WWDC 2019

I’m back from Sedalia, mostly caught up on everything that’s been going on in the world while I’ve been out of touch, and feeling guilty about not having commented on Apple’s WWDC last year. I’m sure we can all agree that Apple’s plans for the coming year are far more important than anything else that’s happening (Trade tarifs? Disaster relief? What are those?), so I’ll start there.

Of course, the keynote address, which is where I get all my information was Monday–while I was driving halfway across Missouri–so you’ve probably seen some of this in your local newspapers already. But that’s okay. The extra days should allow me to give a more nuanced, thoughtful take on the story.

And if you believe that, perhaps I can interest you in my new business: selling snowplows to airports in the tropics. (Don’t laugh. Turns out snowplows are the most efficient way known to humanity for clearing storm debris off of airport runways.)

Anyway, the opening announcement gave quick references to Apple News+, Apple Arcade (later this year), Apple Card (later this summer), and Apple TV+ (this fall). Three of the four are extensions to existing things. The fourth? Dunno about you, but I’m not sure I’m ready to have the credit card reinvented. Didn’t it cause enough trouble the first time it was invented?

Moving on.

tvOS, which powers the Apple TV boxes is getting a facelift with a new homescreen. It’s also going to handle Apple Music, and games in the Apple Arcade will support controllers from your PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. That’s a nice ecumenical gesture on Apple’s part. Gamers can be passionate about the One True Controller, so there’s a lot of goodwill in letting them bring their favorite to an otherwise tightly controlled garden.

Moving on.

Apple Watches are also getting enhancements, of course. New faces. Chimes that include physical taps–I like this idea, actually. It should cut down on the “Who’s phone just rang?” dance. Better audio support–voice memos and audio books. A calculator (really? It took five iterations of the Apple Watch to bring out a calculator?) App Store support, so you can still buy apps even if you leave your phone in your backpack.

Naturally, there are also updates to the health features. Progress tracking over the past ninety days with nags if you’re falling behind on your goals. I’m sure those will be amazingly persuasive to get off our lazy behinds and exercise harder.

Hey, I like this one: Apple Watch will monitor noise levels and alert you if they reach levels that could damage your hearing. An actual use case for those new chimes, since you probably won’t be able to hear the old ones. Good to know my watch will be ready to distract me from the music at the next BABYMETAL concert.

Cycle tracking. That one sounds useful. Useful enough that they’re making it available in iOS so even women without an Apple Watch can get the benefits. It looks like initial features are somewhat limited, but I expect enhancements over the next few iterations of watchOS.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be WWDC without the announcement of new Watch bands–including a Pride edition.

Moving on.

IOS 13 will, of course, be much faster than the ancient iOS 12 that came out last year. Apps will download faster, install faster, and launch faster. One hopes they’ll also run faster once they’re launched, but Apple was curiously quiet about that aspect.

There’s a Dark Mode. For all you fans of Darth Vader, I suppose. Personally, I dislike Dark Mode: I find white text on a black background hard to read. But different strokes. Enjoy.

The keyboard now supports swiping. Only about five years behind Google on that one. But, to be fair, Google’s swiped more than a few tricks from Apple during those five years.

Lots of changes in the default apps around text formatting and image handling. Maps are updated with more detail and more 3D geometry. Integration with street level photographs (more maintenance of feature parity with Google).

More enhancements to privacy. One-time permissions: you can require an app to ask you every time it wants access to your location. (I wonder if that applies to Apple’s own apps, or if it’s only for third-party apps.) If you give it blanket permission, Apple will send you reports on what the app knows. They’re also making it harder for apps to use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi information to figure out your location. That’s a nice improvement that’s going to piss off a lot of app makers who haven’t been able to come up with a good excuse to ask for location data.

Here’s a cool one: Apple is introducing a “Sign in with Apple” feature that uses Face ID to authenticate you to websites and apps. The cool part is that it can create single-use email addresses that you can give to websites that require an address. The site never sees your real email address, and Apple will automatically forward messages from the fake address to the real one. Hopefully it’ll also work the other way, so if you reply to an email from a company, it’ll go out under the fake address.

Homekit now supports handling video (motion detection, alerts, and all the other good stuff) on your device instead of sending everything to the cloud. That’s a big win.

A few more quickies: more flexible memoji, if that’s your thing. Improvements to photo taking and editing. Adding camera filters to video. Automatic categorization of photos and AI-generated displays that try to be context-aware. (I suspect the key word there is “try”.)

