WWDC: a quiet revolution underway at Apple

No hardware, but significant moves to open up the walled garden and embrace the cloud; now great devices must follow

By Caroline Gabriel

No new devices, again ... Our immediate reaction to Apple's WWDC keynote was to wonder how many times CEO Tim Cook can get away with vague promises of "amazing" products to come, and not deliver them. No big-screened iPhone, no iWatch - it seems that, with Apple, it is always jam tomorrow, never jam today.

But that is to fall into the thinking that often grips Apple watchers, of over-focusing on the hardware alone, odd as that may be when studying the pioneer of the hardware/software 'user experience'. Looking at the software side, there were clear signs of an Apple which is on the defensive, but is putting its pieces in place to fight back against Google. Most importantly, there are clear chinks in the iOS walled garden, as well as the start of a unified PC/mobile experience.

This is a grown-up, sober Apple, and not just because Cook has a less charismatic style than his predecessor Steve Jobs. This is a company which knows it can only rely on the power of its brand and design so far - underneath that famous logo, it needs to adapt its whole platform to the needs of changing world, one in which devices are very cheap and power lies in big data and cloud services.

Apple, for our money, is still moving too slowly in the cloud, but it is making progress in modernizing its platform. The new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, is far more radical than its low key design changes would suggest. While iOS 7 made significant changes to the visual impact, iOS 8 is important for opening up new areas to third party developers - notably the keyboard and TouchID. So while Apple's old desire to control all aspects of its experience was there in a much enhanced native keyboard, featuring contextual word prediction, it also opened up to third party keyboards for the first time, something Android has allowed for a long time.

This may not quite amount to Apple's claim that this is "the biggest release since the launch of the App Store", but it does indicate that the firm is gearing up for a world when that famous store may be less powerful, and it will need a fully open web apps platform to stay competitive with Google (the purchase of Beats and its music streaming service is another symptom of this reluctant long goodbye to the downloads model).

Not that Apple is letting go of its preference for native apps and content. One of the features of iOS 8 is to introduce web-like capabilities which will appeal to Android users, but take place in native apps. An example is Extensibility, which lets apps communicate and share data, but in a sandboxed way which maintains secure walls between them. For instance, a user could take a photo with iPhone Camera and add filters from another application, but without actually leaving Camera. That mimics the extensions which browser-based software uses to add features, but remains native.

Another area where Apple has removed an Android advantage of iOS is allowing developers to add new sharing options - sharing images and web pages to any service the programmer chooses, as with Android's 'intents' system, rather than just to Apple-designated apps such as Facebook.

And an important and radical (for Apple) departure was to break down some of the boundaries between iOS and OS X, in a way that Microsoft and Google have already been pursuing. This will be important as the differences between a PC and a mobile device also break down, and the 'post-PC' environment looks for a unified user experience to run across huge numbers of different form factors.

Apple demonstrated widgets running on both its operating systems - in iOS 8, as part of the pulldown Notification Center. And users can now work across the two platforms far more seamlessly, an area where Apple has leapt ahead of Google - for instance, a user could start a document on a Mac and edit it on an iPhone, helped by integrated storage in the updated iCloud Drive.

In addition to the OS changes, Apple unveiled its expected first step into the smart home with HomeKit. This also bears the stamp of the 'new Apple' in relying mainly on third party developers rather than high profile Apple hardware, and making increased use of the cloud. There is no Apple-branded home hub, but instead the system aims to replace that dedicated hub with an iPhone or iPad. iOS-based HomeKit will integrate control for home automation functions such as lighting control, allowing third party apps and devices to work together regardless of their network protocol, and can be voice-controlled using Siri.

A similarly underplayed app was HealthKit, which supports functions such as heart and fitness monitoring and fuelled further speculation that an iWatch is on its way, to respond to Samsung's recent pushes into this area.

As with the revamped iCloud - more open and more like Dropbox - HomeKit and HealthKit show that Apple is embracing the cloud at last, especially as it looks beyond the smartphone and towards the opportunities of the internet of things. However, these launches were given little airtime compared to the core iOS changes, and suggest the firm remains cautious and slightly uncomfortable around the cloud. That will have to change if Apple really is to stay as Google's key challenger in the new mobile world and the IoT.

A more unexpected, but significant, announcement was that of Swift, a new programming language which promises a slimmed-down alternative to Objective-C, the complex if powerful language on which Apple has relied for decades. It aims to attract new developers by making it easier and quicker to write stable, secure apps, billing itself as "Objective-C without the C". It is promising the world to coders - greater power and performance than scripting languages like Python, but with the simplicity of those technologies. Apple claims it has run benchmarks which show Swift code executes more quickly than Python and even Objective-C.

The iOS 8 and Yosemite upgrades combined with Swift and new cloud features all show Apple getting some of its priorities straight and making a bold attempt to retain its control of its platform, while modernizing it and opening it up. Not an easy balance, but it can rely on the huge loyalty of its established developer and user base to help it transition to a fully open web world.

That is, if it comes up with the devices to run the new software, and with sufficient pzazz to placate those loyal gadget buyers, some of whom are getting bored with the same old screen size. Cook was teasing about new product categories, while SVP of software and services, Eddy Cue, said the firm has "the best product pipeline in 25 years".

Apple has made such promises before, and for the past couple of years, has not delivered on them. With iOS 8 commercial availability in the fall, that is presumably when the next iPhone will appear. It had better pack a punch, or the significant innovations in the software platform will not be enough to boost growth again.

Back to blog