Will iOS 8 make Andy Ihnatko rethink his Android phone?

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Craig Federighi, senior VP of software engineering, delivered most of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. | Photos by Andy Ihnatko

I can’t think of a single Worldwide Developers Conference keynote that was more exciting or important than the one that Apple delivered Monday.

That’s the truth — despite the fact that there were no hardware announcements of any kind whatsoever. Not even a routine cost-of-living upgrade to the Mac Mini or somesuch. The company didn’t show off a new commercial for the iPad or the iPhone. The only entertainment element of any kind was a nice bit of comedy about choosing the name of the next edition of the Mac OS, plus a WWDC kickoff video in which real iPhone and iPad users (I think) named their favorite apps.

Did Tim Cook warm the crowd up with photos of a gorgeous new flagship store in some exotic city? Nope. How about a few graphs about Apple’s latest successful quarter? Nuh-uh. And both are these are such reliable elements of a WWDC keynote that they’re both pre-circled on the Apple Keynote Bingo Card.

There was nothing in the keynote that wasn’t immediately and urgently related to Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” (released to developers on Monday, with Apple offering it to the rest of the world in the fall as a free upgrade) and iOS 8 (ditto).

Apple didn’t have a single minute to spare. This was a two-hour presentation that was wall-to-wall with important and substantive announcements about new features, services, APIs and developer resources — Apple’s true bread-and-butter future.

All killer, no filler. It even appeared as though some announcements had been cut down to a fluttering mention, or maybe even bumped entirely for lack of space.

I’ll be posting a second column about WWDC later in the week, when I’ve had time to review the keynote and do a lot more reading on the stuff that Apple didn’t put in the main presentation. But even before I started talking to developers afterward it was patently obvious that this keynote was one of the most important ones Apple has ever delivered.

Watch it yourself. If you’re disappointed that Apple didn’t show off a new smartwatch then walk off to the kitchen, dunk your head in something cold, and then come back to this column with clear and sober eyes.

4,000 APIs and the mercy of quality

Apple has created 4,000 new APIs for iOS 8. That’s a technical way of saying that Apple has introduced 4,000 new colors, sizes and shapes of Lego bricks. Last week, iOS developers could only make apps that were mostly square, and colored red, white, or yellow. Today, with the iOS 8 betas in the hands of developers all across the world, many more kinds of apps and services are no longer too difficult to build. Some kinds of apps were never even possible under iOS 6 or 7.

“4,000 New APIs” represents a huge evolutionary leap for the entire iOS app library. Apple has stopped talking about the number of apps available on the iTunes Store. It’s no longer a useful promotional statistic. The Android app collection is just as immense; besides, a user who wants a note-taking app can feel like he or she’s being knocked down and pummelled by the 219 options available to them.

Instead, Apple is promoting the depth and the quality of its app catalog. Apple’s latest iOS ad isn’t there to sell iPhones and iPads to musicians. Apple’s making the point that iOS apps are beautiful and emotionally engaging, in the same way that a Bernese mountain dog makes you want to reach out and scratch it behind the ears when you see one. Subtler point: The ad doesn’t show off the universally useful but dead-common kinds of apps that you can get on any phone. Like a great rock record, many of iOS’ greatest apps seem to be the result of a creative and slightly deranged individual who sat down and wrote an app that they themselves wanted to use, even if it had no obvious commercial potential.

IOS 8’s 4,000 new APIs will enhance an iPhone owner’s life in a far more immediate and tangible way than any smartwatch. The other advantage is that APIs don’t force you to buy a whole bunch of long-sleeved shirts with huge clown cuffs. I consider that a win.

Restoring the value of the Apple ecosystem

Apple seems committed to expanding the value of its customers’ investment in “the Apple ecosystem.”

That phrase had become a cause for concern with me over the past couple of years. Initially, it meant that you could attach an Apple printer to an Apple desktop computer that ran Apple’s operating system, and not worry for one slim instant that it would all work together. It continued to be a key Apple advantage deep into the company’s revival. Yes, of course your iPhone syncs to your Mac silently, magically and with 100 percent reliability. And hey, cool! The movie you bought from Apple’s content store and started to watch on your Apple notebook in your hotel room picks up right where you left off on your Apple TV when you get home.

