Equal Time for WWDC 2015

I’m all about equal time–when it suits me, of course. Just because I can look at issues from all sides doesn’t mean I will. But as it happens, today I’m in a fair-minded mood, and since I did a quick take on the announcements coming out of Google I/O a couple of weeks ago, here’s equal time for Apple’s WWDC.

  • First up we’ve got the next version of OS X, El Capitan. Many of the changes are minor–the focus of the release is on stability and appearance. Among the more notable advances are steps toward natural language searching in Spotlight and a new split screen mode where two programs can be automatically sized to fill the screen without overlapping. Most of the work, though, has been behind the scenes: programs should launch faster, run faster (if they use the GPU), and hopefully crash fasterless often.

    By the sound of it, Mac users will appreciate El Capitan, but it’s probably a good thing Apple no longer charges for OS upgrades, as there doesn’t seem to be enough there to drive adoption if users had to pay. It’s in developer beta now; public beta will start in July, and release will be in September or October.

  • Over on the iOS side of things, we’ll be getting iOS 9. Oddly enough, the focus there is also on speed and stability. There are a few new features and significant enhancements to get excited about–or worry about, if you share my usual concerns.

    Siri, for example, is becoming “more proactive”. I gather this includes things like searching your e-mail for clues to identify unknown callers and telling you when it’s time to leave for an appointment. Hopefully the latter feature will take local conditions into account. Google’s version of this doesn’t; I frequently get reminders that it’s time to leave when I’m already on the road–or even parking at my destination.

    Here’s a nice touch: the iOS keyboard will now show lowercase letters when appropriate. Not bad, Apple, it’s only taken nine versions to fix that particular misfeature.

    If you have an iPad Air 2, the most exciting announcement about iOS 9 is that you’ll be getting honest-to-gosh side-by-side multitasking. Those not-quite-so-lucky folks with the original iPad Air, iPad Mini 2, or iPad Mini 3 will get limited multitasking, with the ability to slide an app into a sort of sidebar. Everyone else is still stuck with the current background multitasking we have today. Oh, wait, there’s also a “picture in picture” mode where you can have a small video window running on top of your main app. That should be nice for my colleagues in QA: keep an eye on the game while you test. No word on what’ll happen when your main app needs to display embedded video, to say nothing of full-screen video.

    Finally, iOS 9 is going on a diet, and it’s forcing apps to do the same. iOS 8 takes something over 4.5GB of your device’s precious, non-expandable storage. iOS 9 will trim that to less than 1.5GB. Even better, Apple is introducing several technologies that should, if all used together, reduce the size of apps by (I’m pulling numbers out of the air here) 30-70%. QA alert: One of the changes, “Bitcode,” will shift the compilation of the app from the developer to Apple. That means your customers will always download an app built with the latest compiler–you can no longer assume that the app they’re running was compiled with the same set of compiler updates and fixes as the app you tested. Have fun with that, gang.

  • Of course we’re getting a new OS for the Apple Watch as well. WatchOS 2 will give developers access to all of the watch’s spiffy hardware features and let them build apps that run on the phone, making them much more useful if your phone’s battery dies. Hooray, I suppose.
  • Moving beyond operating systems, we learned that Apple is open-sourcing their Swift language. Of course, open source comes in a variety of flavors. Don’t expect Swift to become a wide-open free-for-all. I’m quite sure that Apple is picturing something similar to Python, with themselves in the role of Benevolent Dictator for Life. How responsive they are to the needs of developers outside of Apple will play a major role in determining how long it will be before the language gets forked.
  • Then there’s the announcement we all expected: Apple is getting into streaming music. As every review hastens to assure us, Apple Music doesn’t offer anything that existing streaming services don’t already give us. It’s very much a “me too” play at this point, and only Apple’s massive base of iTunes users makes it practical for them. Assuming it survives, though, I expect it will evolve in some unique directions.

    Actually, Apple Music already offers one small but important distinguishing feature. Like everyone else, Apple has personalized recommendations. Unlike other services, however, Apple’s version isn’t completely machine-generated; it incorporates playlists curated by actual human beings. We’ll have to wait until the launch June 30th to find out the truth of the rumor that all curators will are required to include at least one non-skippable U2 track on every “For You” playlist.

