The stakes were high for Apple to reinvent itself at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference, with the tech world holding its breath to see its response after its recent stock and popularity slump. At yesterday’s Keynote address, Apple made several much-needed major new announcements. Ironically, many of the changes in OSX Mavericks and iOS 7 are copied directly from Microsoft, Google, and Palm (!), but that’s nothing new. Remember that Apple is not about being the first, but being the best. Take the iPod, iPhone, and iPad: MP3 players, cell phones, and tablet computers existed long before Apple refined them. Apple removes, refines, simplifies, and then raises the bar. In comparison to Android’s fast, splintered development, Apple can be perceived as slow. This may be why it has fallen out of favor with the tech media in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.
OSX 10.9 ‘Mavericks’
First is the new version of OSX, called “Mavericks,” after a popular surfing beach in California. There are no glaring interface changes. Most of the changes are under the hood to make the operating system more power-efficient. This is in keeping with Apple’s supposed strategy to merge OSX and iOS into one codebase. Don’t believe it? How about the awkward inclusion of Springboard in OSX? And Apple’s decision to deprecate garbage collection? I cringe at the thought, but it will happen.
- AppNap and Timer Coalescing. These features are designed to save energy by deactivating apps while off the screen and by consolidating CPU interrupts. Ironically, Timer Coalescing is a feature that Microsoft wrote about in a whitepaper back in 2009!
- Maps. There is finally a Maps app in OSX just as in iOS. Is that a good or a bad thing? It includes real-time traffic and alternate routes, and you can push directions to your iOS devices. But after the whole Apple Maps fiasco on iOS, does anybody even use Apple Maps anymore? Google seems to have taken the prize with maps so far.
- Calendar. With a clean new look, its killer feature is telling you when you need to leave to make it to your destination on time. It also tells you what the weather is like at your destination, so you know whether you need to bring an umbrella. Sound familiar?
- Safari. From the user perspective, Safari features a new Shared Links sidebar that displays links from social news feeds. Under the hood, Apple made some impressive improvements to performance and battery life by reducing memory and CPU energy usage. Still, will this be enough to lure people away from Google Chrome? Probably not.
- iCloud Keychain. A password management tool that syncs across Apple devices and integrates seamlessly with Safari. Did Apple just kill all the other password management apps out there? Maybe not; popular apps like 1Password are cross-browser and cross-platform, which is a big plus. Also, iCloud Keychain will surely become a ripe target for hackers (Apple users are usually high-income, right?) It might be better to keep your sensitive info in a less conspicuous place.
- Multiple Displays. This feature effectively recreates a complete desktop experience on additional monitors. This is a nice touch that has been very much in demand and will make life easier for those who present for a living.
- Push Notifications. Now OSX can receive push notifications just like iOS, another hint of the pending convergence between the two platforms. The killer app is that even websites can send push notifications (such as breaking news, sports scores, auction alerts). Could this usher in a new push web development paradigm?
- Finder Tabs. Now you can see multiple Finder windows in a single tabbed view. Does this really deserve mention during the WWDC keynote??
- Tags. This allows users to organize the same file in many different ways. This idea is a clone of Google’s labels in Gmail, and is designed to get users to think about the filesystem in a different way and not a rigid collection of files and folders. This physical analogy worked for decades because it was modeled after the real-world office analogy, but it is extremely limiting (a file can only be in one folder). This continues Apple’s slide into the “no filesystem” world of iOS.
- LinkedIn. Now OSX integrates with everybody’s favorite professional social network, just as it does with Facebook and Twitter.
Aside from the new OSX logo and a few apps like Maps and Calendar, it seems like Mavericks is an incomplete implementation of Apple’s new “flat” design aesthetic present in iOS7. I would guess that this is because they simply ran out of time. OSX and iOS are still very separate codebases, despite their many similarities. Maybe Apple did it to limit shocking the public with too many design changes too soon? Overall, there are some nice features in there, and if the price is right most people will upgrade without a hitch. I wonder what older hardware will Apple exclude this time around?
