talk to 32 people at once? And will we really trust our iPhones to accurately measure things any better than a Pixel phone?
And perhaps more importantly: Will anyone care? When bundled notifications make our lock screens tidier and Memojis start showing up in our Message conversations, it’ll all feel like Apple did it first. For millions of users, the features in iOS 12 will feel plenty new, and once we get our hands on Screen Time and Measure, Apple’s ease of use and optimization will make them feel like they were born on the iPhone. Even just looking at the static pictures on Apple’s website, bundled notifications and Memojis look better than they do on Galaxy S9, and really, that’s all that matters.
Great artists steal
While watching the keynote Monday I couldn’t help but notice that the biggest applause came for grouped notifications, a long overdue feature that’s been on Android since version 7. The cheers weren’t for any specific functionality, just for the fact that Apple finally recognized that notification organization is a feature worth stealing from Android.
And maybe that’s iOS 12’s big innovation. Steve Jobs liked to say that good artists copy and great ones steal, yet he vowed to go “thermonuclear” when Samsung copied a little too closely. It’s all a balancing act, and Apple surely did enough to make these features its own. WWDC didn’t need a wow moment to make an impact, and the lack of originality might actually make iOS 12 and macOS 14 better in the long run.
Apple checked off plenty of boxes at WWDC. It might not have had any fresh or innovative ideas to show off, but iOS 12 gives Apple a strong foundation for the future, especially if it’s as fast as Apple says it is. We expected iOS 12 and macOS 14 to be maintenance releases, and in many ways they are, as the clean up the rough edges, right some the wrongs, and add some features that we’ve wanted for years.
Even if Animoji tongues were the only original thing we got.