Apple Inc. is the world's most valuable consumer hardware company, so it's not out of line to imagine a major address to the developer community might introduce some new gear. Which is why the Tuesday Worldwide Developer Conference keynote by CEO Tim Cook, senior vice-president of software engineering Craig Federighi and a couple of strangers was remarkable on a number of levels. Here are the big takeaways from the two-hour press conference.
800 million iOS device and 80 million Macs
The contrast between the size of Apple’s two dominant businesses helps explain why the software for the desktop-paradigm OS X Yosemite continues to morph into a version of iOS that supports Windows. Also, more and more features popular on BlackBerry and Google’s Android are coming to iOS 8 and Yosemite (predictive type, customizable keyboards and share features, updates to Safari to make it more like Chrome, fixes to Mail and iCloud updates that let you attach huge documents as well as share tasks and data across devices). The design language and feature sets of the two operating systems are also getting closer: The new Notification Center for Mac and iOS will be much the same; for example both will allow in-line access to widgets (one kind of widget might let you update your ebay bid from a notification about a new price). Increasingly Apple is looking to copy or replace features available to Google users. Even Safari’s recent default Web search switch from Google to Microsoft’s Bing carries on with the de-Googling of iOS that began when Apple released its own maps app.
Read my lips: No new hardware
More than ever Apple knows the audience watching its WWDC livestreams are not all hard-core software developer geeks pumping their fists when Objective-C is sidelined in favour of the new coding language Swift. The latter did happen, but the most arresting part of Monday’s performance was what didn’t happen: no new hardware was teased, talked about, introduced or handed out. Poor senior Apple executive Phil Schiller, there was nothing for him to demo so he didn’t even appear on stage. The pent-up demand for an iWatch, Apple TV, fatter iPhone 6, thinner MacBooks or any other product line went unsatisfied Monday, but the software announced creates conditions that could mean the traditional fall hardware release could be absolutely huge.
Developers, developers, developers
Apple has become the reverse-Microsoft. Bill Gates and company grew rich making their many flavours of the Windows ecosystem available to anyone who wanted to install it on hardware, and almost anyone who wanted to write software. Apple was always different, they made all their own machines and also made software that only ran on those machines with a small pool of dedicated third-party developers. But on Tuesday Apple unleashed a slew of software development kits (they claimed 4,000) that allows the massive pool of third-party iOS developers to write apps accessing ever-more-core chunks of Apple devices. Apple still makes all its own hardware, but now the third-party software is at the core of their offering. Some of these ideas will mean little to the non-developer but are major updates for coders: extensibility (so apps can share data and settings among one another), cloud access, access to camera controls, and a replacement for OpenGL that accesses Apple’s A7 chip better. Further, these new developer kits set Apple and iOS up to become much stronger platforms for gaming and productivity (they also announced some new enterprise and family sharing features that may turn out to be key).
The Internet of Things, the quantified self and biometric security
The three biggest developer kits announced Monday touch on some buzzy tech ideas and were widely expected, but they also set up Apple to more fully and safely integrate into home automation and your health management.
With HomeKit Apple launches into the world of web-connected lightbulbs, refrigerators, thermostats and door locks. A common software standard will make your iOS device the universal remote for your digital home of the future. Anyone else attempting to standardize the language of the connected home just got a huge competitor.
With HealthKit and the Health app Apple will allow for the monitoring of all the physical metrics measured by any sensor-band hardware on the market, and suck in the data from third-party apps too. There’s no iWatch yet, but this software lets you write apps for any existing or potential wearable computer to communicate with iOS.
And finally, a Touch ID API makes both of the above new features more secure. By finally allowing third-party apps to access the identity verification of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 5s, Apple makes itself the key biometric security device for any number of potential apps. That's critical for anyone hoping to to keep their health data or connected house out of the hands of anyone who is not you that ends up with your iPhone. Crucially for privacy wonks, Apple claimed the actual fingerprint scan will remain locked away on your local device, and any verification will only access keychain data.
The bottom line is, developers writing apps for Apple’s upcoming devices will have access to some very compelling features that could very well make the difference in the mobile hardware wars.