With the newest “Haswell” Intel processors, Apple managed to extend battery life up to 9 hours on the 11-inch Air and up to 12 hours on the 13-inch model. The new Macbook Airs also use the new 802.11ac Wifi, offering faster speed and longer range. Nothing crazy here. Some bolder moves would have been to add a touch-screen or to let the screen flip around the device, like many Windows 8 laptops do. Of course, OSX isn’t ready for touch yet, but all signs point in that direction as OSX and iOS eventually become one.
Don’t get me started. A 10″ tall, black, sleek, cylindrical computer that has exactly zero in common with the existing lineup. Honestly, I need to rant about this one. To me, this is a perfect example of putting form ahead of function. The old Mac Pro was a heavy-duty, extensible workstation machine. It was not meant to look pretty or sit on somebody’s desk like a vase (though I thought its industrial aluminum frame was gorgeous). It needs to be easily upgradeable with stock components: memory, hard drive, graphics card, proprietary cards (Pro Tools, etc.). The new Mac Pro throws around a litany of impressive performance numbers, but fails to mention it will require proprietary costly hardware on the inside….completely different graphics cards and hard drive connectors, for example. Apple justifies this by encouraging external expansion via Thunderbolt 2 and USB3 jacks in the back. So instead of having everything inside one box, you’ll have all your components in separate chassises all over your desk. Maybe my opinion will change over time, but for now, I’m not a fan.
Touted as the “biggest change since the original iPhone”, iOS7 definitely delivers on that promise. Let’s start with the visual interface, because that’s what is on everybody’s mind. The design does away with Scott Forstall’s skeuomorphism, a fancy word for “making things look like they do in real life” (i.e. the yellow notebook appearance of the Notes app). Honestly, I don’t mind functional, tasteful skeuomorphism that is consistent and real (for example, why did pages curl in iBooks but not in iCal??) Apple’s new flat steals a lot of inspiration from Windows 8’s “Metro” design language, which is not surprising but incredibly ironic. But just as in Windows 8, my biggest complaint is about the buttons. Buttons are rendered as just plain text. There is very little visual indication that a button is a button, except for color, size, and thickness. Here’s where I think a little skeuomorphism goes a long way. There are buttons in the real world, and they look a certain way and respond when we push them. Digital buttons should do that too! This is not the same skeuomorphism as in gratuitous faux stitching and brushed metal. Don’t confuse the two!
Apps take up much more of the screen real estate by eliminating unnecessary “chrome”. There is an emphasis on depth via the use of layers and transparencies. I need to point out for the sake of irony that Windows Vista was the first to use translucencies back in 2005! The subtle use of animations (i.e. the moving background wallpaper) and transparencies creates the illusion of depth, but undoubtably at the cost of shorter battery life. The neon pastel color scheme is unique and modern but feels overly “feminine”. Overall the interface is much lighter and brighter; sometimes it hurts the eyes. Will it hurt battery life too with all those glowing pixels?
- Control Center. A very sorely needed way to access commonly used settings without having to trove through the maze that is the Settings App. It can be accessed from any screen, including in any app or the lock screen. I just think it is too busy. The audio player seems out of place, as do the AirDrop and AirPlay buttons. The integrated flashlight button just killed about 20,000 apps in the App Store, however. The unofficial term for this is “sherlocking“.
- Notification Center. Available by swiping down from any screen, including the lock screen. It takes up the whole screen and has a new “today” view. I was never a fan of the old Notification Drawer; it never felt right to me. The brushed metal background seemed so out of place. The spacing and sizing of the elements (like the table section headers) was off. And that itty-bitty “X” was much smaller than the recommended 44×44 minimum size recommended by Apple.
- Multitasking. Double-tapping the home button now shows actual “card” screenshots of the minimized apps (like the old mobile Safari showed open tabs). Swiping an app up off the screen top kills it. This behavior is directly copied from the old Palm webOS, which makes sense given that the person who designed it apparently now works at Apple. Behind the scenes, there are additional background modes that allow an app to periodically wake up and perform a task such as download data, or perform an action after receiving a push notification.
