Apple unwraps streaming service, adds intelligence to iOS and OS X

Apple unwraps streaming service, adds intelligence to iOS and OS X

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, and a small crowd of his underlings touted the next iterations of the company's mobile, Mac and wearable operating systems before an exuberant audience of developers and unveiled Apple Music, the company's new streaming service.

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, and a small crowd of his underlings today touted the next iterations of the company's mobile, Mac and wearable operating systems before an exuberant audience of developers and unveiled Apple Music, the company's new streaming service.

Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote focused on software -- the weeklong buffet is for developers, not customers -- and for the second straight year passed on delivering a side order of hardware: A revamped Apple TV, once expected, did not make an appearance.

Instead, Apple hammered on the software and service side, trumpeting improvements in the former and introducing a new service. Early in the event, Cook highlighted native apps on the Apple Watch, which until now has limited those to Apple's own. "We're bringing native apps to the Watch with a new version of the WatchOS," said Cook.

But the most compelling part of the two-and-a-half-hour presentation was strictly for consumers, not developers: Apple Music.

"We do have one more thing," Cook said near the end of the keynote, when he announced the US$10-per-month music streaming service, essentially a rebranded and revamped Beats Music, which Apple acquired last year as part of the US$3 billion deal for the headphone maker Beats Electronics.

Record producer and label owner Jimmy Iovine, who joined Apple -- as did his partner Dr. Dre -- as part of the Beats purchase, stepped on stage for the first time at a company event to introduce Apple Music. "The music industry is a fragmented mess," Iovine said. "Can we build a bigger and better ecosystem?"

Apple Music will be a single app where a customer's entire music collection will reside, but will also provide access to an on-demand backlist catalog leaning on the human-curated playlists that Beats made popular if not profitable. "Algorithms can't do that emotional task," argued Iovine.

Also part of Apple Music: Beats 1, a global digital radio station, and the ability of any artist, even those without record deals, to participate by offering up content.

The latter, said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research, was one of the things that may distinguish Apple Music from its streaming competition. "This could be a place where artists stick with," said Dawson, throughout their careers, first as unknown musicians, then known, then, if they're lucky, famous. "Apple Music is unique in that respect."

iTunes purchases and established playlists on iOS and OS X devices will be automatically integrated with Apple Music, said Eddy Cue, who heads Internet software and services, and manages the company's music business. Cue demonstrated the new app, walking through the various components and features of Apple Music, including integration with Siri to call up tracks, genres, tunes from a specific year or those played on a film's soundtrack.

Apple Music will launch June 30 on iOS, OS X and Windows in more than 100 countries -- on Android and Apple TV this fall -- for $9.99 a month, $14.99 for a family plan of up to six, after a three-month free trial.

Dawson and others gave Apple a solid shot at unseating the current leader in paid subscriptions, Spotify.

"[Apple Music] will be installed on hundreds of millions of Apple devices," Dawson said. "And the three-month trial is generous. If only 10% of the Apple device user base subscribes, it will already have more subscribers than Spotify."

"I think Apple has a built-in advantage," echoed Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Apple has so many different points of marketing, including all their retail stores and on all of their devices. But they are coming into the market late."

For those who don't care for music -- the few, the far, the in-between -- or who have committed to another streaming service, Apple had other news.

Craig Federighi, who leads OS X and iOS development, unveiled the upgrades to iOS and OS X, which will be less about massive revamping and more about polish. Both are to be seeded to registered developers today, with public betas in July -- a first for iOS from the get-go of a new edition -- and a final release this fall.

OS X, now tagged as "El Capitan," will be the successor to last year's Yosemite. Federighi again demonstrated his comedy talent by returning to last year's spoof of how the name came to be, showing a blurred image as he touted the marketing team's "Bare-bottom Friday" attire, or lack thereof.

El Capitan, as expected, was selected because the new edition is less a revamp and more a polish of Yosemite. "We wanted to build on the strengths of Yosemite," said Federighi. "So the name came from within Yosemite."

"There was a certain symbolism there. This is an incremental upgrade," said Dawson, who cited the 2009 naming of OS X Snow Leopard, following Leopard from two years earlier. The former also lacked a large number of visible changes but focused on performance and stability.

