I didn't expect any "game changers" during the keynote presentation at last week's Apple (AAPL) Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and I wasn't disappointed. But I was nevertheless impressed. The products announced -- all useful next steps for Apple -- were only part of the story. The most important product on display was Apple itself. After months of falling stock prices and countless media comments about Apple's lackluster recent products, it was time for CEO Tim Cook and company to show the world that Apple has a bright future.
As I watched the event on my computer (I was on the East Coast and unable to attend in person), I got the sense that this might be the first real post-Steve Jobs era Apple keynote. It wasn't the first major Apple show-and-tell since Jobs died in 2011, but it was the first time that I sensed that Cook and his entire team were truly in charge. For one thing, we saw a new Apple executive emerge. Craig Federighi, who, along with Jobs, came to Apple in 1997 when it acquired NeXT, was occasionally funny and always on task, reinforcing the impression that Cook has a strong bench with both technical and marketing chops.
Apple's senior vice president of industrial design, Jony Ive didn't grace the stage in person, but he did star in a video about the new iOS 7 operating system for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Ive, who is credited for designing much of Apple's recent hardware, played a major role in the design of iOS 7. In the video, Ives said that "True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absences of clutter or ornamentation," and added that "It's about bringing order to complexity."
It was Federighi who described the details of iOS 7, a completely re-skinned version of the operating system that maintains most of the current functionality with a whole new look, including new icons, new typography, new color schemes and translucent screen images.
My favorite new iOS feature is the Control Center, which allows users to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get immediate access to settings such as turning Wi-Fi on or off, adjusting the volume, brightness and other settings. You can also use Control Center to access a timer, flashlight and camera settings.
Not everyone on stage was unfamiliar to frequent Apple watchers. Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, who's been with Apple in various management positions for 20 years, showed off Apple's new MacBook Air laptops and -- in an unusual move -- previewed an upcoming product that's not in the immediate pipeline. It's a radically redesigned Mac Pro, the high-end desktop PC that's used as a professional workstation for graphic artists and others who need extensive computing power. The new machine, which is a fraction of the size of the machine it replaces, has a cylindrical shape and impressive horsepower, far beyond the needs of most computer users. It features a 2-core Intel (INTC) Xeon E5 CPU, flash storage, and support for up to three 4K displays. After showing off the new PC, Schiller, using rather unusual language for a product keynote, rebuked Apple's critics by proclaiming, "can't innovate anymore, my ass."
While the Mac Pro will appeal to a small number of power users, my favorite product was the new MacBook Air with "all-day battery life." In fact, I liked it so much that I bought one the next day and am writing this column on my new $1,299 13-inch MacBook Air with 256 GB of solid-state storage and 4 megabytes of memory (the 11-inch version with 128 GB of storage starts at $999).
While the ultra-light and thin machine seems a little peppier than the previous model, the biggest selling point -- to me -- was the extended battery life. Schiller said that the new 11-inch MacBook Air will run for up to nine hours on a single charge, which is a big boost from the previous claim of five hours. The 13-inch Air is advertised to run for 12 hours, compared to seven hours for the previous model. I've only used my 13-inch MacBook Air for a little more than four hours so far and, according to the meter, have about 50 percent battery life left. My experience is about on par with Laptop magazine's tests where the battery lasted nine hours and 34 minutes of "continuous Web surfing on 40 percent brightness." That's less than Apple's claims, but like gasoline mileage in a car, actual results always depend on usage factors.
I'm still waiting for the game changers that the Apple CEO promised when he was onstage last month at the All Things Digital conference, and I'm also waiting to learn more about the new product categories that he hinted about at an Apple quarterly earnings call in April. In the meantime, Apple users will at least get to enjoy the incremental improvements that the company announced last week.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.