Apple's 2014 WWDC keynote was not about new devices or product categories, it was about something much more important. Personally, the next five years for Apple seemed uncertain before today's presentation. Could they still innovate and move the industry forward like they did with the iPhone and iPad?
The answer is undeniably "yes."
I won't go into the numerous new features and additions to Mac OS X Yosemite or iOS 8, there are plenty of articles about that. May I suggest, The Verge's 22 most important things Apple announced today. But I do want to comment on what these announcements mean for the future of Apple, and mobile technology as an industry.
Some people are disappointed because Apple didn't announce the new iPhone, although it was pretty clear that won't happen until August / September time. So it may seem like there's a few new features for iOS, but nothing exciting. On the contrary, Apple understands that in order to move the industry forward it needs great developers making incredible apps. After all, WWDC stands for the World Wide Developers Conference.
Without great apps and cloud services, your phone's screen, whether it's four inches or seven, is just a piece of glass. By itself, it can do nothing impressive. Sure, Apple will probably appease those of you that want a larger screen very soon, but the real magic needs to happen once that screen lights up and connects you to the world.
Apple has repeatedly been referred to as "a walled garden." Its tight reins on what apps can do and access is closely monitored, and while the garden may be beautiful, it's small and restrictive. This is the main reason why Android has been preferred by the "tinkerers," those who want to root, customize, and treat their phone like a build-to-order PC. Apple's philosophy has been this: to make a great product that works the way it should, you can't allow users to "open the hood" and tinker. While this has worked well the past seven years, the future requires the garden to lower its walls.
Recently, Microsoft announced its Surface 3. Directly knocking the MacBook Air and implying the Surface can be your one device that replaces both laptop and tablet. Early reviews say that's not the case just yet, although Microsoft is getting close. Meanwhile, Apple did not address the Surface at all in their keynote. Rather, they took aim at their biggest competition in mobile and the cloud, Google.
I'm an iPhone user, who also owns a couple Android devices. But when it comes to the phone, I'm always interested in why someone chooses Android over the iPhone. Many times I get, "The iPhone sucks!", and when I push for some specific reasons I usually get, "'Cause it's an iPhone!" Or maybe someone says they don't want to be "sheeple" (a terrible word), so they choose to all be anti-Apple together. Kind of like a herd of...well, never mind.
I may be half joking, but I do get answers like the ones I just stated. People may not be able to verbalize the exact reasons, but they have a point. For years now, Android lets you install 3rd party keyboards like Swype. Apple has never allowed this for fear that an iPhone user will have a bad experience. What happens if they install a poorly-made software keyboard, don't like it, and can't figure out how to go back? Now you have an unhappy customer.
There's also the file browser argument. While probably not used by many, you can actually download apps that let you browse the full file system of your Android phone. Granted, if you don't know what you're doing and delete something important, you'll probably mess up your phone. But you can do it. Apple, who has always wanted the learning curve to be as close to zero as possible, never allowed a kind of file system. This would bring unneeded complexity and something else the user has to manage.
These two examples were addressed by Apple at WWDC. Coming in iOS 8 you can install 3rd party keyboards, and iCloud Drive will be your device's "file system." Are these features playing catch-up to Android? Sure. But knowing the quality of apps on iOS compared to Android, the custom keyboards that will come to the iPhone will be great. Possibly even better than what you can find on Android now.
As I tweeted yesterday:
I think this was the first of Apple's three main goals at WWDC. Take away the legitimate complaints of Android users of why they don't use an iPhone. But in normal Apple fashion, it wasn't just about playing catch up to the competition. They managed to leapfrog over Google and Microsoft.
Joshua Topolsky, Editor-in-Chief of The Verge, formerly of Engadget, wrote a piece over four years ago about the "Continuous Client." The basic premise, you should be able to move between your phone, tablet, desktop and laptop as you work without skipping a beat. If you're composing an email on your phone and then sit down at your desk, that email should be on screen, in the exact state you left it on your phone, and ready to continue typing. Not in a draft state buried in some folder in an email client, but ready to continue with a single click or less.
Aptly named Continuity during the keynote, Apple basically introduced what Joshua was asking for over four years ago. "Hand-Off" lets you continue working on whatever device you choose, seamlessly. Mac to iPhone, iPhone to iPad, and iPad back to Mac. This kind of integration was hoped for with Chrome (as stated in the Continuous Client article), but since Chrome OS has not taken off and Microsoft's mobile platform is in a far 3rd place, Apple is the one company to execute this and do it well.
During Act I of the keynote, Apple played catch up and removed some popular reasons people choose Android over iOS. Act II gave us a glimpse of a continuous client and how our devices should interact in the future. But for Act III, while consumers fell asleep, Apple addressed the most influential people in the room, developers.
WWDC has always been about developers, but I can't remember the last time Apple actually demoed writing code on stage. While it's hard to get excited about developer facing changes, what it will means for iOS users a year from now is huge.
Beside opening up iOS to things like 3rd party keyboards, Apple is flinging the doors to its garden wide open to developers and partners. Apps on iOS have been "sandboxed" since the App Store came to be. Meaning apps cannot directly communicate with one another. That will change in iOS 8, but the inter-app communication still goes through the iPhone or iPad's iOS security measures.
New developer "kits" for home automation and health will allow 3rd party accessories and apps to communicate through the phone and use features like Siri. An example during the keynote: using 3rd party home automation products, you can ask Siri to "get ready for bed" and it will make sure your doors are locked, alarms on, and lights off. Apple showed off many partner companies that will work on the health and home fronts providing accessories that work with iOS directly.
All these behind the scenes changes won't make your iPhone better today, but as developers utilize these new tools and update their apps, your iPhone and iPad, regardless how big that glass screen is, will become a much more powerful device.
There were no new product categories announced, no iWatch, iTV, iMicrowave or iToaster. But there's still more than half of 2014 to go, and I believe the Fall will deliver several new Apple products into consumer's hands; and they will be great. But the keynote at this year's WWDC shows us that those devices will not only have great hardware, but an excited developer community taking full advantage of whatever new devices are released. And because Apple wants all its users to experience the benefits of iOS 8, even the three year old iPhone 4S will be updated. So that phone in your hand right now will be even more powerful come this Fall. Unless you're holding an Android phone.