But the Apple Ecosystem has been getting so restrictive that “lock-in” was becoming a nagging threat. MacOS and iOS became notable for being a collection of proprietary standards and services maintained by a company with little motivation to honor the flags of other nations.

I got worried. I made a conscious effort to wean myself from iCloud, Notes and Messages, even as I continued to use iOS devices and my Mac. I want to say that I buy the hardware I buy because I consider it to be the best choice for my needs. I don’t want to ever say, “Yeah, I mean, it’s not great, but moving my workspace out of iCloud was going to be such a nightmare that I couldn’t be bothered.”

Many of Monday’s WWDC announcements suggest that Apple is working harder to increase the rewards of owning lots stuff designed by the same company.

“Continuity” is one of the tentpole features of Mac OS 10.10 and iOS 8. Macs and iOS devices are aware of each others’ proximity and look for opportunities to help each other out. Apple devices can also work together to help you get things done and not worry about grabbing one device instead of another.

In iOS 7 and Mavericks, I can connect my iPad Mini to the Internet through my MacBook, but the process is no simpler than it is with a Kindle Fire or any other tablet. On iOS 8 and Yosemite, my iPad Mini automatically shows up inside my Mac’s Wi-Fi Status menulet. I can connect the tablet to the Internet just by selecting it.

My iPhone is upstairs on my bedroom nightstand, charging, while I’m downstairs on my Mac. I get a call. Caller ID appears on my Mac’s screen. I can answer the call and use the Mac as a hands-free device instead of frantically falling up a flight of stairs.

Or! I’m desperately trying to finish a column before I must dash out of my office and catch a commuter train to a meeting. I’m not gonna make it. My iPad sees my MacBook and knows that I’m using Pages. A subtle UI item appears at the bottom of the iPad’s screen. Swipe up, and it’s as if I pushed “pause” on the “write a column” project on the MacBook, and then pressed “play” on the iPad. My tablet screen has opened to the same document using the iOS version of the same app, and the editing cursor is even in the same place. I can grab my iPad, jump on the train, and keep on working.

“Continuity” instinctively feels like the correct way for all modern technology to behave. Users now switch between multiple computers of multiple form factors. We expect functions and data to be available to us on whatever’s in or under our fingers at any given moment.

But more than that, “Continuity” is a running leap away from the concern that investing in the Apple Ecosystem is a bum deal for users. It suggests that Apple engineers are talking to each other during lunch and looking for ways to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs.

Apple CEO Tim Cook

IOS 8: The glasnost edition

I bought the very first iPhone. Despite its limited features (no cut-and-paste function, even!), it was the perfect kind of phone for me. But I switched to Android last year because the iPhone was no longer my best personal option.

It wasn’t a protest move, I stress. It was a simple consumer choice, fueled in part by my knowledge iOS 7 (as yet unannounced) wasn’t going to address my problems with the OS, as well as by my belief that the real source of frustration I’d been experiencing with the last couple of versions of iOS was a gap between my own philosophies and Apple’s. I believe that a phone works best when its apps can work together seamlessly, when its user has enough control that they can change its behavior to suit their personal tastes, and when developers have the freedom to find new ways of enhancing the user experience. Apple believes that all of those things come at grave risk to the security, stability and simplicity of the phone; they’re not valuable enough to justify a certain degree of additional risk.

(That conclusion open to debate. It’s true that 99 percent of mobile malware targets Android (as a slide in the WWDC preso pointed out). In practice, an Android user is generally safe unless they flip a switch that allows their Android device to run apps that didn’t originate from the Google Play store, and then download pirated commercial games and apps. I don’t think the cost of Apple’s strict safety measures are worth the reduction in functionality.)

For me, iOS had become a three-Michelin-star vegetarian restaurant. In early 2013, I felt as though Apple was as unlikely to change its (reasonable) beliefs as I was to change my (rational) desires to have what I wanted to have.

But as the WWDC keynote unfolded, Apple kept introducing new features that fundamentally changed the air and the gravity of the iOS app environment.

This fall, iOS will be more open than I ever imagined it would be. It feels like something more than a new list of features; it feels like a basic change in attitude.

