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WWDC16: For Apple it was all about the software…

7 minute read

Apple / RedShark News

Apple Watch reborn, iOS 10 gets smarter, and macOS Sierra gets a new file-system (plus Siri). K Stewart on the latest news from the latest Apple jamboree.

Despite its developer focus, WWDC has often played host to the launch of some great Apple hardware. This wasn’t one of those times.

Instead, we got one of the most focused and moving Apple presentations since Steve Jobs’s departure.

Tim Cook opened with a clearly heartfelt tribute to the events in Orlando which paid all due respect and drew a clear contrast with the Apple’s ethos of diversity and respect. This obviously last minute change felt measured and unforced, naturally reflected throughout all that followed with a wider range of presenters supporting the familiar faces of Cook, Federighi, Cue and Lynch.

Cook went on to the usual developer numbers, within which he made special note of Apple scholarships and the youngest attendee — just 9-years old. Throughout the keynote, there were cutaways to these students and this all added to the impact of the final reveal: Swift Playground. A free iPad app of exceptional polish for teaching kids how to code.

Now a code teaching app is impressive, but not a typical show closer. However, when the app is for a language Apple itself developed, open sourced and is now number 1 on GitHub, there’s a sense of the strategic focus that’s coming through from this vast organisation.

The main substance of the keynote was broken down into four key platforms; watchOS, tvOS, macOS and, of course, iOS - now on its tenth iteration and with some unexpected surprises in its key 10 new features.

Apple Watch reborn?
A 7x increase in app launch times was, as Kevin Lynch himself pointed out, in real-world times equivalent to about a billion times. One app was shown being launched in watchOS 2 with the events cycling through the usual launch animation, the appearance of the app and the update of information. It felt slow, but still faster than most apps I (rarely) use. In watchOS3 the app launch was practically instantaneous. One tap and it’s there.

The technology behind this involves the user selecting a set of apps to keep in memory via a dock-style interface. The Watch already has something called Glances, but the difference is on watchOS3 these are now kept live so no need to wait — even when just flicking between them to another app, the display information is always current.

After the disappointment of watchOS 2 and native apps that were still way too slow, there’s been a suspicion the Watch was being re-targeted as a fitness device and properly useful third-party apps would need to wait for new hardware. At WWDC, Apple demonstrated some rather stupendous magic to suggest this might not be the case. One carefully selected demo app is not representative of the entire eco-system and one can only hope existing all-day battery life won’t be affected, but this was genuinely unexpected.

The UI of the Watch has also been rethought. The side button now activates the aforementioned App Dock, while swiping up mimics Control Centre on iOS with toggles for Airplane Mode, notifications etc.

Speed and a confusing UI have headlined user complaints since launch, so it was gratifying to see Apple listened.

In addition to this major update, there’s some new watch faces (Minnie Mouse, Numerals and Activity Circles being a fairly parsimonious list), a new way to respond to messages by scribble - writing words letter by letter on the screen - an easier way to change watch faces, a Reminder app, Find Friend app, Breathe App (for meditation) and a Activity app to encourage competition with friends. Disabled users were also catered for with a Wheelchair aware update.

There’s also an unfortunately appropriate new SOS app. Hold down the side button for five seconds to trigger an emergency call, first to the police and then to your emergency contacts. It communicates your position and shows your Medical ID. It’s also location aware, so 911 in US, 999 in UK.

The developer app ships today, while the free end user update will ship in Autumn - but no mention of a public beta. The OS3 will also open more APIs for developers, so their functionality can be much richer when it launches.

No sign as yet of the Apple’s own subscription TV service, let alone 4K, but instead a decent update that while not as transformative as watchOS3 all looks very welcome.

The all-white interface can now be switched into a dark mode, there’s a single sign-on option for pay-TV apps, Siri can now search on topics, there’s a live tune-in function to more quickly browse live streams across apps, plus a rich new iOS app that allows your iPhone to mimic the key features of the Siri Remote. The Apple TV will also support four controllers and the restriction that game apps must support Siri Remote has been lifted - so hard core games devoted to those with third-party controllers become possible.

This will be available now for developers, for the public in Autumn with no public beta so far revealed.

macOS Sierra
After 15 years of point releases on Mac OS X, Apple have finally gone back to the macOS name albeit in lower case and still paired with California place names rather than a number.

Siri was the big news here and Craig Federighi did a good job of making clear why it’s taken Apple five years to finally bring to their desktop platform. Mac Siri has been engineered into the heart of the OS so rather than simply fielding random IMDB questions or playing iTunes playlists, it can be a serious productivity tool. In the demo, Federighi had Siri search for a set of images for a presentation, then grabbed the web search images directly from the Siri search results. Siri recognises OS tags and system search results can be pinned into notification centre.

Most people in most offices aren’t going to want to begin to talk to their computers, but for those who want it the potential of Siri was clear. 

Another big feature was a fascinating update of iCloud Drive. In the example given, Sierra took a 250Gb drive with just 20Gb free and turned that into 100Gb of free space. The system works in two basic ways. Firstly, it intelligently clears away cache files and so on to optimise disk space. Secondly, it shifts old documents, email attachments etc onto the cloud. This is similar to how Photos and Apple Music work, but what wasn’t touched on was whether there’ll be any change to Apple’s existing (premium) cloud pricing. No doubt there’ll be some news on this closer to its release in the Autumn.

In terms of what makes it work, there’s one fascinating technical reveal not mentioned during the keynote which is that Sierra will replace the long-lived HFS+ file system with the all-new APFS. Apple had previously explored ZFS as a replacement technology, so it’s fascinating to see this significant new system appearing from nowhere. As WWDC proceeds, we expect to discover more about APFS which could be a significant benefit for professional users working with large (4K) files and sprawling (RAW) photo libraries. APFS with Final Cut Pro? But for now, it’s early days and your start-up volume can’t be APFS yet.

Other key features for Sierra include: Auto-Unlock your MacBook with proximity to your Apple Watch (third-party app MacID just got sherlocked), tabs will be supported at the OS level for all apps, including third-party apps without any additional developer work. Apple Pay is coming to Mac, with your Apple Watch or iPhone providing authentication. A Universal Clipboard supports copying text, images etc. on your iPhone and pasting on your Mac, or vice versa.

Sierra is available to developers today with a public beta in July and an Autumn public release. It will also require a late 2009 MacBook or iMac, with other Macs needing to be at least 2010 vintage.

iOS 10
Prior to the WWDC, there had been speculation there might be a more productivity focused iPad OS to build on the significant strides taken with iOS9 . 

This absolutely wasn’t the case in a heavily consumer-focused presentation.

If, as is widely expected, iPhone 7 keeps to the basic design as iPhone 6/6S, with no radical hardware features - apart from possibly the removal of the headphone jack and maybe a new casing colour (dark blue not space grey!!!), then the OS has to excite people.

The feature with the most Keynote time devoted to it was the app most used on people’s iPhones - Messages. Watching the presentation, you could imagine a company brainstorm session where pretty much every idea got turned over to the engineers to actually do.

Some features, such as stickers and converting text into emojis, are familiar from apps such as LINE. Other features were more novel such as invisible ink (swipe to reveal the secret text or image for a surprise), differing ways for your message to appear - e.g. dramatically slamming down onto the message stream and startling backdrops such as fireworks, celebration balloons and laser shows. There’s also support for handwriting, overlapping stickers with photos and an API for developers to add yet whizzy effects. 

A rumour that Messages might be extended to Android now looks distinctly unlikely and it’s perhaps no surprise with all graphical effects that this was the one app to crash during WWDC.

If Messages is iOS 10’s signature show off feature, the most notable engineering feature is an overhaul of the UI to support a huge amount of inline interaction. 

Notifications on the lock screen have become less useful with the speed of unlock with TouchID. On iOS10 this is addressed with a feature to show the notification screen simply when you lift your iPhone. As with Apple Watch’s wrist activate, the responsiveness of this feature will need careful engineering, but regardless of how it activates the idea is that rich notifications become a primary navigation tool. One of the most notable examples was a notification on a sports result being expanded to preview the app and even show streaming video - all within the notification screen.

Apple Music is unsurprisingly featured here with support for a link in message enabling direct playback of a song within the app.

The Apple Music app itself has also been thoroughly rebuilt. Whether or not it will be better than the original will take time to determine, and the app is still being asked to contain a lot of functionality, but what’s beyond doubt is a radical new look that seems simpler and more direct.

The Photos App has been updated to mimic the smart grouping of photographs by location, events, plus facial recognition that has been wowing people on Google Photo for some time now. One novel twist was a Memories video that puts together video clips and photos for a short movie with appropriate music. Reminiscent of the Trailers feature in iMovie, but completely automatic it even allows for you to vary the theme of the movie by switching between themes such as ‘happy’ and ‘epic’ with the cutting of the content and music changing accordingly. This automated NLE will be interesting to see in action, with the demo being a predictably perfect assembly of marketing produced pics and video.

Maps is also being enhanced with a new design, more responsive controls and more inline functionality.

Text input is being enhanced with Siri technology to put more context into auto-correction plus automatically switch between languages if you’re multi-lingual.

IOS 10 is available now to developers, a public beta starts in July and goes public in Autumn.

Tim Cook called it the ‘mother of all releases’ and while it underplayed the productivity angle, the inline functionality iOS should be useful across the board and there are apparently many more features they didn’t have time to demo. Most notably; split-screen Safari - so two web pages side-by-side.

Apple strikes back?
One popular topic ahead of WWDC was the ‘inevitable’, Blackberry-style collapse of Apple due to it lacking Google’s expertise in AI. Despite the disappointing lack of shiny new hardware, the keynote was a useful reminder of Apple’s software engineering skills. This was a coherent, focused presentation of Apple’s four key software platforms that promises to revolutionise Apple Watch functionality, useful extend tvOS functionality, significantly update macOS (not least the file system) and refresh iOS to at least keep on par with Android with added polish and, of course, industry-leading security with end-to-end encryption, on-device intelligence and ‘differential privacy’ all being stressed at the close.

There was, of course, no mention of VR or 4K or anything beyond a nicely buffed, reasonably shiny future shipping this Autumn in tandem with new iPhones and possibly MacBook Pro’s with OLED function controls.


Tags: Technology