The 5 Things That Made This Year's WWDC Radical
Instead of trying to invent and manufacture all of its own smart light bulbs, thermostats, TVs, door locks and security systems, Apple can let all sorts of discrete home automation innovators invent cool stuff -- and then let Apple customers control it all through their iPhones or iPads in a way that makes sense to them. "Easy" and "extensible" are the keywords to rapid adoption here.
While there were two hours jam-packed with announcements at the keynote presentation kicking off Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this week, you can count the really important announcements that will create lasting change on one hand. The new programming language, Swift, isn't one of them. Wait, what? Not Swift? Why?
Swift is a tool that will help developers build better applications faster. When we're talking about a billion apps, app development isn't creating a bottleneck for Apple success or consumer enjoyment. There are five bigger deals that will spark broader reach.
No. 1: iCloud
In some ways, Apple's iCloud storage and app communication service is playing catch-up to the likes of Dropbox -- but in other ways, it's become so baked into the Apple experience that it is more capable than ever of serving two masters: consumers and developers.
For consumers, Apple has added iCloud Drive, which will let you store any file in Apple's cloud and access it on any device, including one running Windows -- like Dropbox, basically. For millions of Apple customers, iCloud Drive will become the first -- if not the default -- online cloud storage choice.
Furthermore, apps that use iCloud get folders and visible storage space on a customer's iCloud Drive, too. As you edit a document on one device, your changes will sync automatically for all devices, allowing for seamless document editing with different devices in different places. It gets better, though: You can start editing in one app and add finishing touches in another app altogether.
That's just for files, though. There's more to iCloud.
For instance, with the new Handoff feature, you can do things like start writing an email on your iPhone and pick up where you left off when you get on your Mac. Or browse the Web on your Mac and then continue on the same site on your iPad. Developers, it turns out, will be able to use Handoff, too; it will let them build continuity integration into apps for different devices.
What this means is an easy, seamless experiences for mere mortals.
There's even more, though: Apple's new CloudKit for developers includes APIs they can use to add common cloud-oriented services to their apps without needing to use cloud services from other companies -- and get this, it's effectively free for the vast majority of developers and apps. This will speed app development in a big way.
No. 2: Photos
The iPhone is already the world's most popular camera, but photo management remains a pain in the butt. Many iPhone users simply leave thousands of photos and videos on their iPhones, only moving them off when they run out of local storage.
Apple's new Photos features and solutions coming in iOS 8 (and Yosemite, though OS X details are less clear) will change completely how millions of people handle their important photos and videos -- and ultimately make them stickier, more loyal Apple customers.
Here's what's happening: Every photo, edit and album can live in your iCloud Photo Library and be consistently viewable on all your devices. Basically, the new mantra is, "Fill your library, not your device."
The Photos app has been redesigned. It's now smart enough to store the original high-resolution photos and videos in iCloud while storing smaller versions on each device. Plus, nondestructive edits to photos are populated across your devices. With PhotoKit, developers can create filters and editing options that will work directly with saved photos in your Photos (Camera Roll) and on iCloud, instead of requiring you to import them into and out of other apps.
Unfortunately, you only get 5 GB of storage free, which will be easy for many people to use up, especially as they start using higher-resolution cameras in the 5s and forthcoming iPhone 6. However, Apple has created reasonably priced options, ranging from 99 US cents per month to $3.99 per month for 200 GB.
With a new smart search feature, you'll be able to search your entire collection by location, date or time. All told, the entire photo experience is about to take a big leap forward, and because photos are so important to so many consumers, these ease-of-use features are critical.
No. 3: App Communication
The ultimate wildcard at WWDC is a radical new open door for developers: the ability to have apps communicate with each other. Previously, apps were sandboxed, essentially isolated from other apps. In iOS 8, developers will be able to create plugins or apps that can be integrated into other apps.
For instance, an image developer can create a special filter that could be used from within Apple's own Camera or Photos app -- so users wouldn't have to use multiple apps just to get one new thing.
The built-in keyboard can be swapped out for other keyboards, and apps can run inside of other apps. A developer could create just a single awesome feature, for example, rather than an entirely new, full-featured app -- and just sell the feature as a plug-in.
This opens up a world of possibilities for app developers, who no doubt will begin creating new features that can rapidly extend the functionality of iPhones and iPads. The effects of inter-app communication will take months to feel, but the impact will spread wide and far.
No. 4. HealthKit and Health App
Speaking of apps that can communicate, HealthKit serves as another example of how that might work. With HealthKit, developers can create devices that measure health- or fitness-related metrics, like temperature, blood pressure, activity or blood glucose, and deliver that information to more than a single app -- in particular, to the Health app.
The Health app will provide a one-stop place for an iOS user to funnel health and fitness information, which presumably would lead to a smarter human -- and a better, healthier life.
Of course, there's more to it than that: Health and the HealthKit APIs aim to let medical professionals and organizations, such as the Mayo Clinic, create apps that can do things like proactively communicate personalized health metrics to doctors during (or before) a health crisis. Think better health management.
What's astounding and wild about this plan is that it invites so many other experts to utilize the popular iOS devices and build upon iPhones and iPads.
When Apple introduces its own iWatch, you can bet it will communicate with the Health app. Instead of trying to build the best smartwatch to rule the world, Apple no longer has to build everything itself in order to become the connective tissue that consumers really crave.
Samsung announced a similar initiative already, but coming from Apple, it's a big move in a growing space and will cause ripples of change and activity around active health management.
No. 5: HomeKit
Similar to HealthKit, Apple's HomeKit APIs have the potential to become the cohesive fiber between disparate home automation devices.
Instead of trying to invent and manufacture all of its own smart light bulbs, thermostats, TVs, door locks and security systems, Apple can let all sorts of discrete home automation innovators invent cool stuff -- and then let Apple customers control it all through their iPhones or iPads in a way that makes sense to them.
"Easy" and "extensible" are the keywords to rapid adoption here, and Apple is the only company that has the reach and market attention to do that right now.
In addition to having a sort of universal remote in the form of an iPhone, Apple brings the ability to tap into Siri to create voice-activated sets of controls -- like the ability to ask Siri to lock all the doors, turn off the lights, and activate the security system -- all in a customizable command like, "Siri, it's bedtime."
Better still? Apple has massive consumer reach through its Apple Retail Stores. If you're a consumer who's having trouble visualizing fancy light bulbs or even iPhone-activated door locks, you'll be able to see them in action inside Apple Retail Stores.