Why WWDC 2016 is more important to Apple than a new iPhone

This event isn't for the average user. Or the pundit. Or the fanboy. This is about developers - large and small - who are leveraging Apple's ecosystem to make a living.

Today marks the start of WWDC 2016, and while the event might not have all the glitz and glamor - and media build up - of an iPhone launch, when viewing the company long term, it's far more important.

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Apple has to strike a balance between attracting new customers into the Apple fold, and keeping its existing customers happy. New and exciting hardware is an effective way to get new people to buy Apple smartphones, tablet, and Macs - after all, it's the hardware that people see first - but if Apple is to retain customers then it has to keep existing iPhone, iPad and Mac owners happy, and this is where WWDC comes in.

While I'm not ruling out hardware announcements at today's WWDC keynote speech, it's important to remember what WWDC actually stands for. It's Apple's worldwide "developer" conference.

And the key word here is "developer." This event isn't for the average user. Or the pundit. Or the fanboy. This is about developers - large and small - who are leveraging Apple's ecosystem to make a living.

And, in a wider sense, Apple's success is tied to the success of these developers.

It might be the hardware that brings people in, but it's software satisfaction - both the operating systems themselves and the apps that run on them - that keep users coming back to the platforms. Apple understands very well the importance of developers, and how making sure that there's as little an app gap as possible on the iPhone and Mac is important. And WWDC is about showcasing what's coming in iOS and OS X (or MacOS or whatever it ends up being called), and getting developers on board making apps that leverage the new features as soon as possible.

Unlike a platform such as Android where only about 10 percent of users will have upgraded to the new release in 12 months, iOS should be well beyond the 80 percent mark, so there's value in developers embracing these new features.

WWDC is so important that Apple can't afford a fumble. Some of the weakest iOS 9 features - specifically Live Photo and 3D Touch - were features that were exclusive to the new hardware, and these gimmicks didn't ignite imaginations.

If WWDC ends up being all about gimmicks, then Apple could be in deep trouble. Remember how Apple used a big chunk of the WWDC 2015 keynote to talk about Apple Music, a feature that has absolutely nothing to do with developers whatsoever? WWDC 2016 cannot be a repeat of that. We need to see features that people are going to want and use.

Over the past few years we've also seen Apple push iOS and Mac hardware not as separate devices but a single ecosystem, and using one to sell users on the other. Given that all signs point to weakening iPhone sales, Apple will be redoubling its efforts to push iPhones, iPads, and Macs as a single ecosystem.

"If you have one, then you need them all," is going to be the subtle message.

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