Moving on.

More capable Siri in AirPods. Allowing temporary pairing of AirPods (so you can share your audio with somebody for the length of a song or a movie and not have them automatically able to hear everything you do from then on.) Handing audio from iPhone to HomePod and vice-versa. Access to streaming radio stations. HomePod can recognize individuals and give them different experiences.

The big change is that iPads are going to get a customized version of iOS, inevitably called iPadOS. Lots of tweaks to take advantage of the larger screen, like widgets on the home screen. Apps can have multiple windows open at once. I love that idea: being able to have two Word documents open side by side, for example, is a major productivity booster when editing.

Support in the Files app for USB drives and SD cards. That’s great for photos, when you want to import or export just a few images without copying the entire photo roll over Wi-Fi.

Safari on iPads can now get the desktop version of a site instead of the mobile version.

Lots of tweaks to editing as well, mostly around three-finger gestures for copy/paste/undo.

I have to wonder if all these goodies are going to make it onto all the supported iPads–for that matter, will iPadOS be available to older iPads at all?

Moving on.

There’s a new Mac Pro. Hugely powerful and much more expandable than the previous version. And a matching monitor. Would you believe 32-inch, 6016×3384 display? Believe it.

Believe the price tags, too. The Mac Pro starts at $6,000 and goes up from there. Which is actually not out of line for it’s capabilities. Want that lovely monitor (or several of them–supposedly the Pro can use up to six of them at once)? Plan on spending $5,000 for each of those. (Again, not unreasonable for the feature set.) Oh, and don’t forget the $999 for the monitor stand. Now that’s just ridiculous. Yes, the stand can raise and lower the monitor, tilt it, and rotate it to portrait mode. But there are plenty of third-party monitor stands that will do all the same things for a tenth of the price.

New year, new operating system. This year’s version of macOS is “Catalina”.

Thankfully, iTunes is getting broken up into three separate programs. One to handle music, one for podcasts, and one for video. That should make life considerably simpler for anyone who only does music, and it should end the current view of TV programs and movies as music that happens to have an inconvenient video track.

Got an iPad and a Mac? Of course you do; doesn’t everyone? With Catalina, you’ll be able to use the iPad as an external monitor for the Mac. That’s been possible with third-party apps, but now it’ll be built into the OS. And yes, it’ll support all of the iPads’ touch functionality, including Apple Pencil, and it’ll do it over Wi-Fi. Very handy, indeed.

Voice control. Find My Mac. Activation lock. For developers, a path to quickly convert iPad apps to Mac apps.

Actually, quite a lot for developers. Much convergence between iOS and macOS. Though the claims that companies will be able to do apps that support all Apple products without adding specialized developers sound suspect. Maybe they won’t need separate Mac and iPhone teams, but they’re still going to need the people–and my cynical side suggests that any developer savings will be totally wiped out by the need for more QA folk who can test cross-platform.

Bottom line here is that, unlike the last couple of years, Apple has promised some things that sound genuinely exciting. Not necessarily revolutionary, but well worth having if you’re in the Apple infrastructure. Just don’t get your hopes high for a continuation next year. Odds are good that 2020 will be a year of minor tweaks and enhancements to the goodies that show up this fall.

Chromecast

As promised: Chromecast.

First, let’s do the obligatory summary of what it does and doesn’t do and the comparison to Apple TV/AirPlay. Grossly oversimplified: with AirPlay, all content is played on your device and displayed on the TV. In other words, your iPhone connects to (for example) YouTube, downloads the video, decodes it, and ships the decoded stream via wifi to the Apple TV box, which then displays it on the TV. For the most part, Chromecast works differently. Your phone goes to YouTube and displays the page locally except for the video. It sends the URL of the video via wifi to the Chromecast, which then establishes its own connection to YouTube, downloads, decodes, and displays the video on the TV. This is why you can start the video playing and then close YouTube or search for another video on the phone. This is also why apps need to be updated to use Chromecast: they need to be modified to send the video URL to the device; in the AirPlay world, the functionality to send the audio and video to the Apple TV instead of the screen is handled by the OS, so the app doesn’t need to be modified to use it.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.

