The madness has been and gone: Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference 2012 begins in earnest today, but the opening keynote has already seen Apple show one of its key strengths in the industry. WWDC is a very different scene from the other high profile events we've come to expect on Apple's calendar. Unlike the iPod, iPhone and iPad launches, and the impromptu Mac revelations, the keynote isn't a stand-alone moment but the gateway to a week of what Apple arguably does best: blend hardware and software together.
Apple's forte in the past few years has been the close integration of its physical devices and the way users interact with them, the consistency of iOS and OS X. While Android, Windows Mobile, and Windows all spread their loyalty across multiple OEMs, Apple's range is a members-only club of which only the Cupertino firm itself has access.
Sure, that can be limiting if the devices on offer don't quite appeal to you - if you want a large Android phone and none of HTC's appeal, then Samsung, Motorola or plenty of others will likely have something instead; if you want a bigger iPhone then it's tough luck - but Apple's blockbuster last few quarters and surging sales numbers would seem to suggest it's not struggling to find buyers. Not for nothing is the iPhone, iPad and MacBook the de-facto suggestion among many tech aficionados when asked to recommend a straightforward device for a less-geeky friend or family member. "It just works" may be a cliche - and sure, there are still the occasional crashes and glitches - but the consistency makes for a straightforward learning curve for new users.
[aquote]Giving Google any greater footprint on the iPhone is unnecessary[/aquote]
So what of WWDC 2012? A key theme this year was independence, though nobody at Apple refered to it specifically. Just as the rumors suggested, Apple further cut its dependencies on Google in the shape of a homegrown Google Maps alternative; the search giant has made great strides with Android, and the feeling inside Apple seems to be that giving it any greater footprint on the iPhone is an unnecessary accommodation.
Meanwhile, Facebook support has been integrated heavily within iOS 6, an olive branch to the social network after Apple picked Twitter for its iOS 5 social push. Make no mistake, though, this is Facebook integration on Apple's terms, and Mark Zuckerberg may well find that in supplanting the functionality of the Facebook iOS app with native methods, Apple in fact wrests back some of the control around how phone and social site play together.
Hardware independence is a little trickier: Apple's software engineers can cook up new code far easier than they can construct, outfit and productively run a semiconductor fab to replace that of Samsung, for instance. It'll take a few more generations before Apple is in a position to shed its excess reliance on its Korean arch-rival. You can bet that plans for that are on the long-term roadmap, though - Apple already designs its ARM-based chips, after all - and the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display shows Apple at its finest: cherry-picking the best and combining it into a device that makes rival notebooks look frankly archaic.
Even with baby steps on that journey, though, the tight structure of Apple's software ecosystem - complete with legions of developers, a tiny subset at WWDC this week, all operating for the most part happily within the company's rules and guidelines - gives it no small strength in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace. That's an enviable position to be in, and one which presents a considerable challenge to Microsoft, Google and others moving forward.
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