Apple Became More British Than Tea and Crumpets at WWDC 2015

By Christopher Phin on at

America is apparently keen enough to export things to the UK that we don’t want: the Kardashians, ‘chocolate’ and punishing standards of orthodontic perfection, for example. But when it comes to stuff Apple launches that even a Brit might in an unguarded moment describe as awesome, all too often we’re made to wait months before it crosses the Atlantic.

The more awesome a new thing is, the more cagey Apple is about when it will be available. New version of iWork? “And it’s available today!” Incremental iOS upgrade? “And it’ll be available to download at the end of the month.” Updated MacBooks? “They’ll be available for pre-order later this week, and shipping in a month.” Entirely new product category? “Pre-orders open in a coupla months in the US, with selected countries coming soon after, and the rest of the world coming just in time for the heat-death of the universe,” and so on.

That’s why it was so peculiar to watch last night’s WWDC keynote and see the UK not just given just sufficient attention that we don’t start muttering darkly about the Boston Tea Party again, but actually put front and centre at certain points.

Some of the Union Jackery was inconsequential: a timelapse of the Elizabeth Tower to show off a new Watch face type in watch OS 2.0, for example. (Do you see what I did there? I called the landmark by its correct name rather than ‘Big Ben’, just to be all condescendingly British about the whole thing.)

But a large proportion of the keynote was dedicated to Apple Pay rolling out to the UK, and Apple really does seem to have been working hard. Lots of banks will be supported starting in July, and even if there are some notable exceptions – Barclays, not least – and even if some that were named won’t be ready until the autumn, it looks like big-scale commitment to the contactless payment system in this country.

Then came the slide showing the supported retail partners, twinned with the strange experience of seeing a Spar logo on an Apple slide; that was great, though: you might expect to see Waitrose, M&S and Pret on an Apple slide, but to see Lidl, New Look, KFC and – god bless whoever made this happen – Nando’s on the list too, showed that Apple wasn’t being a snob about who it partners with for Apple Pay. Sure, you can moan about how you have Lidl and Waitrose but nothing in between (no Tesco, no Sainsbury’s, no Morrisons) but there was something refreshing about seeing such an inclusive cross-section of British society represented by a smattering of white logos.

What’s more, the news that Apple Pay will support Transport for London (TfL) for contactless ticketing is proof that Apple took the time to work out what Apple Pay could actually be good for here. That might sound like the very minimum it should do (and yes, it’s yet another example of a focus on the capital that will rightly rub anyone who doesn’t live in London up the wrong way) but it takes the merest faltering step of imagination to picture a world where Apple talked to the banks and a few big retailers and thought “job done”.

And honestly, the TfL thing actually might actually be as big a deal for visitors to London as Londoners themselves, since this way they don’t have to faff about understanding Oyster cards or punching uncertainly at the ticketing machines before thinking “No, that can’t possibly be right for an off-peak Travelcard” and starting over. No: now, they can just walk up to the barriers and tap in with their iPhone or Apple Watch, like many have been doing with contactless bank cards, leaving them free to master the subtle art of studiously failing to make eye contact with their fellow Tube passengers.

Elsewhere it was possible to detect, like Scotch eggs at a wedding buffet, a slight but pervasive British flavour. Beats 1, in part because Zane Lowe is presented by Apple as its face, feels like nothing so much as a BBC radio station, and we even had an British voice in the introductory video, in former RinseFM DJ Julie Adenuga, who’ll present from the UK while Lowe takes duties in LA, and Ebro Darden in New York.

What’s more, unusually, Apple Music itself isn’t being launched in the US first and then being slowly rolled out across the globe, as iTunes Radio was: it’ll launch in 100 countries on 30 June, and it’s inconceivable that the UK won’t be one of them.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from all this, to indulge in a little Kremlinology about what it means for Apple; like when Apple started introducing features specifically for China, even if it jarred we could see it was because it was anticipating explosive growth there. I think the truth is, though, that some of the UK-centricity of WWDC 2015’s keynote was purely coincidental timing. Apple Pay, for example, was as likely to have been just the next deal that was ready rather than the result of a strategic focus on the UK – even if the effort to localise sympathetically is welcome.

I think the truly telling thing, though, was the simultaneous – effectively global – launch of Apple Music. It might prove to be an isolated incident, not emblematic of any cultural shift within the company. But wouldn’t it be great if it was? If this was the first example of an diktat from Cook that said Apple would no longer launch in the US first before a desultory, ill-resourced international roll-out, but that it would wait until everything was in place so that everyone got stuff on day one? If it happens, I’ll eat my hat; just don’t make me eat any Hershey’s. Although how would I tell the difference?