WWDC21’s keynote wasn’t about technology – not really. That might sound odd when describing the opening salvo in a week-long conference dedicated to app and game developers. But in every demonstration, Apple executives presented technology as a means to an end. It was always framed as part of a bigger strategy to keep people in the the Apple ecosystem – and set the foundations for the company’s future.
Nowhere was this more apparent than with audio. Apple has always cared about music, but the WWDC21 announcements went far beyond that, displaying a deeper understanding of what – and how – we hear. They found Apple considering audio holistically: how it underpins everything we do and how it can make lives better, all while simultaneously increasing the value of Apple hardware, software and its ever more lucrative services.
In short, there’s a larger audio strategy at play here, one where Apple wants to own the audio market – all of it. And while that might not be obvious when approaching each announcement individually, it makes sense when they are considered together.
Take, for example, the concept of clarity. This was a major theme throughout the keynote, in the sense of using technology to find focus. Yet in audio, clarity is primarily thought of in terms of quality – and we already knew Apple was bringing free lossless and spacial audio upgrades to the Apple Music catalogue. That’s a solid crowd-pleaser, but what impressed more was Apple’s ability to consider audio’s wider impact.
A demo showcased an instant, effective way to eradicate background noise from FaceTime calls to help a listener focus on your voice. Yes, you’ve heard that claim elsewhere before. But this technique then found a counterpart in a new AirPods Pro feature that removes background distractions from real-world conversations. Many people’s hearing is only a little bit bad – they need occasional assistance akin to reading glasses for the ears. Here was Apple, via just a software update, creating stylish pseudo hearing aids for specific contexts, all from existing kit, while legitimising a whole new product market.
For some companies, this would have been a quickly forgotten gimmick, a one-day headline. But for Apple, it aligns with wide-ranging strategies on inclusiveness, health, wellbeing and ecosystem integration. It’s what happens when you expand beyond narrower applications of audio technology, such as ‘Let’s make this Beatles album sound marginally better’, and are instead guided by wider, transformative experiences.
The strength of Apple’s ecosystem was everywhere in other WWDC21 announcements. HomePod minis will become speakers for Apple TV. Lost AirPods can be found using Find My. SharePlay will allow you to effortlessly share in-sync Apple Music favourites with friends over FaceTime. Apple’s advancements in speech will find Siri voice recognition processed on-device for faster response times and Siri on third-party devices for the first time. Even the iPhone and iPad’s new auto translation abilities feed into this overriding strategy to double down on everything audio.
Not that others aren’t doing similar things, because they are. Apple doesn’t exist in a vacuum and a number of the individual features discussed thus far have existing equivalents elsewhere. But rivals normally exist within a much more specific and confined space. Apple, by contrast, is laying audio groundwork everywhere it can, keeping you within its ecosystem (or theme park, if you prefer) not wholly through the friction of switching, but also with a broader value proposition.
This infatuation with audio is also a refreshing change in a world routinely obsessed with what you see rather than what you hear. We’re so often informed about innovations in AR and VR, dazzling environments and visual immersion. But voice UI and audio are just as important –and, in some ways, more so when you consider Apple’s reasoning regarding focus and clarity.