What Apple’s Small Announcements Add Up to in the Big Picture

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Apple's Craig Federighi described the new Mountain Lion operating system during the developers conference in San Francisco on Monday.

At Apple’s keynote earlier this week, no new TV or iPhone was announced. The company did introduce a new high-end laptop. Big whoop, by Apple standards.

The real headline was that there were lots of little whoops, said developers and analysts I spoke with after the event.  More important than the new MacBook Pro with retina display was the slew of mostly common-sense improvements to its underlying software that Apple hopes will make its products easier to use and more helpful. Taken together, they solidify what may be Apple’s biggest advantage: the user experience of its overall platform.

Apple is melding its Mac and iOS platforms so that all of its devices have an increasingly similar look and feel. For example, the next version of the MacOS, called Mountain Lion, will bring the Notification Center familiar to iPhone and iPad owners to the Mac. With the integration of Facebook into the next version of iOS, iPhone and iPad owners will no longer need to launch the social network’s app each time they want to post an update or photo.

The company is also looking to extend that platform beyond these devices and into one of the most expensive things we own: the car. Apple said it has convinced a range of automakers to embed a Siri button on their steering wheels, which could enable drivers to use this “Eyes Free” feature to make calls, dictate messages or ask Siri to find a gas station without looking down.

“It’s the attention to detail that can have a make or break impact on your day,” said Mike McGuire, an analyst at Gartner.

McGuire said that Apple stands out for its ability to identify real consumer problems, not just the kind that make for gee-whiz marketing. He cites a new Do Not Disturb feature in iOS 6 that allows iPhone owners to silence calls if you’re in a meeting, but with an option to have repeated calls from a loved one ring through in case there’s an emergency.

Apple’s ability to deliver on these less sexy announcements will become increasingly important, especially when the market for mobile devices slows down. The more that consumers are wedded to Apple’s ecosystem, the better positioned the company will be to take advantage of new opportunities.

For example, a new feature called Passbook sets Apple up to have a role in — and possibly take a cut of — purchases that people make in the physical world, said Todd Ablowitz, president of Double Diamond Group LLC, a consulting firm. Many companies, such as Google, have proposed sweeping initiatives to do digital payments that involve pushing standards on banks and convincing retailers to buy point-of-sale gizmos.

Since consumers have yet to fully embrace mobile commerce, Apple’s approach is to help consumers do what they’re already doing. For example, many Starbucks gift card owners call up the chain’s mobile app on their iPhones to buy their lattes. If Passbook works as advertised, the Starbucks screen will automatically appear on your device by the time you get to the barista. For those who check in for a flight using their phone, Passbook will alert them if the gate changes.

“It’s exactly what you’d expect from Apple: They chose to get in at a time and place of their choosing, and commandeer what’s already happening,” said Ablowitz.

Getting consumers hooked in these subtle ways is key in Apple’s platform war with Google. Compared with Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android operating system has a bigger market share, but fragmentation remains a big challenge. The user experience can vary across different Android devices.

This sets the stage for Google’s own developer conference, called Google I/O, which starts on June 27. In previous years, the company has made big announcements — think Google TV in 2010 or Chromebooks in 2011 — that haven’t turned into lucrative new markets.

“It’s not about the device,” said Steven Troughton-Smith, founder of app developer High Caffeine Content, after Apple’s keynote. “It’s about the user experience.”

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