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Editorial: The subtexts of Apple's WWDC keynote

Monday's much-anticipated WWDC keynote was Apple's most crucial presentation in years. AAPL stock has fallen 37 percent over nine months. Android has grown into a monstrous competing platform, differentiating along the lines of lower cost, variety of devices and appealing operating-system features. In this sharp-elbowed environment, Apple has been widely accused of losing its innovation mojo, and of over-reaching with premium product concepts and prices, in what is increasingly viewed as a commodity tech category.

Facing an audience of developers whose businesses depend on Apple's continued success, especially in the mobile realm, the company's keynote mission was not only to excite buzz around new products, but to establish clarity around the company's mission, values and key competitive advantages. Did it succeed?

The WWDC keynote is always targeted to two audiences: the platform developers who are starting a weeklong immersion in Apple software, and consumers (including press) who want to know what Apple devices are going to look like in six months. The keynote must keep developers hooked into Apple's value as a business partner, and keep all other observers hooked on Apple's upcoming gadget candy.

This year's WWDC keynote was expected to reveal details of the next iOS version, and updates to other products. The presentation did both. Equally important was the underlying messaging. Seemingly offhand, but carefully crafted one-liners made laser-sharp separations from the Steve Jobs era, especially regarding skeuomorphic design philosophies that define iOS 6 artwork. Sharp digs drew appreciative laughter. Most of those came from Craig Federighi, SVP of software engineering, who demoed previews of Safari and iOS 7. "We just completely ran out of green felt, and wood as well," he remarked when displaying the next version of Game Center. "That's got to be good for the environment." The live video stream cut to a shot of Al Gore, who appeared to be hanging on every word.

Editorial The subtexts of Apple's WWDC keynote

Complementing Federighi's throwaway laughers were a couple of sharp responses to Apple's most thorny public criticisms. Phil Schiller, SVP of marketing, threw a spear back at the post-Jobs innovation cynics with the rousing declamation, "Can't innovate anymore my ass!" That war cry came during the introduction of the Mac Pro, Apple's bulked-up desktop for power users. In the same segment, Schiller quietly addressed persistent issues and negative press around tech products (not only Apple's) being produced in offshore sweatshops, by noting that the Mac Pro is "conceived and built in America."

That is no small point for Apple, though not a new one either. Whether or not in response to its overseas labor difficulties, the company seems to be planting its identity stake more firmly in American soil, at least in its sculpting of public perception. A new television ad, premiered at the keynote, is titled "Designed by Apple in California" -- a years-old tagline that appears on the back of iPads and iPhones... with a second part: "Assembled in China." Bringing the first half up to prominence while leaving the inevitable second part lost in small print is a deliberate piece of image-making.

The new ad is a powerful piece of perceptual marketing, a mission-defining claim that sensitive technology uplifts life.

Let's focus on that ad. It is succinct, deliberate, emotional. It's like a Captain Pike speech -- both homely and exalted. In 62 seconds, and 68 words, it equates glittering metal-and-glass technology with the enhancement of bedrock life values. "How will it make someone feel? Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist?" Any advertising agency might concoct such an aspirational association between a phone and the meaning of life, but it's especially important for a company that needs to continue banking on a premium market which yields premium margins. The differences between iOS and Android are pretty fine in the mainstream. Android OEMs are in the business of high unit volumes and low margins. Apple's differentiation play depends as much on perceived value as it does on product specs. The new ad is a powerful piece of perceptual marketing, a mission-defining claim that sensitive technology uplifts life.

Well-received as it was in the keynote hall, the TV ad played second chair to another video which described the design principles of iOS 7. Upgrading the decidedly musty mobile interface was a hope and expectation among the discipleship and pundit class alike. Here, the future was cleaved from the past with precision and eloquence by Jony Ive, SVP of industrial design, the leader of Apple's look-and-feel modernization. There was expansive language in this film, as there was in the TV ad: "There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency ... more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation ... it is about bringing order to complexity."

The multitudes were wild for this rhetoric, but the punctuating cheers were timed to visual glimpses of the iOS 7 design elements: the flat iconography, the translucency, the new Control Center -- all of which everyone hoped for, and perhaps feared would not be there. I heard relief.

Apple is doubling down on its perceived value --
a designer of premium lifestyle technology for everyone.

I started by saying the 2013 WWDC keynote was crucial, because Apple is at a crossroads. Competitive pressure is intense, and investor confidence is shaky. Apple's choice is whether or not to throw in with the commodity view -- reduce margins and sell more product. The keynote's messaging rejected that path forthrightly. At times, the subtext became explicit. Tim Cook asserted that iOS users spend more time in their phones than users of competing platforms: "People love them more. That's what is important to us."

Apple is doubling down on its perceived value -- a designer of premium lifestyle technology for everyone. Atop the subtext, though, the actual feature improvements promoted in the WWDC keynote fall well within a framework of status quo. Samsung, Apple's fiercest smartphone competitor, is plumbing the depths of status quo with a tiered product lineup that recognizes a consumer appetite for sub-premium. Samsung's Galaxy Ace 3 (price unknown) was announced just before WWDC. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive reminder that a phone is just a phone, regardless of how Apple glorifies its role in our lives.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. His phone is a Nexus 4, his tablet is an iPad and all his computers are PCs.