As I said on Friday, the Chromecast is the mysterious “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy” device. Douglas Adams’ guide had the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover; Chromecast does not, but Google’s intent is clearly to take all of the panic out of the thought of getting your phone or tablet content onto your TV. The hardest part of the process is opening the box; if you can do that, you’re pretty much set. Take out the gadget, which looks a lot like a fat USB thumb drive. Plug it into your TV’s HDMI port. Plug in the USB cable for power. Turn on the TV. At this point you have a choice: you can use your computer to go to a URL displayed on the TV or you can launch a Chromecast app on your phone or tablet. Accept the Terms and Conditions (more on this later), choose your wifi network, and confirm that you want to activate the device, and you’re done.

I didn’t have an opportunity to see how gracefully the setup process handles a failure to activate the device (for example if your wifi cuts out at the wrong moment), but there are so few steps involved that it should be simple enough to handle it cleanly. (Usual disclaimers about “should be” in the computer world apply, naturally.)

Once you’re set up, Chromecast works as advertised. I played a few tracks from Google Play Music, which sounded as good as my not-too-spectacular speaker system could make them. I also watched an episode of “Wonders of the Solar System” (a freebie from Google Play Movies & TV). It streamed in excellent 1080p high definition and looked great. There were no dropouts, skips, or pauses throughout the 58 minute show, which is a minor miracle given some of my recent cable internet hiccups.

I also tried out a couple of YouTube videos, which also worked quite nicely. Resolution is, of course, constrained by the source material. An old, low resolution capture of a 70s TV show isn’t going to look good on your TV no matter what, but the Chromecast does a surprisingly decent job of upscaling to 1080p.

There is one area where Chromecast works differently: If you use the Chrome browser on your desktop, you can use Chromecast to display whatever is in your browser on the TV. In this mode, it works like Apple TV: the video is created on the computer and sent to the Chromecast for display. This functionality works very nicely although it’s currently limited to 720p, rather than 1080p. But there is a big red box in the browser interface that says “Beta”, so higher resolution may come later. (A side note: there is also a second mode for the Chrome stream to Chromecast which will send the computer’s entire screen, not just the current Chrome tab. That’s marked as “experimental”, though. I was not surprised that I couldn’t get it to work. If you want to try it yourself, install the “Google Cast” browser extension. Despite the rough edges of the extension itself, installation is as easy as clicking the link and accepting the Terms and Conditions.

Which brings us to the Terms and Conditions. Remember I said earlier I would have more to say about them later? Now is later.

The T&Cs for the Chromecast hardware are pretty much what you would expect. In essence, they give Google the right to keep track of what you’re casting so they can make suggestions and try to sell you more media. Basically the same as what they do with your web searches: track what you do so they can more precisely target their advertising. However, note that the T&Cs for the “stream your browser” and “stream your desktop” Chrome extension give them similar visibility into that stream. I strongly doubt that they’re recording the entirety of your stream–if nothing else, the limited upload bandwidth of most connections would make that problematical, but they could potentially send an occasional screenshot and apply the same image recognition and OCR capabilities that they use elsewhere in an attempt to recognize what you’re streaming. Could they be required to turn that information over if you’re sued by a media company who believes you’re downloading pirated material? Possibly. Could it be copied by the NSA in their quest to ensure that you’re not contemplating terrorism? Almost certainly. Realistically, you’re not any more exposed using Chromecast than you were last week, but it is another avenue of approach. And it does suggest that until we know more about what information Google gets when you do browser streaming, you should probably hold off on using Chromecast to share proprietary corporate information in your meetings.

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to make: Security is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Once a Chromecast device is on your network it’s visible to every phone, tablet, and computer on your network. There are no controls to limit which devices can send content to each Chromecast and nothing to prevent one user from jumping to the head of the queue. This is the latest version of fighting over the TV remote. And then there are the issues around having multiple Chromecasts on the network. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to accidentally select the wrong device and send your age-inappropriate shows to the kids’ TV. Or for someone to slip an extra Chromecast onto the corporate network and see what gets accidentally routed to it.

Sure, I’m exaggerating the risks a bit, but they do exist. I figure it’s a safer approach than ignoring them.

OK, this is getting long. Let me sum up:

Chromecast is far and away Google’s best effort to date at getting into your living room, miles ahead of Google TV and light years ahead of the never-released Nexus Q. It’s of limited utility until third-party media providers other than Netflix update their apps to support it (Slingbox and MLB.TV, I’m looking at you), but Google picked the right price point: $35 puts it into the “impulse buy” category. I expect that most of the big providers are working on updates now. I’m keeping mine hooked up in the expectation that it will move from “Hey, that’s cool” to “Pretty damn useful” within the next couple of months.