Wishing Well 2023

It has already been a busy year for Apple, and the company has not yet held a single presentation. Just two weeks into the new year, it launched new Macs and a refreshed HomePod, followed by some services updates, and new iPad software. All of those things — and more — were launched via press release instead of the full power of a real demo. They are all things which do not require much of a demo.

What Apple is rumoured to have in store for WWDC, however, demands the pomp and circumstance of one of its signature events.

The rumour mill paints a picture of a headset in the company style. The hardware is allegedly a technical masterstroke.1 But none of that is very interesting, nor does it tell the story of this product. Apple has not tried to quell the rumours and expectations leading up to Monday; on the contrary, it is marketing the conference as a “new era”. The single thing everyone will be asking going into this WWDC is what a mixed reality headset can do when it is developed by a company famously obsessed with the bigger picture.

Earlier entries in the field have come from the usual suspects, with familiar results. Google’s Glass was an interesting but antisocial experiment. Microsoft spent most of 2022 attempting to convince HoloLens users of the future of the device, but announced layoffs in January which affected its augmented and mixed-reality pursuits. Meta is as enthusiastic about these kinds of products as it is institutionally visionless.

The one thing these products have had in common is their lack of a use case that piques the interest of more than a niche audience. Make no mistake: this will disappoint anyone expecting a product which immediately and obviously usurps the iPhone’s place as the go-to, do-anything device for a billion people. I do not think it will feel as capable as a Mac, either, nor do I think it will be as limiting as an Apple Watch.

What it will be, undeniably, is fascinating. It could very well represent a vision of the future of how we all use computers, though it may not be immediately so at its introduction. But even if you lower the massive expectations for this product, it is at the very least a new Apple product category, which is inherently interesting. It may not be a company making just four Macs, but its product line still is not very large. Another category appearing in the main navigation on Apple’s website is a big deal.

Whatever it is, it will also likely represent the kind of product which few of us will buy immediately, even if we want to. If the rumours are correct, the price tag will make our eyes pop, the features will feel somewhat limited, and the hardware — while powerful and polished — will be obviously compromised. While many of us are waiting for a day many years from now when this category feels more attainable, we will be using our existing devices — two billion of them. If much of Apple’s own attention has been directed at the future, what does that mean for its here-and-now lineup?

This is an honest question, not just a rhetorical one. As Apple’s operating system line has grown from one to at least five — more if you count the HomePod’s audioOS and BridgeOS for Macs with T-series chips — the limitations of scale have begun to show. New versions of iPadOS oscillate between key feature updates to fundamental parts of the system, like multitasking, one year, and tepid improvements the next. iOS is a mature platform and, so, it makes sense for there to be fewer core feature updates, but one wishes the slower development cycle would bring increased stability and refinement; actual results have been mixed. MacOS is the system which feels like it ought to be the closest to some imagined finish line, but it also seems like it is decaying in its most core qualities — I am having problems with windows losing foregrounding or not becoming focused when they should. Also, why are Notifications still like that?

Whatever the future may bring, what I hope for this WWDC is what I hope for every year: bug fixes and performance improvements. If iPadOS represents one vision for the future of computing and xrOS is another, more distant one, the most mature products in Apple’s line should reflect a level of solidity and reliability not yet possible for its more ambitious ideas.

I believe coverage of its event should reflect that, too. As magnetic as an entirely new Apple product may be, I hope that can be balanced with scrutiny of the updates which affect the billions of devices already in use. After all, these operating systems and devices go hand-in-hand; neither is available without the other. That represents a great deal of trust between vendor and customer in a weakly competitive market. As excited as I am for what is new and what is next, I know my world for the foreseeable future will be tied to what is announced for the products I already own. They are the tools I use for work and play. I need to have confidence in them, which has been dimmed by Apple’s mediocre record for changes. I filed an average of something like three bug reports every week last year solely from a user-facing perspective. I would love to be able to close some of those and, by doing so, feel like the computers I use today are a solid foundation on which the next generation of digital environments will be built.

  1. Like some kind of reality distortion field. ↥︎