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Apple WWDC Announcements a Mixed Bag

Two major themes struck me from the annual Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) Apple held last week.

First, the ennui around mobile and smart devices continues, as we're still in a period of incremental improvements with only a few truly new ideas and some potential blockbusters mixed in. Apple developers were enthused by Apple's latest moves, but industry reaction was more muted.

Second -- and this is more of an aside than anything -- one of the requirements for reaching Apple's executive ranks must be having really great hair. See for yourself:

With one head of great hair after another taking the stage, Apple once again put on a beautifully orchestrated keynote that, as usual, outclassed any others in the industry. Of course, if you're in the consumer products business, looks are important, and just about everything Apple announced from the keynote stage at WWDC was decidedly "consumer."

Apple led off the keynote (watch here) with a smart, funny video about a worldwide apocalypse occasioned by the loss of access to apps -- perfect for an audience of developers. But, as I mentioned, with the exception of a few gems scattered throughout, much of what Apple announced can be categorized as "incremental." (Someone should let the Apple marketing crew know the more you cite advantages like "X% faster" or "Y% brighter," the more you're screaming "incremental!")

Here's a look at some of the product enhancements.

Besides learning that more cartoon characters will join Mickey and Minnie as Apple Watch face options, we did find out that Apple is adding some intelligence to the Siri Watch face. Some enterprise wearers might even find these of benefit. The Watch face will now feature a button to activate Siri and the ability to present different information throughout the day. These notices can include next appointments and other customized information based on machine learning (ML).

Separately, Apple is expanding the watch ecosystem, and will allow the watch's activity monitor to exchange data with gym equipment, interface to glucose meters and surfboards (to measure wave height), and even analyze your tennis swing.

On the Mac front, Apple made some announcements, but not the big one -- no talk of a touchscreen Mac. What it did say is that it is calling the next-generation MacOS "High Sierra" (the current one is Sierra, so I guess that's Apple's way of saying, "Don't expect much").

Probably the biggest improvement will be in Apple's Safari browser, which will automatically block those annoying videos that pop up in an increasing number of Web pages (you can click if you actually want to view them) and an intelligent tracking prevention function. More important for enterprise users is the fact that Safari will now be getting WebRTC capability, though the full details are not entirely clear. And Apple also made a point of touting Safari's performance advantage, particularly in comparison to Chrome.

From Machine Learning to Messaging

When you get past all of the hardware nonsense and frivolous features, the really big news was Apple's embrace of ML -- which it needs if it hopes to close the gap with smarter systems like Amazon's Alexa -- and augmented reality (AR). For example, Siri will be getting a translation function (English to five other languages initially) so your iPhone can act as a translator when you travel.

What's more, Apple will be opening up these capabilities to developers with ML tools like Core ML, SiriKit, and, for AR development, ARKit. That Apple made moves around ML and AR shouldn't be too much of a surprise given all the buzz around these emerging technologies and the fact that they are first taking hold in the consumer space.

In addition, Apple promised some important enhancements for iOS 11. First, the Messages app will include a person-to-person payment function, a challenge to payment services like Venmo. Siri will be getting a more expressive voice (not that I could hear much of a difference), and a male voice option.

For contact centers, the biggest piece of news will be Business Chat (view the video here in Safari or through the WWDC app), which Apple will add to the Messages app next year; the capability is available to developers now. Apple snuck this news in last week outside the keynote forum.

Essentially Business Chat is a platform that will allow businesses to communicate and engage with customers through their contact center or CRM systems. It will provide a persistent chat capability through Messages that will interconnect with Safari, Spotlight, Siri, and Maps. A company will be able to add a website button, accessible through Safari or Maps, for initiating chats. The user will be able to make one-click choices and send pictures or videos to describe a problem. If a purchase were to ensue, the buyer would be able to use Apple Pay.

With Apple's focus on privacy, it is putting the customer in control of all Business Chat communications. The customer will have to initiate the chat, and the business will initially be provided with an "opaque ID" (along with the language and region) until the customer chooses to divulge more information. Businesses must be registered with Apple, and already Genesys, Salesforce, and LivePerson are on board.

While Business Chat will primarily serve a business-to-consumer use case, I'll be watching to see if it will be usable in for business-to-employee communications, too. In this case, Apple would essentially be opening Messages the same way CallKit opened the iOS native dialer to VoIP and mobile UC developers. In any event, Business Chat will allow contact centers to deliver a far richer and more integrated interaction experience for iOS users.

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