WWDC ’14

It’s June again, and you know what that means. No, not time for nude horseback riding. I mean, I guess you could do that if you want, but it’s not what I had in mind. No, it’s June, and that means the world’s attention is squarely on WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference. For those of you who don’t care about Apple or Apple products, WWDC is when Apple typically announces what’s coming in the next major release of their computer and mobile operating systems.

Last year, the big news for OS X was that Apple had run out of big cats, and new versions of the operating system would be named for locations. I went out on a limb, and predicted that this year’s release would be “Emeryville”. I’m delighted to announce that I was absolutely… What? Oh, darn. Sorry, this year’s release is “Yosemite”. Note that the version number is 10.10, meaning this release is officially known as “oh ess ten ten dot ten”. It’s got a nice beat, but I don’t think you can dance to it.

Moving on.

Aside from the new name, what is Yosemite bringing to the desktop and laptop user? Lots of visual cues taken from last year’s iOS 7 release. Transparency. Slimmer fonts. Flattened icons. Other than that, most of the changes seem to be aimed at users who also have an iPhone. Apple is touting “Continuity,” a package of enhancements to help integrate iOS with OS X: text messages can be relayed from an iOS device to your desktop, and the desktop can now place phone calls over an iPhone, as long as the iPhone is on the same local network. Handy, maybe, but not exactly earthshaking–which may be just as well, given ongoing concerns about seismic activity in California…

As has become the case in recent years, most of the excitement is over on the iOS side. Apple is billing the upcoming enhancements to iOS 8 as being focused on “inclusion”. Let’s take a quick look.

Users can respond to notifications without leaving their current app. The keyboard is now context-sensitive, learning words and phrases that users frequently use and offering them as suggestions. Great, not only will I still have auto-correct changing my emails to gibberish, the keyboard will be learning the gibberish and writing incoherent messages for me. A great time saver: I won’t have to do any work to confuse the heck out people. Oh, and apparently Apple is opening up the keyboard API to allow third-party keyboards to replace the default keyboard. Fans of Android “swipe” and “chording” keyboards can look forward to Apple ports.

Hey, there’s a new public API called “Healthkit”! (I keep reading it as “Heathkit”–talk about a blast from the past…) The intent of Healthkit is to allow manufacturers of fitness apps and gadgets to easily integrate their products with iOS and share date between apps. Nice, especially if you have multiple health-related devices and/or want your iPhone to nag you about your lack of exercise and high blood pressure.

In addition to “Healthkit,” we’re also getting “HomeKit,” an Apple-designed set of protocols for home automation. We talked about this last November. I had some serious concerns about the desirability of hooking all of my gadgets, including the home security system, into my smartphone. By making the functionality part of the OS and opening it up to third parties, Apple is doing nothing to make me feel better about the whole process. Remember that security is only as good as its weakest link. If an attacker can compromise any of the devices linked this way, they’ve got a path to everything else on the system. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that HomeKit is going to be a very popular target for attackers.

More inter-app communication. Currently, apps can register themselves as able to open specific kinds of files (for example, an app can register as handling pdf files, and other apps can then offer to open pdf files in that app). There aren’t a lot of details on the new functionality so far, but it sounds like apps will be able to register kinds of actions, such as “upload file” or “share image” to be included in the existing context menu.

Oh, hey, another new API! This one is for the TouchID sensor. Third-party apps will be able to use the 5s fingerprint sensor for logins. Hey, former cow-orkers, I’m betting that the first negative review of your apps complaining that you don’t support the sensor will show up about five minutes after iOS 8 is released. (Now that I think about it, given how easy it is to get a beta these days, you may start seeing the complaints even before the release.)

I said Apple is positioning the iOS 8 release as being about inclusion, and that’s arguably true. It’s also about “catch-up”. Many of the non-Continuity features are things that Android and Windows Phone have had for some time already. I’m more impressed with what’s coming in iOS 8 than I was about what we got in iOS 7, but that’s not saying a lot.

Still waiting for Apple to bring us another truly revolutionary innovation.

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.

B Is For BART

Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?