Apple Tells Developers It Still Wants to Be Different

Posted June 4, 2018 10:45 p.m. EDT

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At its annual conference for developers on Monday, Apple reminded the world that it is very much a software company, with a new version of the operating system that runs the iPhone and the iPad and an update for the software that runs its Watch.

The company also displayed a more methodical approach to its many technology updates, while hewing to a theme that company executives have been talking about for some time: It cares about privacy and whether technology is becoming too much of a time waster.

The most notable new feature in the next version of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS 12, is called Screen Time, a tool to help iPhone customers manage the time they spend on their devices.

The feature, which will be available this year, shows you a dashboard of apps you regularly use and the amount of time you tend to spend with them. You can also add limits to how much you use certain apps: For example, you can give yourself an hour a day to spend inside Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing app. Parents will also be able to use Screen Time to place limits on how their children use their iPhones.

The announcement was a bizarre one: A company used one of its biggest events of the year to showcase new tools that help customers use its products less.

But the move is most likely shrewd. Apple depends on customers buying its devices, not spending lots of time on them. Apple is pitching the tools as evidence that it is putting its customers’ interests first — and that if people are worried they are addicted to their smartphone, the iPhone is the device that will help them.

The new tools are also a shot across the bow to Silicon Valley’s other big tech companies, like Google, Twitter and particularly Facebook, that depend on users spending more time with their services.

Apple’s move is also not happening in a vacuum. Silicon Valley has faced early signs of a reckoning over tech addiction, including an open letter to Apple from the investment firm Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The letter urged Apple, whose shares were up just below 1 percent on Monday, to $191.83, to research the health effects of its products, particularly on children.

Will this be enough to help people curb their addiction? Presumably, if you set a limit for yourself you will be able to easily remove the restriction and continue using an app like Instagram when you run out of time.

If anything, the feature will certainly make people more mindful (and perhaps ashamed) of how often they use certain apps and encourage them to put their phones down.

— Apple says it is different about your privacy, too.

Apple took another swing at Google and Facebook with tools that sharply diminish their ability to track users as they surf across the web.

Apple said that by default its Safari browser would disable tracking software that advertising companies like Facebook and Google embed in websites to track users’ activity across the internet. The software is often embedded in tools to share, comment or “like” content on third-party sites.

To share an article directly to Facebook from a news site, for instance, users of Safari will need to manually allow the software to track them. Apple said it would also make it more difficult for companies that track users using a different technology, known as fingerprinting.

As the world wakes up to the sheer amount of user data that tech companies have collected over the years, Apple is doubling down on its bid to be the privacy-focused tech firm. Unlike Google and Facebook, which rely on user data to sell ads, Apple’s main business is selling devices to consumers, so its focus on privacy has become a central selling point.

Apple said it would also restrict third-party developers’ access to more data on Mac computers, a nod to the scandal over how a Facebook developer enabled the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to improperly harvest the data of millions of Facebook users.

— The Apple Watch gets a throwback feature.

The Apple Watch’s latest operating system has a nifty throwback to an old technology: walkie-talkie. “You press to talk, and your friend can hear your voice — just like a walkie-talkie,” said Kevin Lynch, Apple’s head of Watch software.

The feature works only with users who opt in — I need your approval to send you a walkie-talkie message — but it is striking for the way it improves the Watch’s best feature, letting users stay in touch without having to use a phone.

There were also a few new features for activity monitoring. The new software will automatically start tracking a workout even if you did not tell it you were working out. And it has a new way to let you compete with friends. For instance, you can set up a weeklong exercise competition between you and a friend.

But all this requires waiting. The new OS will be available for the Watch later this year, through a software update.

— Changes to address software speed.

Apple’s head of software, Craig Federighi, opened the event with the introduction of a new mobile operating system, iOS 12, an update that he said was focused on speed.

“For iOS 12, we are doubling down on performance,” he said. The update increases the speed for many important features of iOS, like the camera app and keyboard. In Apple’s testing, apps launched two times faster in iOS 12 than in the last system.

By highlighting speed, Apple is addressing a common complaint among owners of iPhones who feel that their devices seem to slow down after every new upgrade. Keep in mind that last year, Apple came under scrutiny amid revelations that it slowed performance of older iPhones with aging batteries.

The new operating system will work with devices as far back as the iPhone 5S from 2013.

— Apple’s update strategy put on display.

This five-day software conference illuminates Apple’s revised software strategy. In the past, Apple updated each new version of iOS on an annual basis with a long list of new features.

But recently, the company announced to employees that it would revise its strategy to a two-year cycle. In other words, next year, you can expect iOS 13 to have a barrage of new features. In the following year, iOS 14 will focus on improving those features. Rinse and repeat.

However, Apple does not appear to be slowing down the pace of upgrades for the Apple Watch, a much younger product. Each version of Watch OS has introduced significant changes to the way the watch works. Apple’s allocation of resources to the watch shows that the company is treating the wearable computer as the post-smartphone device.