Apple WWDC 2017 updates: another adblocking hurdle; all-new App Store; plus HomePod

Highlights unveiled at Apple's WWDC 2017 also included AR features plus new hardware / Apple

Apple hosted its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this week where it debuted a host of updates such as: software features including an adblocking update to Safari; a new look App Store; plus a smart speaker HomePod; as well as additions to its desktop and iPad range.

An 'intelligent' adblocking feature

Apple was keen to trumpet updates to its macOS High Sierra including improvements to its storage and graphics updates, but it is the Intelligent Tracking Prevention enhancement to its Safari web browser that will most concern media professionals.

The initial Apple statement explains how the upcoming feature will employ machine learning to enable users of its desktop Safari web browser to “open articles in a clean, uncluttered format, while Autoplay Blocking stops media with audio from automatically playing in the browser.”

During his keynote address to WWDC attendees, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering said the move was not one to arbitrarily block ads, but protect users’ privacy.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said the update is about protecting privacy / Apple

He added: “You know sometimes you go to read an article, and instead of finding something to read you get this?

“Just some loud audio and video that autoplays and disrupts you’re whole reading vibe. Well, now don’t worry about it because we have autoplay blocking in Safari.”

Federighi went on to explain how it detects sites that “shouldn’t be playing video and puts you in control... You can always push play.”

This means that those companies using third-party trackers to target, serve and (subsequently play ads) to desktop Safari users based on their browsing history will be blocked, as the update will remove said data.

“Safari uses machine learning to identify trackers, segregate the cross-site scripting data, put it away so now your privacy — your browsing history — is your own,” added Federighi.

A blog post attributed to Apple employee John Willander further explains how the latest Intelligent Tracking Prevention technology works, see more here.

While the latest update is currently confined to desktop, it is likely to add to the recent adblocking hurdles posed by Google-owned Chrome. To put the scale of the challenge into perspective, Safari has a 15% market share of the desktop browser market, while Chrome’s is close to 60% according to W3C data.

Commenting to The Drum, Jeff Hasen, mobile strategist at Possible Mobile, mused on the potential problems it would pose should it be extended to the iOS operating system of Apple's wireless devices – where its share of the web browser market is much higher.

He added: “It is logical to believe that given the choice, some mobile users will elect to separate themselves from brand messages. The numbers in the US, at least, say that smartphone owners have yet to make that decision. In fact, despite the availability of multiple enabling sources, 94% of mobile ad blocking happens in Asia-Pacific.

"Will any of this change with Apple’s next version of its operating system? We need to know more, especially if and when the announced desktop functionality will make its way to iOS."

The all-new App Store

Another highlight of WWDC included a comprehensive overhaul to Apple's App Store, which will include original stories and editorial content updated daily in a new Today tab, as well as new Games and Apps tabs.

Editorialized content included in the new look store will also include in-depth interviews, and app recommendations from its staff. The new look App Store will launch in beta later this month, and will also contain updates on app discovery including sections such as: Today; App Product Pages; as well as a new Updates and Search functions (see image above).

With Apple having paid out over $70bn in payments to app developers since its launch in 2008, the updates will pose the circa 180 billion iOS app owners with new challenges when it comes to showcasing their wares to Apple device owners.

However, the latest updates contained no information on whether or not this will affect its recently launched paid for search function within the ultra competitive marketplace.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said: “Together with our incredible developer community, we’ve made the App Store the best app platform in the world, and more than 500 million unique customers visit it every week.

“Now, we are taking everything we’ve learned from the App Store over the past nine years and putting it into a stunning new design. Every element of the new App Store is richer, more beautiful and more engaging.”

Apple HomePod

In addition, Apple also highlighted its much anticipated smart speaker Apple HomePod, a device powered by its voice search service Siri, and contains advanced content discovery features.

Apple’s smart speaker is designed to integrate with its subscription service Apple Music, providing users with access to a library of over 40 million tracks, and also has sensors that will automatically adjust the audio output to provide the optimal listening experience (see video above).

For instance, the voice search service function will let users say: ‘Hey Siri, I like this song’, and HomePod and then Apple can learn their preferences (dependent on the classification of the track). These are then used to update their profile, and subsequently power future searches of its music library.

Apple also maintains that its new voice-powered device “provides deep knowledge of personal music preferences and tastes and helps users discover new music”, and can also let users query the musicians playing on certain tracks, as well as compose playlists using the Siri feature.

Additionally, HomePod also acts as a “home assistant” allowing users to send messages, get updates on news, sports and weather, or control smart home devices by simply asking Siri to turn on the lights, etc, with such services also available via an app which can be installed on a user's iPad or iPhone.

“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” added Schiller.

HomePod will be available starting in December, initially in Australia, the UK and the US (where it will cost $349).

The launch will represent Apple's latest move in the connected home sector; one which has thus far been dominated by Amazon's Alexa in 2017, with comparisons between the two now inevitable. The resulting tussle for the hearts, minds (and user data) of consumers between the pair (as well as other market rivals with a similar offering) is likely to be a key area of interest in the latter half of 2017.

iOS11 update preview

Elsewhere, Apple also previewed updates to its upcoming operating system update for iPhones and iPads iOS11, which is scheduled for the final quarter of 2017. Features include multitasking functions with the Files app, more ways to use Apple Pencil, as well as Augmented Reality features.

Additional functions include: the ability to pay friends using Apple Pay; Do Not Disturb while driving to help users stay more focused on the road; even more intelligence and a new voice for Siri; as well as new professional capabilities to Photos and Camera.

Other updates announced during the WWDC keynote series were additions to its iPad and Mac desktop range, as well as Apple Watch updates see here for more details.

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Sean Larkin

All by Sean