The Best Parts of Apple’s WWDC 2014 Keynote Sailed Right Over the Heads of Consumers. Good!

Tim Cook

Tim Cook wraps up an unusually dense WWDC keynote

If you were Apple, and you were trying to construct a WWDC keynote with the principal aim of whipping consumers into a frenzy, you’d make sure it was about sexy new devices, first and foremost–and ideally devices in the new categories which so many people are assuming the company will soon enter. You’d want to show off products so obviously lustworthy that folks couldn’t wait to get their hands on them, and then have them in stock at the Apple Store as soon as possible.

Here’s what you probably wouldn’t do: Skip hardware altogether in your keynote in favor of software, with a presentation that got more and more technical and abstract as it went along, until a person quite literally needed to be an engineer to understand it.

But the thing is, anyone who’s paying attention already knows that the primary aim of a WWDC keynote is to get software developers excited about the future of Apple’s platforms–maybe now more than ever, given the widespread (albeit silly) received wisdom that Android has defeated iOS.

iOS 8's new Photos on an iPad and an iPhone

iOS 8’s new Photos on an iPad and an iPhone

So nobody should have been startled by the fact that the WWDC 2014 keynote did not involve an iWatch, an Apple HDTV, a Retina MacBook Air, or, as it turned out, any new hardware whatsoever. Tim Cook, software honcho Craig Federighi and company talked only about operating systems and related matters–and after the preview of OS X Yosemite and the first part of the discussion of iOS 8, they spoke only to developers, developers, developers.

Even without the developer-focused crescendo, the keynote included plenty of news about features which will make Macs, iPhones and iPads more useful. Much of it involved Apple’s versions of features which have existed in Android and/or in other companies’ apps and services for years, such as:

  • iCloud Drive (file-storage features similar to Dropbox and OneDrive);
  • Features which make iCloud a repository for all your photos rather than just temporary storage for recent pictures;
  • Both predictive typing in iOS’s standard keyboard and the ability to install third-party keyboards such as SwiftKey and Swype;
  • New iMessage features reminiscent of WhatsApp and SnapChat;
  • The ability to wake Siri by saying “Hey Siri,” much like Android’s use of “OK Google.”

Apple won’t win any awards for pure creativity for any of these updates, but that doesn’t make them less useful; some of the most important features an operating system can add are the ones which are overdue. And in some instances, Apple’s take on existing concepts does look innovative–such as Continuity, a suite of features designed to let you use a Mac and iOS device together, including the ability to use a Mac as a speakerphone for an iPhone.

Then there were two much-rumored iOS additions: Health (the app we thought was going to be named Healthbook) and new home-automation features known as HomeKit. Both are potentially huge deals, but got explained only in elevator-pitch form. We simply need more information before we can come to any firm conclusions about them.

If Health and HomeKit got short shrift, it was to free up more room in a very dense keynote for discussion of other new developer tools, most of which are closer to iOS’s core than health and home automation are:

  • Extensibility is a framework which allows apps to talk to each other, opening up opportunities for integration at least vaguely akin to those offered by a technology called AppLinks which Facebook is spearheading. It will also let third-party developers insert full-blown widgets into the Notification Center, giving Apple devices a long-awaited answer to the widgets which have long been a defining feature of Android;
  • CloudKit provides developers with tools for hosting apps and data on Apple’s iCloud platform, taking the company into territory currently ruled by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s Azure.
  • Metal lets games leverage the power of Apple’s A7 processor with as little overhead as possible.

The last announcement at the keynote–unquestionably the “one more thing,” though nobody called it that explicitly–was a new programming language called Swift. No consumer will ever see Swift, and few will even know what it is. But if it lives up to Apple’s sales pitch for it, it’s a sea change–a modern way to create iOS apps that’s designed to be faster, more powerful and more approachable than Objective-C, iOS’s current language.

When I talk to app developers, they have no problem finding things about the iOS ecosystem to praise, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of them list Objective-C as a plus for the platform. Instead, its learning curve is often mentioned as an obstacle. And as the Apple executives onstage showed off Swift –including some features which I cheerfully acknowledge I didn’t comprehend–the engineers in the audience went wild.

I do know enough about software development to understand that the news which Apple announced today is going to make iOS a much richer development platform. Apple isn’t dismantling the sandboxing which limits what apps can do without permission, thereby making it tougher for buggy ones to screw up your phone or malware to do intentional damage to your data or privacy. But it’s giving developers the ability to build experiences which don’t feel constrained in the way that iOS apps sometimes do.

Once that happens, people who own Apple hardware will reap the rewards of WWDC 2014. Including the ones who caught the livestream of the keynote and considered it to be a snoozefest.

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