Two weeks ago Apple took the stage at its yearly developer conference. The conference has become the annual opportunity for developers and the tech crowd in general to catch a glimpse of what might be coming down the pipeline. This year the two main features were unsurprisingly OS X 10.10 and iOS 8. Over the last years WWDC has become less about the hardware and more about what you can do with it. To put things lightly, this year OS X starts a new beginning and iOS has fully matured. What does this mean for users? Something they have wanted for a long time…
This years OS X release is named Yosemite, continuing the California naming scheme. Yosemite brings the biggest graphical changes to OS X since OS X was first released back in 2001. The changes mirror those made to iOS 7 last year. Which ultimately means a flatter, simpler, brighter OS X experience. Microsoft Windows changes its appearance in roughly every other Windows release. The changes the OS X user interface have been more incremental over time until 10.10. Overall I like the way 10.10 looks and have only a couple of qualms with it.
The changes to iOS this year are less noticeable than last year. Who could forget the sudden abandonment of skeuomorphic design? Aside from little refinements such as a photo you take appearing on all devices or being able to send voice messages via the Messages app there are a couple of features that are downright embarrassing but users should appreciate. These are the ability for apps to create widgets in Notification Center. Widgets can provide a window into app functionality, think a calculator or an easy way to send Facebook messages. The other feature being custom keyboards! Custom keyboards will allow developers to create an unforeseen amount of horrid user experiences, thankfully the Apple default keyboard is still sane. Apple just had to engage the photocopier and allow for custom keyboards. No really, why does iOS 8 have to be a me too operating system?
These are the main features that stuck out in the presentations of both operating systems until the wider plan for the future was unveiled. iOS 8 also has a portal application to interact with many health devices, great for people with medical conditions or medical professionals. Maybe iOS devices will become the future Tricorder? iOS 8 also introduces something known as HomeKit which allows your iOS device to become the hub of an increasing amount of home based hardware (thermostats, light bulbs, fridges, etc.) Today the connected home is a little further away than Apple would like us to think but it can’t be too long until more of these smart devices start appearing in our homes.
So far we’ve got a Mac operating system that has been refreshed visually, some features blatantly copied from Android to iOS, and the start of some interesting interaction for our bodies and homes. Where to next? Even though there might be some oddities with the appearance of OS X 10.10 and some of the features of iOS 8 are copied, the shear brilliance of Apple’s next move makes up for it.
How many times have we dreamt of being able to seamlessly transition between our phone, tablet, or computer? This will now be possible in perhaps one of the most elegant implementations that could exist. Writing an email on your iPhone and want to continue on your iMac? Done. Looking up information on Safari and want to take that recipe to the kitchen on your iPad? Done. It is that simple, all one needs to do is click a dock icon on the Mac or swipe up from the lock screen on an iOS device. And yes, this will work with third party applications.
This is a natural progression to lowering the barrier between the old fashioned computer and iOS devices. This feature would be great on its own but Apple took it one step further. You can now make and receive phone calls on your Mac using your iPhones voice plan. Following from this also comes the ability to send text messages from Messages on your Mac using your iPhones cellular data plan. Great for reaching those who don’t have access to iMessage.
These features together are marketed as Continuity. Continuity greatly lowers the walls that were preventing iOS devices and Macs from interacting seamlessly. It should also be mentioned that the third part of Continuity allows for the creation of easy hot spots using an iPhone in the event a Wifi network for your mac is unavailable. You can dislike the way the new version of OS X looks visually, you can dislike the user experience of OS X, you can laugh at iOS for finally having widgets and customizable keyboards but anyone must admit that the idea of Continuity is truly appealing.
The only other company that would be able to pull something like Continuity together if they wanted would be Microsoft. Android has too many hardware iterations to make this possible and Google already feels its integration is good enough. Want to resume writing an email? Save it as a draft in your browser and open it up in the Gmail app on you phone. The Apple solution is so much simpler and much more elegant. Google should feel pressed to improve the interaction between devices on its cloud ecosystem. They won’t though because Android and Google doesn’t like forcing these sorts of workflows on their users. And also not to mention that should a similar API be available for Android only a small fraction of devices would be able to take advantage of it with Kitkat’s adoption rate being so low.
Even though Microsoft has the ability to match the seamless nature of Continuity through hardware partners and great engineering teams it won’t happen. Microsoft is a stubborn company (though this may change with their new CEO) that can’t act on the great vision that their R&D teams come up with. Just last month I highlighted that Microsoft has a huge opportunity with Kinect and that the Xbox team is perhaps leading the way at Microsoft in terms of innovation. But as we saw last month Microsoft is willing to compromise the user experience of one of their products (Xbox One) in order to sell more units in the short term. It is this reason as to why we won’t see something as compelling from Microsoft for a number of years.
I hope it’s abundantly clear what’s happening here, Apple has created an ecosystem that has been the holy grail of computer companies since the introduction of the smartphone. This is something that we can try to emulate with services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and various cloud providers but there’s a big caveat to this distributed method. It lacks the integration into the operating systems that people want to use. Native applications are the gold standard and are generally preferred over web applications. It is this lack of operating system glue that makes existing solutions look dated when compared with the new versions of OS X and iOS. This new intertwined ecosystem will be available for free this fall to anyone who has an iOS device or Mac.
PS: You can now access files stored in iCloud on all devices and open them with appropriate applications.