Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference focuses on catching up and differentiation

The keynote that opened Apple’s (AAPL) Worldwide Developers Conference (June 4 through 8) walked a tough balancing act between admitting that Apple needs to catch up with competitors in some areas (Poor Siri) and introducing stuff that will differentiate Apple from the herd.

Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, is the big catch up project. No one doubts that the company trails Amazon and Google now after blazing the path. The focus at the conference was on Apple’s continued efforts to open up Siri so that developers will add new features to the assistant so that it will actually do something. For example, developers will be able to use a new Shortcuts app to develop an entire workflow that begins with a simple command. “Heading home,” for example, might pull up GPS directions, set the home thermostat, send an alert so someone at home has mixed your drink and set out your slippers, and even turned on your favorite afterwork news, talk, or music. Opening up Siri is a big deal. With an estimated 20 million developers around the world interested in writing apps for Apple products, getting that crowd excited could close the distance between Siri and Amazon’s Alexa very quickly.

But Siri wasn’t the end of catch up. Apple is adding the ability to group FaceTime with as many as 32 Facetimers at once. ARKit 2.0, the next generation of Apple’s development software for augmented reality on the iPhone provides improved face tracking, more realistic rendering, 3D object detection, persistent experiences and shared experiences, and a multiplayer component. Just in time, I’d say, as Google keeps pushing the augmented reality envelope.

There’s Memoji, Apple’s answer to Bitmoji, the app that Snap spent $60 million to acquire. Memoji will allow a user to create a customized avatar (like on Bitmoji) but this will will be an animated emoji like Apple’s Animoji that moves around as you move your head. (It will also stick out its tongue if you stick out yours.) All user created.

There’s a long-overdue overhaul for the Mac App Store, the store for apps for Apple’s computers. The Apple App Store has had its redesign and now the Mac App Store gets one. Finally.

And, finally, CarPlay, the company’s car-focused operating system, will get the ability to support third-party apps like Google Maps and Waze. This is a way to get users a little more interested in using CarPlay.

Now on to those efforts (some silly and some very important) to differentiate Apple from competitors.

New features to show up in the next generation operating system for the Apple Watch will include new workout types like yoga and hiking, challenges for friends, and automatic workout detection. All this is an effort to position the Apple Watch as the best fitness tracker on the market. And then there’s a new Walkie Talkie feature for the Apple Watch that let’s you talk into your watch like, well, like a walkie talkie.

Apple introduced Dolby Atmos audio to Apple TV and is making it easier to sign on in Apple TV.

And the biggest news on either the catch up or differentiation front: Apple went after Facebook (and to a lesser extent Google) full bore on the issue of privacy. The Safari web browser will show a pop-up window asking for user permission to load share buttons from social networks like Facebook (FB) and it will share a “simplified” user profile with visited websites to make it harder for advertisers to create a “fingerprint” to track the user across sites. Along with the new Screen Time app, which helps users cut back on their device use (demonstrated at the conference using Facebook’s Instagram), Apple’s immediate goal seems to be to differentiate itself from its peers on “privacy” after Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data breech. Apple’s new ITP2 anti-tracking technology, works by segregating cookies dropped by websites so that they can only be read by that specific website. Advertisers won’t be able to use those cookies to aggregate a user’s browsing across every single website on which it runs adds. With the launch of ITP1 last year, segregation of cookie results only kicked in 24 hours after a user visited a specific website. That meant the technology had almost no impact on Facebook and Google, and YouTube, since users visit those sites repeatedly so that the 24-hour grace period never expires. With ITP2 there’s no grace period. ITP2 would also work to level the playing field between Apple, which doesn’t do this kind of data aggregation across sites and Facebook and Google who do in the artificial intelligence race. Aggregation gives Google and Facebook massively more data on a user to feed into an artificial intelligence engine to produce predictions on user preferences that are valuable to advertisers. It’s certainly possible to build artificial intelligence agents that don’t use aggregated data but it is slower and more expensive. But if no one has access to the data…

The June Worldwide Developers Conference focuses on software and operating systems. The hardware dog and pony show comes in the fall.