WWDC 2017

Did you realize it was time for Apple’s WWDC again? I confess that I didn’t–but then, I’ve been somewhat distracted lately. What’s your excuse?

Anyway, the conference was actually last week–the keynote was last Monday–so I was tempted to sweep it all under the rug and move on. But since WWDC is my big opportunity to give Apple their dose of the mockery I direct at Google I/O, I’d better not skip it this year.

So what joy and laughter did Apple promise us for the coming year? (Hint: Remember last year when I said “Maybe we’ll get something radically new in ’17”? We didn’t.)

The leadoff announcement was the impending arrival of Amazon Prime Video in Apple’s TV app and on Apple TVs. OK, that’s pretty big for TV watchers–most people, in other words–so there’s some legitimacy in making it the first announcement, but they sure didn’t spend any time talking about it.

“Here it is. On to Apple Watch.” The big news there is a new watch face powered by Siri. It’ll use machine learning to determine what information you need, depending on where you are, what time it is, what your daily routines are, and so forth, and update automatically to include that data.

That’s a heck of a lot of information I’d rather not have on my wrist, but maybe that’s just me.

Other new faces include “Kaleidoscope” for when you don’t want your life on your sleeve, and–in a followup to last year’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse faces–several Toy Story characters.

More usefully, the health-related watch apps are being updated to encourage users to get more exercise. More guided workouts. Data exchange with gym equipment. So now your watch will know when you’re cheating on the treadmill by lowering the incline.

Moving on.

Last year’s “Sierra” macOS will be succeeded by “High Sierra”. And yes, Apple did actually make all the pot jokes on stage. Not that that’s going to protect us from everyone else making them too.

The name itself is a clue to the revolutionary features built into the new OS. None, that is. High Sierra is all about refining Sierra. It’s full of minor tweaks; the keynote is full of words like “improved,” “better,” and “enhanced”.

OK, there’s some new stuff under the shiny cover. A new file system that should be faster and more stable than the ancient HFS when dealing with large drives and large files. The default video encoding will move from the HD-optimized H.264 to the 4K-ready H.265 (aka HEVC)*.

* Be aware that older computers, especially those that can’t offload video decompression to the video card, struggle mightily with H.265. Suggestions that the change is a move by Apple to sell new computers to grandparents who want to continue watching those iPhone-captured movies of the grandkids may have some truth behind them.

High Sierra will run on every computer that can handle Sierra–but I’m sure Apple would rather you bought a new machine. Or several. So they’ve got new iMacs which will include, along with the usual improvements in capacity and power, dedicated hardware decoders for that H.265 video. Ditto for new MacBooks. Oh, and an “iMac Pro” which Apple is billing as “the most powerful Mac we’ve ever made.” Or, as Tim Cook put it, “really badass”.

Moving on to iOS.

Messages will now apparently be stored in the cloud, so they’ll be available on all of your devices. With your phone, tablet, and desktop all binging at you, you can be sure you’ll never miss another message.

Apple Pay is integrated into Messages, allowing you to send money person-to-person. Handy, as long as you only share checks with other iOS users.

Siri will have a more “natural and expressive” voice–and an optional male voice as well. She (or he, I suppose) will also function as a translator. That should be very entertaining, given the well-known limitations of machine translation.

Lots of tweaks and improvements similar to macOS. I do like the addition of “Do Not Disturb While Driving” which will detect when you’re in a car and block most phone features. Yes, you can turn it off if you’re a passenger, which means you can also turn it off if you’re driving, but at least it requires you to take a few extra steps if you want to text behind the wheel.

And there’s new iOS hardware as well. An updated iPad Pro. This one has a 10.5 inch screen, right in between the sizes of the original iPad Pros. Apparently the old 9.7 inch model is going away, but the 13 inch model will stick around, albeit with some hardware updates to keep it at par with the 10.5 inch model.

More iOS changes, specifically for the iPads. A new dock for app switching, lots of drag and drop functionality, simplifications for the Slide Over and Split View multitasking modes. And–holy cow!–a new “Files” app that will apparently give direct access to the file system. It’s not clear how extensive Files is–whether apps will continue to have totally sandboxed storage, for example–but even a limited step in the direction of letting you control where files are stored is a big concession on Apple’s part.

Ooh, built-in machine learning-based handwriting recognition. I wonder if it’ll handle cursive as well as printing.

Most iOS devices that run iOS 10 will get 11. The exceptions seem to be the iPhone 5 and 5C and the iPad 4.

And, finally, there’s the HomePod.

As the name implies, it’s a iPod for the home, i.e. a smart speaker. Don’t think of it as a competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home. It’s got some ability for home automation and the like, but it’s optimized to play music. Think Sonos on steroids (and with a pumped-up price to match).

