Apple tears down the walls between iOS applications, developer rejoice, and Tim Cook delivers a swift kick to Yukari Iwatani Kane’s derrière – more on that at the end.
In this year’s installment of the World Wide Developers Conference, Apple announced a deluge of improvements to their development platforms and tools, including new SDKs (CloudKit, HomeKit, HealthKit); iCloud Drive, the long awaited response to Dropbox; and Swift, an easy-to-learn, leak-free programming language that could spawn a new generation of Apple developers who regard Objective-C as esoteric and burdensome.
If this sounds overly geeky, let’s remind ourselves that WWDC isn’t intended for buyers of Apple products. It’s a sanctuary for people who write OS X and iOS applications. This explains Phil Schiller’s absence from the stage: Techies don’t trust marketing people. (Unfortunately, the conference’s ground rules seem to have been lost on some of the kommentariat.)
The opening keynote is a few breaths short of 2 hours. If you’d rather not drink from the proverbial fire hydrant, you can turn to summaries from Federico Viticci in MacStories, Andrew Cunningham in Ars Technica (“Huge for developers. Massive for everyone else.”), or you can look for reviews, videos, and commentary through Apple’s new favorite search engine, DuckDuckGo, “The search engine that doesn’t track you”.
For today, I’ll focus on the most important WWDC announcement: iOS applications have been freed from the rigid silos, the walls that have prevented them from talking to each other. Apple developers can now write extensions to their apps and avail themselves of the interprocess facilities that they expect from a 21st century OS.
A bit of history will help.
When the first iPhone is shipped in late June, 2007, iOS is incomplete in many respects. There’s no cut and paste, no accented characters, and, most important, there are no native apps. Developers must obey Steve Job’s dictate to extend the iPhone through slow and limited Web 2.0 apps. In my unofficial version numbering, I call this iOS 0.8.
The Web 2.0 religion doesn’t last long. An iOS Software Development Kit (SDK) is announced in the fall and released in February, 2008. When the iTunes-powered App Store opens its doors in July, the virtual shelves are (thinly) stocked with native apps. This is iOS 1.0.
Apple developers enthusiastically embrace the platform and the App Store starts it dizzying climb from an initial 500 apps in 2008 to today’s 1.2 million apps and 75B cumulated downloads.
However, developers’ affections don’t extend to Apple’s “security state”, the limits imposed on their apps in the name of security and simplicity. To be sold in the App Store, an app must agree to stay confined in its own little sandbox, with no way to communicate with other apps.
According to Apple dogma, this limitation is a good thing because it prevents the viruses and other malware that have plagued older operating systems and overly-trusting apps. One wrong click and your device is visited by rogue code that wreaks havoc on your data, yields control to remote computers, or, worst of all, sits silently and unnoticed while it spies on your keystrokes. No such thing on iOS devices. The prohibition against inter-application exchange vastly reduces the malware risk.
This protection comes with a cost. For example, when you use a word processor or presentation tool on a personal computer, you can grab text and images of any provenance and drop them into your project. On the iOS version of Pages, you can only see other Pages documents — everything else is out of sight and out of reach.
The situation becomes even more galling when developers notice that some of Apple’s in-house apps — iMessage, Maps, Calendar with Contacts — are allowed to talk among themselves. To put it a little too simply, Apple engineers can write code that’s forbidden to third party developers.
Apple’s rules for app development and look-and-feel are famously (and frustratingly) rigid, but the company is occasionally willing to shed its dogma. In 2013, for example, skeuomorphism was abandoned…do any of us miss the simulated leather and torn bits of paper on the calendar?
With last week’s unveiling of the new version of iOS, a much more important dogma has been tossed into the dustbin: An app can now reach beyond its sandbox. Apps can interconnect, workflows are simplified, previously unthinkable feats are made possible.
This is the real iOS 2.0. For developers, after the 2008 momentous opening of the App Store that redefined the smartphone, this is the second major release.
With the new iOS, a third-party word processor developer can release his app from its sandbox by simply incorporating the Document Picker:
“The document picker feature lets users select documents from outside your app’s sandbox. This includes documents stored in another app’s iCloud container or documents provided by a third-party extension.”
Users of the word processor will be able to see and incorporate all files, regardless of how they were created or where they’re stored (within the obvious physical limits). This is a welcome change from today’s frustratingly constricted situation.
iOS Extensions, a feature that lets applications offer their own services to other apps, played well when demonstrated by Craig Federighi, Senior VP of Apple Software:
“Federighi was able to easily modify Safari by adding a sharing option for Pinterest and a translation tool courtesy of Bing. Users will also be able to apply photo filters from third-party apps and use document providers like Box or OneDrive…”
Business Insider, Why You Should Be Excited for Extensions in iOS 8
Prominent among the benefactors of iOS Extensions are third-party keyboard designers. Today, I watch with envy as my Droid compatriots Swype a quick text message. The keyboard layouts and input methods on my iPhone are limited to the choices Apple gives me — and they don’t include Swype. Tomorrow, developers will be able to augment Apple’s offerings, including keyboards that are designed for specific apps.
