San Jose Mercury News
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a race to catch up with its competitors, Apple on Monday unveiled a smart home speaker and numerous software updates emphasizing artificial intelligence at its Worldwide Developers Conference.

During its marathon two and a half hour keynote speech, Apple repeatedly touted its AI and machine learning capabilities across all three new operating system updates. Following Microsoft, Facebook and Google, which all emphasized artificial intelligence at their annual developer conferences, Apple threw its own hat into the AI ring, heating up the competition in Silicon Valley.

Apple's new voice-controlled home speaker, called the HomePod, is its challenge to Amazon Echo and Google Home in the smart home assistant space. Directly compatible with Apple Music and Siri voice assistant, Apple is relying on its superior acoustics and ease of use to woo customers away from competitors.

The home speaker, the first major new Apple product since the Watch was unveiled in 2015, was the highlight of a flurry of announcements that ranged from a new iOS, a 10.5-inch iPad Pro and a new lineup of Macbook Pros and iMacs. More than 5,000 developers from around the world are expected to attend the five-day conference, which includes educational sessions and hands-on labs.

"It's great to be back in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley and right down the street from our new campus," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in his opening remarks. "It's been 15 years since we held WWDC in San Jose, and an awful lot has changed. But one thing hasn't changed and that is our commitment to our developer community and to do really amazing things."

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, unveiled the HomePod and took shots at Amazon Echo, Google Home and other competitors.

"None of them have quite nailed it," said Schiller. "Some make smart speakers, but they don't sound as great."

Schiller said HomePod was a smart "musicologist" at home.

Some Apple watchers say HomePod's comparisons with the Amazon Echo are unfair.

"It was reported last week as this Amazon Echo killer, but in reality it is more a smart music speaker," said Brian Blau, Gartner's research vice president who specializes in Apple.

HomePod, which comes in either black or white, will start shipping in December at $349, nearly twice the price of the Amazon Echo.

In an operating system update, the new iOS 11 includes a revamped Siri voice assistant that offers language translations and completes a much wider array of tasks that can be personalized based on the user. Siri will also come in new voices, both male and female.

The new iOS comes with a redesigned App Store app and control center, a new "Do Not Disturb While Driving" feature that blocks notifications for drivers, and a slew of features for Photos, including snapshot stills from videos and the ability to convert videos into GIF-worthy loops. Its new person-to-person payment, where iPhone users can pay each other on the Messenger app, drew a huge round of applause.

"Today, we are going to take the world's best and most advanced operating system and turn it up to 11," said Cook. The update will be available in the fall.

Similar to iOS 11, watchOS 4 saw major changes with Siri as its focal point. Apple created a new Siri-focused Watch interface, which personalizes notifications based on the user's behavior at different times of the day. For example, Apple Watch would surface traffic and exercise notifications for early morning workout warriors.

Market analysts were largely impressed by the breadth of updates.

"Very different WWDC than what I expected," tweeted Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. "Way more hardware than I thought or (have) seen over past years."

Blau was also impressed by Apple's "pretty strong offering," especially on the AI end.

"Apple's the last of the big 5 (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook) to reveal something about AI, but only by less than a year," Blau said. "Now all the tech titans are engaged in AI technology."

Apple also had a series of hardware reveals. Apple announced a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro with a slimmer side bezels, increasing the screen size by nearly 20 percent. The new iPad Pro's iOS 11 comes with a drag-and-drop feature, a new macOS-style dock and a new Files app that helps organize photos, videos and documents. The iPad Pro is shipping next week at $650.

In addition, Apple unveiled a new lineup of MacBook Pro and iMacs, which have more processing and graphics power than previous iterations. It also gave a sneak peek for a new iMac Pro, which comes in space gray rather than the traditional white, and is "the most powerful Mac ever made."

In front of thousands of developers, Apple's announcement of ARKit, a developer kit that allows mobile developers to create augmented reality apps, drew raucous reactions.

Augmented reality has been long seen as the new frontier for Apple. Many market analysts offered long odds of Apple discussing augmented reality because it was so nascent. But with the ARKit reveal, Apple encouraged developers to create the next "Pokemon Go" or Snapchat with the goal of making the iOS "the largest AR platform in the world," said Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering.