wwdc14

Apple

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Today, at its annual developers conference, WWDC 2014, Apple laid out the first step in its latest plans — new versions of its mobile and Mac operating systems, iOS and OS X, respectively. The second step will come in the fall, when the company unveils new hardware designed to make the most of these new systems, including new and larger iPhones.

Dozens of new features were rattled off, some new, and some that were catch-ups to similar capabilities in competing platforms like Android. Our crack Re/code reviews team will test and evaluate these in the coming months, but here’s my first impression of the whole package.

To my mind, the overwhelming theme at WWDC was that your digital life can be better if your phone, tablet and laptop all have the familiar Apple logo. Unlike in the past, it wasn’t just about a better laptop operating system, or a better phone-and-tablet platform. It was all about the advantages you get if you use Apple hardware, software and services for everything.

The biggest new features were about making iPhones, iPads and Macs work seamlessly together, so that people on Planet Apple have no reason to leave, and those toting other brands might be tempted to fully join the Apple tribe.

The most important of these was something called Continuity, which lets you seamlessly start a task like composing an email on, say, your iPhone, and pick right up where you left off to complete it on a nearby Mac, by just clicking on an icon that automatically appears. A Mac owner with an Android phone — or an iPhone owner with a Windows PC — won’t be able to do that.

Continuity

Vjeran Pavic

Another example: The iCloud Photo Library, which automatically puts all your photos from all your Apple devices into one cloud repository — even versions you edit on one of your Apple devices — and makes it easy to grab them on any of your other Apple devices.

Another: You’ll be able to answer and place calls made with your iPhone on your Mac, and use the bigger device as a speakerphone. Or, when searching for a Wi-Fi network on your Mac, you’ll automatically be given a choice of using your iPhone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and the Mac will automatically set that up, without your having to touch the phone or fiddle with its settings. The Mac won’t do that with competing phones.

One more: AirDrop, a feature that formerly allowed you to wirelessly send documents from one Mac to another, or from one iOS device to another, will now work interchangeably with Macs and Apple’s mobile devices.

This approach might seem obvious for a company with three big lines of computing devices. But, with a few exceptions, Apple has typically focused on the two platforms separately. Yes, it has slowly added some iOS-style features to the Mac, such as Notifications and iMessage. And it has migrated some Mac things, like iWork, to the iPhone and iPad.

But this time it really stepped on the gas to paint a picture of networked and cloud-based tasks that can be effortlessly shared and handed off, with no set-up or complex steps, between its various devices.

At the same time, the company took a big step to keep developers in the fold by launching an entirely new, simpler and quicker app-development platform, and changes to its App Store to make selling apps easier.

The big motivator, of course, is Google’s Android platform, which now dominates in market share the modern smartphone market Apple created in 2007 with the first iPhone. Despite its smaller share, Apple continues to sell a lot of profitable phones and tablets, and many developers still choose to make iOS versions of their apps first, or at least at the same time as they launch Android versions. Apple wants to keep it that way.

Some of the many features Apple showed today are catch-ups to those already on Android. For instance, Apple will now allow widgets — small onscreen objects that show information without requiring users to open apps. It will let users replace its standard keyboard with third-party keyboards they might like better. It is adding predictive typing — essentially guessing from context what word you mean to type next — to its own built-in keyboard, something competitors have offered for a while.

Others are still iOS- or OS X-only. For instance, you can finally swipe away an email you’re working on in iOS while you search other emails for some information you want to include. And in OS X you can annotate email attachments like photos and PDFs, and even sign documents received in email, right in the Mail app.

For iOS, Apple showed off software hubs for integrating health-and-fitness data, and for controlling home-automation devices, meant to make the iPhone and iPad indispensable for those budding fields. And the company took a step toward becoming the indispensable payments platform by opening up its Touch ID fingerprint-recognition system to third-party developers.

In one important case, Apple is looping in Windows users. The company is finally adding a face to its iCloud service with something called iCloud Drive, which allows you to store files in and retrieve them from the cloud. It’s like Dropbox, or Microsoft’s OneDrive, or Google Drive. But, while it works on Windows — a platform Apple fears less and less as it becomes a mobile-first company — it doesn’t work on Android, which is now Apple’s most dangerous competitor.

Vjeran Pavic

The overwhelming purpose of Apple’s latest software is to make it irresistibly attractive to use all of its devices and services as a unified digital ecosystem, not to mix and match.

But there’s a big caveat in all this. The unifying software foundation Apple unveiled today will only work if its next round of hardware devices is truly compelling. The next iPhones, iPads and Macs can’t be seen as mere sequels to current models. Apple needs exciting new hardware, preferably in new categories.

There was no hint today of anything as bold as what Microsoft and Google showed at last week’s Code Conference — a service that translates languages in real time during video calls, and self-driving cars that don’t even have steering wheels.

If Apple doesn’t wow the world with new hardware, consumers may drift away from Planet Apple, after all.

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