Apple becomes an ordinary tech company

James Martin/CNET

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY As its advertising has underscored over the years, Apple (AAPL) has long portrayed itself as "different" than any other company. And its loyal customers agreed.

But at Apple's latest Worldwide Development Conference, this famously trend-setting business looked a lot like any another tech company. CEO Tim Cook took the stage not to trumpet fresh concepts or pique consumers' imaginations with some bold new vision, but rather to announce fairly run of the mill product enhancements. Perhaps most interesting was what the company didn't say -- namely, anything about desktops, raising questions about how Apple sees the product that made the company's name.

Less than you thought

Certainly Apple announced many features spread across the company's mobile operating platform, called iOS, and its MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops. iOS will see a new version with an updated voice assistant, Siri.

However, the new features seem like ordinary extensions. Launching apps with voice commands? The concept has been available through voice-recognition software for many years. Apple also discussed its Maps application which as expected will replace Google maps. But replacement isn't innovation, and some of the features, like turn-by-turn directions, aren't new concepts. (Google Maps announced the addition of real-time traffic updates in March.)

The newest version of Mac OS X, Mountain Lion, will ship in July. It will move closer to iOS, with a game center and new apps. Users will be able to keep documents synched between devices by uploading them to Apple's iCloud. Again, nothing new there, as many cloud services let you do something similar, although integration into Apple's operating system and, therefore, apps should make it easier to use.

On the hardware side, Apple will offer new versions of the MacBook Pro and Air. Both are getting fairly minor performance upgrades. The Retina-display MacBook Pro is unusually light and thin for a power user laptop, and it will sport a new high-resolution display of the kind used in the iPhone 4S. However, that still isn't revolutionary.

Some Apple watchers had expected more significant announcements. But there was not Apple TV software development kit to let app developers create software for an Apple television product. And forget about something new for either the Mac Pro or the iMac. Maybe Apple has decided that mobile is entirely where it's at and plans to ease out of the desktop world.

Verbal barbs as competitive tools

Cook's jabs at competitors during his presentation at the conference also struck a curious note. For example, he said that everyone was trying to copy the MacBook Air, referring to the company's new Ultrabook products. But implying that no other vendor can come close to this form-factor is a mistake, particularly as analysts see Ultrabooks as closing in on a $600 price toward the end of the year, which should boost their popularity.

Apple senior vice president of iPhone software Scott Forstall also made a lame crack about Android 4, Google's (GOOG) latest mobile platform, being a "dairy product" (Google has dubbed Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich."). Dairy, ice cream -- get it? As search engine expert Danny Sullivan tweeted, "I think stuff like that makes Apple sound scared or weak. If you're strong,[it's] self-evident."

In other words, Apple sounded today a lot like any another tech company trying to pump up fairly mundane feature improvements, features that other vendors already incorporate into their products. And the company's chippy tone drew attention to rivals that Apple once wouldn't have even stooped to acknowledge, let alone compare itself with.

Maybe it takes a greater level of real invention to know you can remain ahead rather than feel everyone else is catching up.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.