- Live Icons. The iOS7 clock app now shows the current time. A step in the right direction, but still a bit shy of Android’s widgets or Windows 8’s live tiles.
- iTunes Radio. The Music app now offers unlimited free (ad-supported) streaming music, with 6 skips per hour and a full history so you can go back and buy that song you heard last week! Look out Pandora, you’re about to be sherlocked! Interesting that ads can be displayed on the lock screen. That’s a first for Apple.
- AirDrop. Porting over a little-known feature from OSX, this allows users to share files with other nearby people who are in both in each other’s Contacts. Great idea!
- Auto Updates. Apps will finally be able to update themselves (at opportune times of course) instead of relying on users to manually initiate the upgrade process. This means app updates will propagate faster to your install base, potentially alleviating the pressure on developers to maintain multiple concurrent back-end API’s to support each version being use. However, if this feature can be disabled, than this benefit will be moot. In fact, I’m 90% sure this will be the case because might not like losing the ability to choose whether to upgrade.
- Per-App VPN. iOS currently does not support multiple concurrent VPN connections. Now each app can use its own. Great for Enterprise apps and power users.
- Camera. The Camera app adds filters and a new square photo mode. Did Apple just sherlock Instagram? Also video can be captured at 60fps.
- Photos. Now you can groups photos into “moments” by time and place. The “Year view” shrinks photos down to microscopic size. Another case of Apple taking advantage of the retina display by making things super-tiny. Plus new shared photo and video streams via iCloud.
- Safari. A much cleaner interface so you can see more of your web page. Plus a new tab browser with a new sorting mechanism that looks more like vertical cover flow. Shared social links are also available just as they are in OSX. My only question is about the consistency between this and the new multitasking view: why not make them behave the same?
- Siri. Siri can search more online data, like Wikipedia and Twitter, and control more apps, like the Phone App or iTunes Radio. I don’t ever use Siri so I won’t appreciate this.
- App Updates. Happen automatically in the background at smart times, like when you have power and a good Wifi signal.
- Find my iPhone. If you lose and erase your device using this service, you need to enter your AppleID before you can use it again, and before it can be reactivated. Hopefully this will result in fewer stolen iPhones. How soon until somebody figures out a hack around this?
- iOS in the Car. The strangest iOS7 feature announced by far, this provides a way to control a car’s in-dash system with your maps, music, and messages (this probably leverages the multiple-display technology in Mavericks). I can’t believe Apple convinced so many car makers to go along with this. Isn’t the trend that cars will eventually have their own internet connections? Is this a strategic move by Apple to not lose the automobile to competition? Another important question….how will users safely interact with things like messages while driving?? Sure, it will be voice-based using Siri, but the cognitive load is still there.
- Wireless. iOS7 works with new “location beacons,” new low-power transmitters than can talk to nearby iOS devices (think museum and retail). This is brilliant and will be a huge opportunity for ad delivery. There is also improved support for Bluetooth low-energy and local Wifi, opening the way for more personal area network apps.
- Inter-App Audio. Can be used by different audio apps to combine their output streams. A great opportunity for collaboration. After all, Apple’s huge comeback did started with iTunes and the iPod.
- Compass App. Now contains a level! How many apps just died because of this?
- Swipes. iOS7 introduces 2 new swipes: swipe up (to reveal control center) and swipe right (to go “back” from a navigation stack). Apps that rely on these gestures will need to be updated. Of particular concern is the “drawer” that is used by many apps, including Facebook, to reveal an additional screen. This drawer is also activated by a right-swipe. These apps will need now to be redesigned.
- Changing default apps (browser, email, maps)
- Allowing apps to communicate with one another (like “intents” on Android)
- Providing useful information instead of app icons (like Android’s widgets or Windows 8’s live tiles)