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WWDC 2014: Apple's Not-So-Secret Plan To Keep You Hooked Forever

Jun 2 2014, 5:12pm CDT | by

One of Tim Cook’s oddest affectations is his affinity for the phrase “customer sat” when he’s speaking publicly. As the man in charge of the world’s most valuable company, his use of corporate-speak is strangely at odds with his plain-spoken style. But its clear Cook obsesses over it — the term refers to customer satisfaction — likely beyond everything else. When Apple overhauled its mobile operating system last year, it took a lot of criticism for iOS 7′s new look and feel. But here was Cook, on stage a year later, touting a 97% “customer sat” with iOS 7. In other words, only 3 in 100 people that use the software don’t like it, according to third-party surveys.

Clearly, Cook’s smile indicated, Apple is doing something right. But in the competitive world of mobile electronics, something isn’t necessarily enough. And to that end, Apple’s 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference was about a suite of new technologies Cook might well have labeled: Ways We’re Going To Turn That Satisfaction Into A Lifelong Obsession.

It’s been 13 years since Steve Jobs touted Apple’s Mac as a digital hub at the center of your world. Since then, the importance of the computer has waned as more and more data has migrated into the cloud. Apple wasn’t first to embrace that shift, nor has it always been perfect in its efforts. But it’s clearer than ever that it sees a future in which your data may be out there — mostly on Apple’s own servers — and that your “remote control” for that data will be an iPhone.

Today, it announced HealthKit, an interface developers can access that allows apps and devices to not just track your movement but also to monitor your vitals. What started out as simple fitness tracking is now becoming an early-warning system doctors can use to catch an unexpected spike in blood pressure or perhaps even a missed medication dosage. As with all things Apple, there are some critical aspects here. First, third parties will make this succeed or fail. The Mayo Clinic showed off an app, but this only has significant impact if doctors, hospitals and insurers get on board, recognizing the benefits of real-time data gathering and transmission.

Second, privacy is at the forefront. None of this works if people aren’t willing to allow the information to be collected and Apple will bend over backwards to ensure people know what that data is and where it’s going. And third, this is the kind of thing only Apple can do. Because it controls the hardware and software on the phone, it creates an environment where blood pressure devices, glucose meters, pulse oxygen readers, et al. can be reliably certified and trusted by medical practitioners. The fact that 89% of users of iPhones are on iOS 7 doesn’t hurt either. There needs to be as much a common platform as possible for this tech to work. Nothing is stopping Samsung or Google from offering similar services, but a lot is stopping them from having the success Apple likely will in garnering adoption.

The same is true of the other major new functionality Apple talked up today: HomeKit. Automation of the home has been talked up for decades, but only recently has moved into any sort of usage outside early adopters. Still, configuring devices and making them work across vendors is often inscrutable — if not impossible. By designing a standard and bringing control to the iPhone, Apple creates the possibility for ubiquity. Today, the Nest Thermostat (now owned by Google), the Philips Hue lighting system and a few other products already work with the iPhone. Don’t be surprised if within 2 years, there are thousands of products that do, all of which allow control from a single app. Here again, Apple won’t need to build everything; it simply needs to provide the protocols that allow it to all work.

Today, people already rely on their smartphones as calendar, navigation aid, photo library, et al. In Apple’s vision of the future, your iPhone will be so much more, watching over your well being and your domicile. But in the more immediate present, Apple is doubling down on the idea that once a customer enters its orbit, it should capture it for good. The new integration between Macs and iOS devices offers a unified look and feel but also what promises to be seamless integration. On the Stark Trek TV series, you’d regularly see someone hand a tablet-like device containing something they’d been working on at their “desktop”.

It was as if the very document was magically alive on the other device such that a fellow crew member could look it over, sign off on it, and have the original change just like that. This fall, you’ll be able to do it on Apple devices. And it’s much more than document sharing. It’s the ability to pick up work right where you left off whether you’re on a Mac, an iPad or an iPhone. No doubt, the decision to unify the fonts and translucent textures were part of Jony Ive’s vision of making these transitions appear completely seamless and natural.

They also mean  you’ll have more reason than ever to buy an Apple product once you own any other. As will your family members. In almost a throwaway moment, Apple announced you can now share purchased music, movies and apps with up to 6 people — so long as there’s one credit card linking the iTunes accounts. (It also improved parental controls to keep Junior from spending money without permission; allowing real-time yes-no acceptance of his attempted purchases.)

Jobs saw this future when Apple rolled out MobileMe before iCloud. And he saw how terrible Apple’s first go was in pulling the plug on MobileMe soon after. In the Cook era, Apple has struggled to get this right too. The first effort at storing your photos in iCloud was a mess, causing more confusion and support requests from people I know than anything Apple has done in years. Apple’s rigid insistence on not supporting plain old document files in iCloud also confounded many. With the new iCloud, that all goes away — at least in theory. Apple is, in a sense, learning tricks from old nemesis Microsoft, which famously got it right the third time on much of its software. If true, perhaps the next iteration of Maps will be truly outstanding as well.

Being Apple, it also likes to do things at its own speed. The annual release cycle gives people — and developers — time to adjust to the changes it chose to deliver and sets the stage of anticipation for the next round of them. Last year, TouchID only allowed you to unlock the phones or buy apps; this year is can begin a final assault on the password. Apple said nothing about its rumored mobile-payments initiative today, but don’t be surprised if initial support comes only in the newest iPhones and from first-party software. Maybe next year developers can get a crack.

“You’ve seen how our operating systems, devices and services all work together in harmony,” Cook said. “They provide an integrated and continuous experience… This is something only Apple can do.” He said this the same day Apple cracked open its “closed” environment in the most significant way since iOS launched, allowing new widgets, third-party keyboards and apps to modify the OS itself (a “share to Pinterest” function, a “save to Evernote” button). But he’s right, this is a capability unique to Apple and if all goes according to plan, those “customer sat” scores will rise even higher as people come to rely on their iPhones for more than ever in the coming years. The puzzle still has missing pieces, but for Apple, the plan continues to come together.

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