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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


Published: 3 June, 2014


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.

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