Apps are now extendable. They can share data and features with each other at a useful level of intimacy. And iOS 8 exposes the iPhone and iPad hardware to apps on a more fine-grained level.

AgileBits’ 1Password (an essential password manager) is the best example of the limitations of iOS 7 and the possibilities of iOS 8. On a Mac, it works beautifully: it manages all of your passwords on all of your accounts, and logs you in to every site and service you visit. Just like magic.

The iOS 7 edition isn’t nearly as useful because the OS doesn’t allow 1Password and the apps on an iPhone to talk to each other in any efficient way. Instead, the developers of 1Password had to create their own private APIs and hope that other developers chose to implement them in their apps.

Ah, but in iOS 8, 1Password will be able to establish itself as a service that provides data to any app that needs the stuff that 1Password provides. iOS 8 Safari can expose the entire HTML document object model to 1Password, and thus the app can auto-fill data into text fields on Web pages. Because Apple has opened up TouchID to third-party apps, it’ll be technically possible for a 1Password iOS user to sign in to those services with just a fingerprint.

That’s way better, right?

A Safari user can have Bing Translate turn an Arabic page into English as though it were a built-in browser feature. Then they can share that page on Pinterest. In iOS 7, this only could have happened after years of lunches and meetings between Apple, Microsoft, and Pinterest executives. In iOS 8? It happens if Microsoft and Pinterest decide it’s a good idea and the user installs the Bing and Pinterest software.

The iOS Camera app can use external image processing apps as though they were built-in photo filters. Pages can access files on Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive as easily as ones in iCloud or on local storage.

ICloud itself has been transformed into “iCloud Drive.” It presents itself to the user as a more conventional, Dropbox-like cloud storage system; you can actually see your files and you can easily share them between apps and operating systems. I abandoned iCloud syncing because it felt like I was putting my documents in an Apple lock-in jail, where they could never be visited by other apps — not even apps on the same device.

I was eating all of this up during the keynote. As I sat in the Moscone West hall awaiting the noon Central kickoff, a Twitter follower asked if I had taken a Xanax to prevent myself from getting overexcited. “No,” I said, “But I’m wearing astronaut diapers under my pants as a precaution.”

An hour later: “Diapers now at 97 percent,” I cautioned, after posting a flurry of tweets about the above features as Apple announced them.

Apple mentioned that iOS 8 would open up the iPhone and iPad camera hardware so that third-party apps could have direct control of things like focus, shutter speed and white balance. Apple never offered that authority to users or developers. That’s why the iPhone is great at taking a photo of your kid if he’s sitting still, but hopeless if he’s moving around. On an Android or Windows Phone device, you can directly or indirectly tell the camera app to use a fast shutter speed.

Apple went on to reveal that iOS 8 had an improved keyboard with predictive sentence completion. Then they doubled down by announcing that iOS 8 supports third-party keyboards, like the intensely fast and satisfying Swyft keyboard I use on my Android phone.

“Diapers now overflowing,” I tweeted. “Apologies to Moscone Center maintenance staff.”

I’ve gone into so much detail about this new iOS glasnost because it’s such a personal issue for me.

I’ve regretted the unusually high amount of control that Apple exerts over iOS users and developers. I wasn’t bothered by the impact on consumers. The iPhone isn’t the only phone on the market. If your tastes aren’t in line with Apple’s, you can just choose another phone.

It bothered me because I like Apple. I was worried that this philosophy of control would turn around and bite Apple the butt if it continued unchecked. I feared that the iPhone could be on track to become, years later, a quirky niche product that pleases its target audience and reviewers, serves the needs of its fans, and supports the business strategy of its maker, while becoming largely irrelevant to the swiftly-changing needs of a broader community. As I said once or twice before last year: Bang & Olufsen makes well-designed consumer electronics that please their owners very much, but when was the last time you saw a B&O product in someone’s home or office?

Have you ever?

The iOS 8 section of the keynote came as a tremendous relief. Did Apple have a “come to Jesus” moment regarding what the company’s control over its community was doing to the future of its products? Or was it more like the missing cut-and-paste feature of the original iPhone? Perhaps Apple always wanted the iPhone to work like this, but it took them seven years to work out how to implement it in a way that maintains the iPhone’s security, stability, and simplicity.

