Apple Innovates Back to Even at WWDC

While many of the advances that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) announced at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference represent significant product enhancements for the iUniverse, most do little to surpass the functionality that already exists on other platforms. This is not to suggest that Apple has not successfully put the Cupertino gloss on iOS 7, iTunes Radio, iWork for iCloud, and the new MacBook Air, but much of what makes these releases new -- beyond the aesthetic -- are available in other places. Ultimately, the new offerings from Apple are good news for investors, but if the brand that Jobs built is to truly return to the top, it will need to awe us soon.

The new releases and where else to find them
iOS 7: Of the myriad new features that will be included in the new iOS, two notable ones include a control center and enhanced multitasking capability. The control center is available by swiping your finger up from the bottom of the screen to pull up some of the most commonly used controls. The multitasking will allow iOS 7 to run more apps simultaneously -- currently only a few apps can be run in the background. These are great features to be sure, but the control center concept was been included on Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Android devices for some time; both the Motorola RAZR MAXX and HTC One have this feature. Furthermore, extensive multitasking has been a part of Android for quite some time.

iTunes Radio: This new foray into the services side of the business for Apple is meant to compete with music services like that offered by Pandora (NYSE: P  ) . The service will be ad-supported and allow users to select from as many as 200 stations as well as build custom stations. Users that choose to pay $25 iTunes Match will get an ad-free version . The big enhancement -- it would seem -- is the ability to listen to music that is "trending" or gaining hype. The interplay between this option and Pandora will be critical in Pandora's long-term viability.

iWork for iCloud: Can we say Google Docs? The new service allows users to store documents on iCloud and then access them across both devices and even operating systems and browsers. The existence of Google Docs has already driven Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) to introduce Office 365, which takes the functionality of the productivity suite into the cloud. When Google Docs was first introduced, Microsoft foolishly assumed it was not a legitimate competitor until its business was affected; for business purposes the two options are considered legitimate competitors. Google Docs may be cheaper, but the functionality of Office is still, in my experience, superior for users who need to do any heavy lifting. While it may seem early to begin thinking about iWork as an enterprise option -- Apple is playing catch-up -- the blogosphere is already there and underestimating Apple would be an unwise move for Google and Microsoft.

Real advances
Despite the seeming imitative nature of many of these releases, there are some subtle areas in which Apple has made progress. With iTunes Radio, for example, the ability of users to buy songs they like on the radio right from iTunes might cause real trouble for Pandora. The online radio leader has a loyal user base, but the ease with which iTunes Radio may allow you to jump back and forth between the radio and purchased music may be attractive to users. From the company's perspective, Apple may be better able to monetize adopters of the service.

Similarly, the advance in iWork has the advantage of accessibility for iPhone users. For most of us, technology starts with our smartphones. While the iPhone 5 has not set the market on fire with its innovation, the iPhone nation is still strong. According to a report by Good Technology, 75% of mobile activations for enterprise were on iOS in the first quarter of 2013. Furthermore, with 27% of workplace activations on tablets, the shift toward tablets for business-productivity needs is clear. iPhone users will naturally prefer other iDevices, and if iOS can become a more legitimate enterprise option, just as Google has become a real option in this arena, so might Apple.

The real advance here is that Apple is getting into the game. If this trend continues, the availability of iWork has the potential to erode both Google and Microsoft's business. This is very good news for Apple investors who are waiting to see the company take a few big steps forward. Ultimately, while none of the advances are going to change the way we think about technology, they're an important step for Apple. The reception of these releases -- expected at various times, with iOS 7 coming this fall -- will be telling. Drawing even with the competition is much better than being behind.

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