WWDC 2014

A few brief comments about yesterday’s Apple WWDC keynote. If you haven’t watched it yet, MacStories has two great overviews of what’s coming to iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite (could we please just call it OS ten ten ten, for fun?), and The Verge compiled a great highlight reel of the keynote. I think there were four big themes in this keynote:

First, a tighter coupling and improved integration between OS X and iOS. The visual overhaul of OS X brings its UI design more closely in line with the design of iOS 7, but aside from this superficial alignment, Apple spent a lot of time talking about improved integration between their operating systems. Airdrop now works between Mac and iOS (finally), it’s now possible to conveniently set up an instant hotspot from your Mac without touching your phone once, Messages now works more closely together across Mac and iOS, you can now answer phone calls on your Mac, and Continuity allows you to transfer whatever you’re working on seamlessly between your devices (e.g. start composing an e-mail on your iPhone, walk over to your Mac and seamlessly pick up composing that e-mail on your Mac without manually saving drafts and all that entails). I think this is a pretty big convenience feature in our current multi-device reality and a feature that will be difficult to match for any company that doesn’t control the full stack from hardware to software to services. Of course this level of tight integration comes at a price for consumers, as it requires them to fully embrace the Apple ecosystem across all their different devices.

My second take-away was that Apple is beginning to take cloud services seriously. With iCloud Drive their iCloud storage offering is finally getting to a point where it might actually be useful (I never found much use for iCloud in its current incarnation due to the limiting nature of its app silos). iCloud Drive allows unrestricted access to all the files in your iCloud account and seems very similar to Dropbox, Google Drive or Skydrive (again, finally). In addition, this will probably also improve the flexibility of file handling across different apps on iOS. The new Photos application puts iCloud as the canonical storage space for all your photos front and center, which should hopefully quell some of the confusion around photo stream syncing in its current incarnation. One caveat on photo syncing: 5GB of free iCloud storage seems vastly too restrictive for photo storage and I seriously doubt that a majority of iOS users will opt for paid plans, even if their pricing seems quite competitive. And once again, iCloud is another step towards locking consumers into Apple’s ecosystem: iCloud Drive will be compatible with Windows, but other platforms like Android are locked out.

The third theme was positioning the iPhone as a Digital Hub, something Ben Thompson already expanded on in a great post back in March. Steve Jobs famously described the Digital Hub strategy in a 2001 keynote, placing the Mac at the center of our (then-new) digital lifestyle. In his final keynote at WWDC 2011, he followed up on this concept of a Digital Hub, with iCloud taking the place of the Mac as the center of our (now-current) digital lifestyle. This strategic positioning of iCloud at the center rings true to some extent: iCloud is clearly the glue holding together the multitude of Apple devices we own. But iCloud is severely limited in its reach beyond Apple’s ecosystem, and this seems to be a deliberate choice: when it comes to extending Apple’s reach beyond their own products, they seem focussed on the iPhone as its bridgehead to do so. This first became evident when Apple introduced CarPlay back in March this year: rather than allowing car makers direct access to Apple’s software or services (an approach that Google is taking with Android), they are granting them very limited access to the device itself, turning the car into a kind of (very expensive) iPhone accessory. This trend seems to continue with HealthKit and HomeKit: while the details are still somewhat vague, it appears that in both instances your iOS device (rather than a cloud service) will serve as a gatekeeper for medical accessories and home automation hardware.

Last but not least, Apple appears to be opening up iOS to developers considerably. With all new widgets, inter-app communication and system extensions, developers get many new tools and iOS is finally catching up with the flexibility and extensibility that Android has offered for years. It’s hard to tell how these new capabilities will be utilized by the developer community, but I expect these changes to have far-reaching consequences for what iOS devices are capable of and how we use iOS devices. It also seems to be another small step towards enabling users to multitask on their iOS devices without exposing them to a traditional window management environment. Nevertheless, this flexibility makes me ever so slightly nervous: the settings menu in iOS 7 is already a mess as it is. Wrangling with the fine-grained settings for notifications or privacy on a per-app basis is an exercise in frustration and the idea of new settings for all these new system extensions and widgets (again on a per-app basis) isn’t enticing at all. At the other end of this equation, not making these app extensions user-configurable doesn’t seem scalable. I’m really curious about the specifics of how these system extensions and widgets will actually work.

Aside from these four themes, I’d be remiss not to at least mention Swift, Apple’s new programming language to supercede Objective C. I’ll have to reserve my comments for later when I’ve had time to dig in, but what I’ve seen so far I like a lot.