Who cares, so long as the end result is an iOS as open and filled with new potential as iOS 8? I’m not exaggerating when I say that the iPhone and iPad are receiving a monumental upgrade. If iOS 7 was a whole new era in the visual appearance of iOS, iOS 8 is a sweeping utter revolution in what iOS apps are capable of and what a user can do with an iPhone or iPad. I can’t wait to see what the world is like a year from now, when I can expect that every app on my iPad can help, and be helped, by every other app — and that if there’s something I don’t like about the way my device works, there’s at least a chance that I can buy a third-party app and change it.

Craig Federighi and CEO Tim Cook pass the presentation remote.

A keynote for the angels

This was beyond any doubt one of Apple’s most exciting and important WWDC keynotes ever.

By the end of Monday I got sick of hearing myself say the word “excited” to friends and colleagues and people at parties during discussions of the keynote. The iPhone launch event, iPad launch, and now the iOS 8 and Yosemite launch: today’s keynote just gets a bronze, but it’s clearly earned a spot on the podium alongside the greats.

I work very hard to maintain a “church and state”-style separation between my personal hopes and concerns about Apple and the company’s actual products, strategies, and services. It would be unfair and irrational for me to Apple to conform to my half-informed ideas about their purpose in the world and the dangers and opportunities that they face.

And without that partition, I’d become another one of those boneheads who fast-forwarded through the online keynote stream looking for mentions of a smartwatch. Not finding any, they then pronounced Apple as not only merely doomed, but really, most sincerely doomed.

(Many of these boneheads advise people on investments. Just as Johnny Knoxville advises consumers on the creative application of electrical bull stimulators.)

That said, Apple is one of a few tech companies that I’m outright fond of. They’re a company with a creative voice. I want them to keep making products, software and services, for the same reason why I want Scorsese to live to be 100 years old and keep making movies until the day Thelma Schoonmaker nudges him in the editing bay and says “Gee, Marty, you’ve been unusually quiet. … ”

For the past couple of years it nagged at me that Apple might grow and expand to a point where they become merely an interesting company instead of an exciting one.

My reaction to the Mac Pro, which was shown off for the first time at during the 2013 WWDC keynote, was emblematic of these thoughts.

“‘Can’t innovate,’ my ass!” boomed Phil Schiller, as he unveiled a hypercool cylindrical desktop supercomputer. But was it the sort of innovation I want to see from Apple? Was it a practical shape and form for the sort of person who needs a $3,000 ($4,000, $5,000) desktop supercomputer? And would it have been more accessible, both in terms of price and the boring act of connecting things to it, if the Mac Pro had been designed as something squat and square?

Mac OS X 10.10 and iOS 8 are exactly the kind of innovation I want to see from Apple. You buy a Mac Pro, you ooh and aah during the unboxing, but after month it’s just another piece of office equipment. What Apple’s doing with their 2014 operating systems gets me excited about all of the new opportunities available to the Mac, the iPhone and the iPad. It’s not a faster horse or a prettier horse; it’s a car.

I can’t help but be thrilled. It’s an emotional response, but hey, it’s a truthful one.

And iOS 8 hits so close to home.

To my genuine surprise, my switch to Android became an actual tech news story for a week. I used the experience to illustrate some of the limitations I was seeing in the iPhone, and to dispel some of the myths about Android’s “problems.”

(Like the malware story. I’ve been a daily Android user for at least two years now. I only download apps from the Google Play store. Zero malware infections.)

As I sat and listened Monday, I heard Apple address every personal complaint I had presented about the iPhone a year and a half ago. Apps can work together. You can customize things. Hardware features that make Apple’s own apps work better will now make all apps work better. Honestly, if the theme of iOS 8 was written on a Cupertino whiteboard as “We have to get Andy back as an iPhone user,” they couldn’t have done a more precise job of it.

It doesn’t feel like a catch-up feature-dump, either: This feels legitimately like the next evolutionary wave for iOS. iOS 8 is the greatest iteration.

I will be this plain and direct: If Apple comes out with a larger-screen iPhone this fall, I’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a single damn reason to keep using Android.

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