Federighi blew through a few demonstrations of El Capitan's new features, saying that the upgrade would offer changes to Spotlight, the baked-in search engine; enhancements to Apple's first-party applications; and improved windows management, including a new split-screen mode.

He also boasted of performance increases in El Capitan, including underlying architectural improvements such as "Metal" -- which landed on iOS last year -- to significantly boost graphical rendering and reduce battery life on graphics-intensive applications and games. Metal will replace OpenGL on the Mac for those chores.

The free upgrade to El Capitan -- now standard for Apple -- will launch this fall.

iOS 9, the annual update to Apple's mobile operating system, will feature some of the same polish as El Capitan but will also promote new functionality, Federighi said.

Siri, the iOS digital assistant, will try to catch up with Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana in that it will offer proactive suggestions and notifications. For example, Siri will remind an iPhone owner to leave for an appointment based on traffic conditions, just as Google Now does currently.

iOS 9 will also include a new API (applications programming interface) open to third-party developers, who will be able to tap into the search bar and serve up suggestions.

That "proactive intelligence" -- the phrase Federighi used -- will also extend to within apps. Plugging in headphones, for instance, automatically launches the Music app.

Dawson called out the intelligence angle as one of the important themes to this year's WWDC keynote. "The common theme was intelligence, whether more in Spotlight on the Mac or the more intelligent Siri on iOS."

Unlike its rivals, Siri looks only at data on the device, not data stored in the cloud, pledged Federighi. "We do it in a way that does not compromise your privacy," he said, repeating Apple's oft-used criticism of Google by asserting that his firm would not mine email or photos for use elsewhere on its platforms.

As with El Capitan, iOS 9 will make changes to some of the native Apple apps, including Notes -- sketching with a finger will be new -- and Maps, the two-year-old replacement for Google Maps, which got the boot from the first-party list. Support for public transportation, a long and loud request, will debut in Maps on iOS 9.

Federighi also touted News, a new app for iOS, initially for the U.S., U.K. and Australia only, that will serve as Apple's take on Flipboard and Facebook's Instant News. The personalized news will be delivered in formats that evoke the original -- a New York Times piece will look enough like one from the paper's own app that it's distinguishable -- and includes embedded videos.

Newsstand, Apple's former attempt to collect, if not collate, publications, goes away, replaced by News. Apple did not spell out how a media outlet gets onto the News aggregation app, or what those publications get out of the deal.

In iOS 9, the iPad will get some special attention, with improved keyboarding and a new multi-tasking role that features full-screen previews of running apps and a split-screen mode -- called "slide-over" by Federighi -- that was very reminiscent of Microsoft's Windows 8.1 (and Windows 10) on the Redmond, Wash., company's Surface Pro 2-in-1. Like Windows, iOS 9 on an iPad will offer either 50-50 or 70-30 splits.

Another new multi-tasking feature will be picture-in-a-picture, where a video watched in full screen shrinks to a smaller size within another app when the latter is called up.

iOS 9 will support all the devices able to accept iOS 8 last year -- as far back as the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, both from 2011, both now discontinued -- without dropping the oldest, as has been the practice. "We want everyone to get iOS 9," asserted Federighi.

Cook circled back from his first moments on stage to announce native apps for the Apple Watch. "For us, this is a giant moment," he said, comparing it to 2008 when co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs laid out the App Store, the iPhone's stab at third-party apps. Apple dubbed the software upgrade "watchOS 2."

Outside developers will also be able to craft their own "complications," the watch industry term for the small widgets that show on a face along with the time itself, and prime real estate on the dinky screen.

With watchOS 2, users will be able to reply to email from the device, and fitness apps will be able to run natively on the Watch, not just on the partnered iPhone. Developers can also access more on the Watch, including its microphone, speaker, accelerometer and the Taptic Engine, which provides haptic feedback analogous to a tap on the wrist.

WatchOS 2 will, as with iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, ship to developers today, and release as a free upgrade to all Watches this fall.

"From the developer perspective, watchOS 2 is a huge deal," said Dawson, "as it will make third-party apps much better."

A replay of Monday's WWDC keynote can be viewed on Apple's website.

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