As expected, developers have reacted enthusiastically to the end of silo hell. Phil Libin, Evernote’s CEO, sums up developer sentiment in the Ars Technica review:
“We’re most excited about extensions, widgets, TouchID APIs and interactive notifications. We’re all over all of that…This is a huge update for us. It feels like we got four out of our top five most wanted requests!”
Now, for the mandatory “To Be Sure” paragraph…
None of this is free. I don’t mean in the financial sense, but in terms of complexity, restrictions, adapting to new ways of doing old things as well as to entirely fresh approaches. While the relaxation of Apple’s “security state” strictures opens many avenues, it also heightens malware risk, something Apple is keenly aware of. In some cases the company will put the onus on the user, asking us to explicitly authorize the use of an extension. In other situations, as Charles Arthur points out in his WWDC article for The Guardian, Apple will put security restrictions on custom keyboards. Quoting Apple’s prerelease documentation:
“There are certain text input objects that your custom keyboard is not eligible to type into. First is any secure text input object [which is] distinguished by presenting typed characters as dots.
When a user taps in a secure text input object, the system temporarily replaces your custom keyboard with the system keyboard. When the user then taps in a nonsecure text input object, your keyboard automatically resumes.”
In part, the price to pay for the new freedoms will depend on Apple’s skills in building safeguards inside the operating system — that’s what all OS strive for. Developers will also have to navigate a new labyrinth of guidelines to avoid triggering the App Store security tripwire.
That said, there is little doubt that the fall 2014 edition of iOS will be well received for both existing and new iDevices. Considering what Apple iOS developers were able to accomplish while adhering to the old dogma, we can expect more than simply more of the same when the new version of iOS is released.
Which brings us to Tim Cook and the stamp he’s put on Apple. Critics who moan that Apple won’t be the same now that Steve Jobs is gone forget the great man’s parting gift: “Don’t try to guess what I would have done. Do what you think its best.” With the Maps fiasco, we saw Cook take the message to heart. In a break with the past, Cook apologized for an Apple product without resorting to lawyerly caveats and justifications. In a real break with the past, he even recommended competing products.
We’ve also seen Cook do what he thinks is best in his changes to the executive team that he inherited from Jobs. Craig Federighi replaces 20-year NeXT/Apple veteran Scott Forstall; Angela Ahrendts is the new head of Retail; there’s a new CFO, Luca Maestri, and a new head of US Sales, Doug Beck. The transitions haven’t always been smooth — both Ahrendts’ and Beck’s immediate predecessors were Cook appointees who didn’t work out and were quickly dismissed. (Beck was preceded by Zane Browe, former CFO at United Airlines…a CFO in a Sales job?)
Inside the company, Cook is liked and respected. He’s seen as calmly demanding yet fair; he guides and is well supported by his Leadership Team. This isn’t what the PR office says, it’s what I hear from French friends who work there. More than just French, they’re hard-to-please Parisians…
…but they like Cook, the way he runs the show. (True to their nature, they save a few barbs for the egregious idiots in their midst.)
With this overall picture of corporate cultural health and WWDC success in mind, let’s turn to Yukari Iwatani Kane, the author of Haunted Empire, Apple After Steve Jobs.
On her Web page, Kane insists her book, exemplar of the doomed-without-Jobs attitude, is “hard-hitting yet fair”. That isn’t what most reviewers have to say. The Guardian’s Charles Arthur called it “great title, shame about the contents”; Time’s Harry McCracken saw it as “A Bad Book About Apple After Steve Jobs”; Jason Snell’s detailed review in Macworld neatly addresses the shortcoming that ultimately diminishes the book’s value:
“Apple after the death of Steve Jobs would be a fascinating topic for a book. This isn’t the book. Haunted Empire can’t get out of the way of its own Apple-is-doomed narrative to tell that story.”
Having read the book, I can respect the research and legwork this professional writer, previously at the Wall Street Journal, has put into her opus, but it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that Kane started with a thesis and then built an edifice on that foundation despite the incompatible facts. Even now she churlishly sticks to her negative narrative: Where last week’s successful WWDC felt like a confederation of engineers and application developers happily working together, Kane sees them as caretakers holding a vigil:
The reaction to Kane’s tweet was “hard-hitting yet fair”:
Almost three years after Tim Cook took the helm, the company looks hale, not haunted.
I’ll give Cook the last word. His assessment of Kale’s book: “nonsense”.