Tech Conference Season is Over – But Who Won?

I love the big-ticket tech conferences. The last of the three big ones is just finishing up in San Francisco right now. Essentially a political platform for Microsoft, Google and Apple to make policy commitments to their voters (the developers) and convince them to stay with their platform for another year.

I was lucky enough to go to Microsoft’s Build conference in 2013 and I learnt first-hand that, actually, no attendee needs convincing. Build, I/O and WWDC are temples for the uber-fanbois to pilgrimage to and prostrate themselves at. As an engineer, you go there to see what’s new and cool on the technology path you’ve bet your career on. As a designer, you marvel at the finesse of the guidelines and toolkits, learn from the masters about how they see their platform working differently to the competition. With the right kind of eyes, you see a hint of desperation on the platform designer’s faces – please stop creating your own fucking UIs! We’ve built all these for you already. Just use ours! Stop fragmenting the experiences on our finely-carved platforms you ignorant serfs!

Going to these big-ticket developer conferences has consequently attracted a big-ticket price tag – with entrance fees running in to the thousands of pounds for a few days. To cushion the blow and stir the devout into even more of a foaming-mouth neck-beard frenzy, technology is given away – Microsoft routinely give away PCs, phones, XBoxes, Adobe Creative Suite licenses, terabytes of OneDrive, Azure storage, etc. Apple’s WWDC is so over-subscribed they actually have to run a lottery to give everyone a chance to win a ticket. There is something deeply troubling and Willy Wonka about all that.

So who won? I watched all three first-day keynotes. I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of how each of the three main platforms work, what their nuances are and what they do best. I’ve used all three platforms regularly and recently. So I hope I can judge fairly.

Microsoft win for their vision. Presenting a platform that (finally) allows the same app to run on the smallest embedded device, all the way through $50 smartphones and tablets, to PCs, XBoxes and now their holographic platform Hololens. Touch, voice, gesture and traditional keyboard and mouse interaction mechanisms all supported. Of all three conferences, Hololens (essentially a super-sophisticated ski-mask that allows the wearer to virtually attach parts of their operating system to the surfaces in their real-world environment) blew my mind the most. Microsoft are currently on the upward innovation side of the classic tech company rollercoaster. And how can you not be impressed when you’re shown a phone that you can pull out of your pocket, place on your desk and will instantly co-opt keyboards, mice and displays nearby to turn itself in to a PC – the phone-sized apps naturally scaling up to the larger display and more involved interaction mechanism. Very very cool.

Google wows with science. New features like Google Now that can read what you’re currently looking at and throw the entire internet’s knowledge at it to give you contextually-relevant information. Or Google Photos – quickly becoming everyone’s new photo management software regardless of platform, if my Twitter friends’ reactions are anything to go by – using artificial intelligence and huge amounts of data processing to sort your photos and make sense of what you’ve captured, then present that back to you in automatically-generated movies or digital auto-scrapbooks. But, for all the nerdgasms, Google didn’t seem to show anything truly inspiring. They’re having another crack at solving their endemic and crippling battery consumption problems with the next version of the Android OS, but that’s not sexy. It’s Android’s Achilles Heel. Maybe they need to stop screwing around with cardboard VR and literally throw the kitchen sink at trying to solve a fundamental user pain point that still persists after several major iterations.

Then there’s Apple. And I’m not going to cut those guys any slack this time. Usually, they’d be given special treatment because they’re so amazing and everyone would pass off yet another year of mediocre announcements as Apple focusing on the important things like yet more (inevitably inconsequential) performance and refinement improvements. But I’ve had enough of their bullshit. What happened to those WWDCs of yore where it would end and you’d realise you hadn’t drawn a breath for 45 minutes? Where instantly all the technology that surrounded you looked old and like it was from a quaint bygone time? Expose, the iPhone, Facetime, H.264, iMovie, Interface Builder, AAC – stuff that seemed more like magic than computer science. What’s the best Apple can come up with this year? Open sourcing their answer to their hopelessly complicate original iOS programming language and copying two features from Microsoft: snap mode multi-tasking and battery saver mode. Oh, and yet more fucking around making window management on the Mac more of a chaotic mess as they struggle to homogenise their iPad interfaces on to stubbornly non-touch desktop hardware. What the actual fuck are Apple playing at nowadays? What could they have done, you ask? There’s only so much innovation in the world, right? Bollocks. This is what Apple are SUPPOSED to do. This is why they were put on this planet. To make every other tech company look like they’ve had their fingers wedged up their asses for the last year. Where is all your cool shit, Apple??!

I’ll take a breath.

I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.

So, with conference season over, I try to push the thoughts of how amazing the West Coast is this time of year out of my head and wrap it instead around all the new design documentation, API docs and general tech babble spewing forth from the tech giants. I love the carnival of it all. The power of human ingenuity, creativity and empowerment.

And now we know the shape of the giants we’ll be standing on the shoulders of, I guess we had better start building…

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