Apple just completed the keynote of its annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, and it was a stunner. While some casual observers will question why no new hardware was rolled out at the event, this reflects a misunderstanding of the event — and of innovation, as well.
More than anything, WWDC is for developers, the creators of software that actually make the latest device worth buying. There are always previews of the consumer side of new operating systems for mobile and desktop, of course (this year, mainly focused around passing information from iPhone to Mac, photo sharing and integrating various bits of health data), but the event at its core is about the longer-term future. It’s about showing the tools and frameworks that could be made to build the next Uber or Airbnb.
And on this front, Apple delivered to a degree that was nothing short of breath-taking. The company demonstrated a new graphics layer called Metal that offers graphics performance within a breath of what the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can do on the iPad. They offered so-called extensibility, allowing multiple apps to talk directly to each other to make multi-tasking more useful and interesting.
Most important of all, they introduced Swift, a new programming language for iOS and Mac that radically simplifies coding. This means novices can learn to make apps more quickly, and that experienced ones can increase their efficiency and experiment more. It comes with a coding interface called Playground that allows for visual previews of what you’re coding to appear as soon as you finish typing it — making clear the often murky cause and effect relationship between code and outcomes that newbies often struggle to grasp (myself included).
The reason this is a big deal is not because I might finally learn to code (though I might) or because experienced app developers will be able to update what they’re working on quickly. What makes it exciting is what happens when kids raised on Swift begin launching apps built from the ground up to take advantage of its advances. In software, at least, there are no longer-term bets than new languages. Objective-C, which Swift is intended to replace, was first created in the early 1980s, but it didn’t pay dividends for Apple until the middle of the last decade.
Swift isn’t innovation that will increase revenue today or tomorrow. But it is the sort of innovation that ensures the company maintains its most important competitive advantage — its devices are easier and more fun to create apps for than the competition. It allows developers to focus more on what they’re making than how they’re making it, giving Apple’s users first-to-market and best-to-market experiences that are extremely hard to knock off.
There’s been a lot of speculation since Steve Jobs died about Apple’s ability to continue innovating. With Swift, it’s safe to say the DNA is alive, well, and kicking. And because it’s “just a programming language,” it will be ignored by pundits until it blossoms into the next big computing platform.