Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but we promise it’ll all be in plain english. Continuing on from his work on the first two issues (let’s call those a beta) is writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Make no mistake: what we’re witnessing right now is the beginning of a new Apple. The company that showed itself during the WWDC 2014 keynote is dramatically different from the Apple of years past, a company that had maintained a legendary wall around its wares, demanding that users either do things their way or go elsewhere. And if I had to guess, I’d wager that most of you reading this stand to benefit yesterday’s shift.
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A lot has happened in the seven years since the launch of the original iPhone, and in turn, the initial build of iOS. Windows Phone was born, Android has grown to be the world’s most dominant mobile operating system, and pressure is mounting on Apple as inexpensive, high-powered handsets from the likes of OnePlus, BLU Mobile, and Motorola suffice for many smartphone users. Put another way, Apple simply isn’t as comfortable as it once was, and today’s keynote proves it.
The businessman in me understands that companies generally put their best work forward when forced to compete. For a few years, there was simply nothing on the market as smooth, svelte, and speedy as the iOS + iPhone combination. That’s no longer the case. Even sub-$300 Android handsets perform just as admirably these days, and while I’d still give the edge to iOS for sheer polish, Google’s Android is closing that gap in heroic fashion.
Expanded API: The largest change, this means developers can integrate their apps more closely with iOS and the iPhone’s hardware. Example: using touchid to sign into twitter.
Family Sharing: Small groups of people can share everything from iTunes purchases to books and makes it easy for families to share photos and locations with each other.
Revamped Messages: for quickly sharing audio, video and location; it’ll also make group chats more manageable and improve the system’s keyboard with predictive suggestions.
Close Integration with OSX Yosemite: allows users to answer calls, respond to SMS messages and turn on a mobile hotspot all from their Macs.
Per usual, software was at the forefront of Apple’s presentation today. iOS 8 was touted as the “biggest release since the launch of the App Store”, and for good reason. The list of improvements and changes is almost unbelievably long, especially when compared to prior WWDC keynotes. Typically, Apple would usher in a smattering of new features while tossing us a few items that Android had had for a year, albeit with a lot more pizzazz. This year, the kitchen sink was thrown in, too.
Perhaps the most meaningful beacon shown today was Apple’s opening up to third-party API hooks. As soon as Touch ID arrived on the iPhone 5s, I lamented that it was useful for just two things: unlocking my phone, and making an iTunes Store purchase. The real use was obvious: it needed to be the primary login item for every single app on the iPhone. Starting with iOS 8, every single iOS developer will be able to use Apple’s proprietary Touch ID sensor to enable users to login. The magnitude of this decision cannot be understated. If this were Vegas, no bookie in their right mind would’ve put any serious quantity of money on Apple opening its own fingerprint sensor up for widespread use.
Imagine Evernote keeping all of your confidential doodles behind a fingerprint lock. Or, upon receipt of the iPhone 6 that you’ll buy later this year, you’ll be able to just press your finger against the Home button to login to the 143 apps that’ll be transferred over from your prior iPhone. Anyone who has swapped phones or upgraded devices knows the pain of logging into every…single…app…all…over…again.
But it didn’t stop there. After years of whining from its most loyal customers, Apple announced support for third-party keyboards across the entire system. That means that the likes of SwiftKey and Flesky will soon be available to use in Messages, Mail, and every other app on your iPhone. Yes, Android has supported such a scenario for years, but what makes this transformative is that Apple caved to the requests of its users long after most had given up hope. Apple could’ve easily kept on keeping on, and hardly anyone would’ve batted an eye. Crazier still? Apple built its own prediction-style keyboard for iOS 8. Say it out loud: Apple spent engineering resources to build its own predictive keyboard, and is still allowing third-party keyboards to take its place. The “We Know Best” Apple of yesteryear would’ve never done such a thing. Again, what this signals is truly extraordinary in the world of Apple.
As yet another nod to the company’s newfound warmth towards customization, it’ll also allow third-party app widgets to adorn the Notification Center. Don’t bother arguing that users have been begging for such support for years — focus on the fact that Apple actually went and enabled it.
It’s too early to tell whether the change of heart is permanent, but if so, those other mobile operating systems should take note. If Apple’s finally over its implement-second approach to iOS features, we could see an entirely new world of Apple-first features hit with iOS 9. What’s happened this week is a relenting that many — myself included — thought they’d never see from Apple.
Chalk it up to market share pressures, Katie Cotton’s recent departure as overlord of press relations, or just an old fashioned change of heart. Whatever’s behind the movement to let Apple’s guard down and allow the broader ecosystem to make a more meaningful mark on iOS, I sure hope it continues. And so should you.