As I said earlier, nothing revolutionary. But there are a lot of good tweaks coming, especially if you’re in the market for a new machine anyway.

WWDC 16

Did you all find Google’s announcements at last month’s Google I/O as underwhelming as I did? When you undercut the biggest news (what’s coming in Android N) by releasing a beta before the conference, it does detract from the on-stage excitement. Just sayin’.

Apple, on the other hand, has been harkening back to days of yore, when secrecy was the rule. But yesterday was the opening of WWDC 2016. Shall we see if they were hiding anything exciting, or if there weren’t any major leaks because there wasn’t anything to leak?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

The keynote was organized by operating system, so I’ll take the same approach.

  • WatchOS It’s faster. It does background updates. There are new faces, limited handwriting recognition, and a task list. Apple’s somewhat bi-polar attitude towards privacy rears its head: there’s a new app called “Find My Friends” that “takes advantage of background updates to make sure I always have the latest locations for my friends and family.” Terrorists, take note: probably not a good idea to install this app to keep in touch with the rest of your cell. Your watch can now call 911 in an emergency–and send emergency contacts and location data. Let’s hope that function can’t be triggered by software.

    This one’s kind of cool: the workout app is being optimized for wheelchair users, with customized notifications (“Time to roll” instead of “Time to stand”) and wheelchair-specific exercises.

    And then they lose all the cool by announcing an app for deep breathing exercises “to help you deal with everyday stress”. No guys, the “medical community” has not “embraced deep breathing”. The alternative medicine community is pushing it alongside acupuncture, homeopathy, and the rest of the scientifically nonsensical garbage in their arsenal. *sigh*

  • tvOS Apps. Lots of apps. A new iPhone version of the Remote app that will let you control the Apple TV with Siri. Installing apps to you iPhone or iPad will also put them on your Apple TV. No word about whether there’s a way to turn that off if you don’t want that hot new productivity app on your TV.

    Single Sign-on sounds nice: log in once and every app that supports the functionality will pick that up. Except for the app developers who are going to have to explain to their customers why they can’t use Single sign-on on their TV to log into their bank account on their iPhone.

  • OS X macOS Yes, in the interest of brand consistency, OS X has been renamed. Closer integration between your computer and your other Apple devices is the big thing here. Auto-unlock when your Apple Watch or (maybe) iPhone is close to the computer. Copy/paste between devices. iCloud to share files between computer and mobile devices–and to allow you to share your Desktop folder among multiple Macs. Better rethink that NSFW wallpaper of your significant other.

    Apple Pay for online shopping. Set up the transaction on your desktop, then authenticate it with your iPhone or Apple Watch. Shrug. If it’s even slightly more secure than typing your credit card number, it’s a win, but not exactly earthshaking.

    And [trumpet sound effect] Siri on the desktop. Because, of course, Microsoft has Cortana, and Apple can’t afford a personal assistant gap.

  • iOS And, of course, Apple’s bread and butter. A new lock screen that comes on when you pick the phone up so you have a chance to read your notifications before you unlock it. Hopefully it won’t trigger in your pocket often enough to run your battery down. And, naturally, you can do more in the way of responding to those notifications from the lock screen. Is it really that much of a pain to unlock the phone before you can reply to a text?

    Siri and Autocorrect are having a baby: Quick Type. Because having Siri tell you what to type isn’t at all scary.

    Photos can now show you a map of where your photos were taken. I can see that being useful. It would sure make organizing your vacation pictures easier–especially those ones you took through the plane’s window somewhere between Sedalia and Seattle. Oh, wait, that’s me. There are improvements in facial recognition and a new “Memories” tab that sounds like it’ll show images related to the one you’re currently looking at. Automatic slideshow creation. Hmm. That’s more worrisome–do you really want your phone automatically creating a slideshow of all 200 pictures you took at last night’s concert?

    Maps will expand last year’s “Nearby” feature to give you “proactive suggestions based on calendar events or your normal routine”. So it’ll offer you directions to the restaurant you’ve been going to for lunch every day? That’ll be handy. Hey, traffic data! Because nobody’s ever done that before.

    UI tweaks in Apple Music. Thrills. Oh, wait, now it can display lyrics. “Death of the mondegreen predicted. Film at 11.”

    Am I the only person who didn’t know that Messages was the single most popular app on the iPhone? I’m sure those of you who use it will be happy to hear that not only will emoji be three times larger in iOS 10, but the OS will provide emoji suggestions as you type in addition to suggesting words and phrases.

Well.

I hope you’re as excited about what Apple will bring us this Fall.

No, let me amend that. For Apple’s sake, I hope you’re more excited than I am.

Looks like it’s something of a consolidation year for both Apple and Google. Maybe we’ll get something radically new in ’17.

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.