WWDC 2012: Apple’s show satisfies, but is it saving real fireworks for later?

June 13, 2012

Every year, Apple developers flock to what amounts to their Mecca — the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), held in San Francisco.

For a week, Apple takes up residence in the Moscone Center (a massive set of convention spaces) and holds a series of engineering sessions, workshops and even an awards show. It’s where developers go to renew their faith — and they usually leave spreading the gospel.

The whole thing kicks off with a big keynote event, where Apple talks about its recent successes and what products developers should be getting excited about for the future. Not surprisingly, the rest of the world really likes this part of the conference, too.

On Monday, company head Tim Cook and other executives took to the stage at Moscone West and introduced a number of new products and new software to the cheering crowd. As with most Apple events these days, rumors and speculation had run rampant prior to the event, so many of the announcements were expected — but others were a surprise.

On the list of expected developments, Apple showed off the latest version of the Mac OS X operating system (nicknamed Mountain Lion), and the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6.

Interestingly, Mountain Lion seems far more influenced by iOS than the other way around, boasting a new “notification center” that lets you see messages, alerts and updates from applications, integration with Messages (Apple’s mobile message app) and deeper connections to online services like iCloud and Game Center. The company has also brought Facebook and Twitter sharing to OS X, making it easier to beam your activities into the wide, waiting world.

Apple has also tweaked its security on application installation, including a new product called Gatekeeper that allows apps to be digitally signed, meaning Apple can keep track of where they come from and whether or not they’re from a trusted source. You can also use the software to limit where your apps come from, which will probably make developers who are still independent from Apple’s OS X App Store a little more likely to climb on board.

On the mobile side, the next version of iOS won’t be so much a revolution as an evolution — a process Apple has gotten pretty comfortable with over the past few years. This time around, the company has made somewhat of a big gamble in parting ways with Google, which it had previously partnered with on Maps in the core operating system.

Apple has made huge investments in its own mapping service, as well as strategic partnerships with companies like TomTom (the GPS maker) to deliver its own map experience in iOS 6. The new service will function much like Google’s version, though it won’t go feature for feature in every area. Apple has created a breathtaking new 3-D map view that it calls Flyover, which is more pretty than it is useful, and will include turn-by-turn driving directions natively that can be triggered by Siri — the much-advertised virtual assistant.

Siri was another area where Apple showed off improved functionality, including new features like sports scores, movie ticket purchases and restaurant reservations in the beta software. And the company added new apps as well, including an odd pouch for plane boarding passes and movie tickets it calls Passbook.

Overall, however, iOS 6 won’t feel very far away from the previous version — which left some people at the show wondering what Apple might have up its sleeve come the fall, when it’s expected to release the next iPhone. I would venture to guess that we haven’t seen everything the forthcoming OS is capable of.

The biggest news at the show actually did come on the hardware front, however. The company not only updated its entire line of portables (the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro notebooks), but also introduced a new, shockingly different model of the MacBook Pro that includes a super-high-resolution Retina display.

The creatively named MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a 15-inch screen with a mind-boggling resolution of 2880 x 1800, and top-of-the-line CPU and storage specs to match. The device is thinner than previous versions and has a whole new array of ports (though not an optical drive).

In person, the screen was as breathtaking as the new iPad’s display was when I first laid eyes on it. It certainly puts the competition to shame by orders of magnitude. But that shame-inducing hardware comes with a price: the new laptop starts at $2,199 and goes up from there.

Still, for professionals who need horsepower and a lot of screen real estate, it’s hard to ignore the innovative new laptop. Even though it’s somewhat of a niche product right now, it signals what’s ahead for Apple. Thinner, lighter and faster — with amazing screen technology, too.

Apple has become very much a company of consistency over the past decade. And one element of that consistency stands out among the rest: its unique ability to make the competition look like yesterday’s news.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

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