By Jason Snell
June 9, 2015 11:42 PM PT
The WWDC 2015 keynote: It’s about the journey
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
The WWDC 2015 Keynote was like a great book with a weak ending. I’m one of those it’s-about-the-journey people, though, and in the end our memories of most Apple presentation moments fade away, leaving only the products we use every day.
The iPad won the keynote
Recently iPad sales have stagnated—it’s a solid business for Apple but sales aren’t growing—and most of Apple’s iOS development choices have been understandably focused on the iPhone, with its enormous sales volumes.
On Monday the iPad got some serious attention during the iOS portion of the keynote, and the news for people who love their iPads was good. Very good.
I use my iPad a lot, but when I try to use it to write or edit text, I end up getting frustrated. Working with text on an iPad is always slower than on my Mac. But with iOS 9, Apple’s made some serious improvements when it comes to keyboards, and they will greatly benefit people who write on the iPad.
Some people use an external keyboard with their iPad when they need to get down to business. Apple has supported this on the iPad all along—even selling a keyboard dock back in the day!—but I’ve never had the sense that the company considered it a banner feature. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people inside Apple would paraphrase Steve Jobs and declare, “If you see an external keyboard, you’ve blown it.”
I don’t know what odds I would’ve given for Apple to focus on external keyboard support for iPad on stage during a keynote, but they would’ve been long. And yet, that’s what happened Monday: iOS 9 adds support to help external keyboard users discover keyboard shortcuts, lets keyboard users search in Spotlight, and has built a command-tab keyboard app switcher that’s a dead ringer for the one in OS X into iOS.
These features might seem small if you’ve never tried to use an external keyboard with an iPad, but they can be huge. Every time you have to pick your hands up from the keyboard and tap the iPad screen or click the home button, you’ve broken your concentration and slowed down your work. Today, switching between apps on the iPad while you’re using a keyboard is unwieldy and distracting. With iOS 9, it’ll be fast and seamless. That’s great news.
Users of the iPad’s software keyboard—and that’s pretty much all of us—will see even more improvements. Apple has extended the Shortcut Bar (which can optionally appear right above the keyboard and offer typing suggestions) to be a toolbar as well, with icons for cut, copy, and paste, font stylings, and more. Third-party apps can customize the shortcut bar to make it relevant for their own functions.
A lot of text-editing apps on the iPad have hacked in extra rows of controls above the keyboard, and undoubtedly those apps have implemented some features that just won’t be possible in Apple’s modifications to the Shortcut Bar. But having a systemwide approach to shortcuts will make these features much more common across all apps.
But the most surprising iPad announcement is the appearance of an I-beam cursor. iOS is not a desktop computer operating system. It doesn’t use cursors pushed by pointing devices as its metaphor, but rather direct interaction on objects via your fingers.
This metaphor breaks down a bit with keyboards, though. Tapping virtual keys is a more efficient way to enter text than having us draw every letter with our fingertips, but it adds a level of remove to the iOS interface. Your fingers tap the screen down there, on the keyboard, and your text appears up there at the blinking insertion point.
With iOS 9, Apple’s taken that broken metaphor and embraced it. Put two fingers down on the software keyboard, and instead of functioning as a keyboard, the space functions like a computer trackpad. The cursor it’s moving is just for changing your insertion point and selecting text, but still, it’s a cursor on iOS. I have no doubt it will dramatically increase text-editing productivity on the iPad, and I can’t wait to try it.
I do wonder, though… if there’s a text-selection cursor on the iPad now, shouldn’t we be able to use an external pointing device too?
Stealth iPhone upgrades with major impacts
Two of the announcements that might have the biggest overall impact on iPhone users in general were almost afterthoughts during the keynote. They may not be shiny new features, and they may not be features that can be demonstrated on stage, but they’re both big deals.
First, Apple says it’s “focused on real-world use cases” in order to improve iPhone battery life. I assume this means that Apple has actually dug into how real people use their phones and tried to find every way that they can exploit that behavior in order to eke out more battery life. According to Apple’s Craig Federighi, the result is that a fully charged iPhone will run on its battery for about an hour longer than it did before.
Longer battery life through software tweaks may not be something you trumpet from rooftops, but it has a huge impact on the day to day experience of users. If Apple can really wring an entire extra hour of life out of the iPhone? That makes the iPhones we all have that much better, all as a part of a free update.
(In related good news, Apple’s also adding a low power mode that can extend battery life even more. Presumably there will be some bigger tradeoffs if you enable that feature, but if you’ve realized that you’re going to run out of battery on your iPhone before you can get to a charger, it’s great to be able to have that option.)
The second feature that’s probably worth more applause than it got at the keynote is the improvements Apple has made to the system it uses to update software. While Apple trumpeted the fact that iOS 8 has been adopted by 83 percent of iOS device users, this version was plagued with upgrade difficulties owing to the 4.6GB of free space it required before an update could run.
People with full devices—especially smaller devices, where 4.6GB is a large percentage of their total storage space—were forced with the decision to delete lots of stuff or just not bother updating. Based on the behavior I’ve witnessed with some of my family members and acquaintances, many of them just decided to not bother with the update. That’s bad for Apple, which rolls security fixes and new features into new versions of iOS, and it’s bad for developers, whose apps increasingly rely on features in the latest version of the OS.
So the good news on Monday was that Apple has made an effort to fix this problem, resulting in an upgrade that, according to Federighi, will only require about 1.3GB of space. That should result in easier and faster updates and, ultimately, an adoption rate that will be much better than iOS 8’s.
Newsstand exits, News app enters
Newsstand was a mistake. In the early days of the iPad, I think Steve Jobs was wowed by the expensive and impractical demo apps created by a few major publishers, and decided to create a new app-centric place for media apps. But most media companies couldn’t afford what it cost to make good apps, the old apps usually hewed to old print media formats, and Newsstand itself became a prison that Newsstand apps could never escape from.
Well, now it’s gone, and that’s good news. The new News app, which looks a whole lot like Flipboard or the Instant Articles feature of Facebook, is Apple’s built-in solution for iPhone and iPad users who want to find articles to read. Being a default app on a device is a huge advantage—just look at the popularity of Apple’s relatively generic Notes app—and so lots of people will undoubtedly use News to read stories.
As an independent publisher, I’m encouraged by Apple’s open approach to content with News—everyone is eligible for entry into the app. In fact, at the keynote Apple took great pains to show magazine, newspaper, and blog content, as well as examples of content in different categories and based on certain search tags. Publishers can publish content using Apple’s fancy page-design format, but regular old web articles will come in as well.
Some publishers, who have built good apps, will continue to offer their apps in the App Store, and quite rightly so. The News app isn’t going to drive all media consumption on iOS, not hardly. But it will almost certainly become an important player, both because it’s preinstalled by Apple and because it’s likely going to be where Siri and Spotlight send you when you tap on a news story that you’ve found using iOS 9’s enhanced search and the new search screen itself.
The Apple Watch — it’s complicated
Native Apple Watch apps were promised by Apple nine months ago when it first announced the product, but with the announcement of watchOS 2, that day is closer. Native watch apps should be very similar to existing WatchKit apps, but will be able to run natively and will have access to much more of the Watch hardware, including sensors, input devices, and output channels.
But I was actually more intrigued by the addition of third-party complications to watch faces themselves. The actual watch face, or timepiece view, is where most Apple Watch users devote the majority of their attention, and the little embeddable information tidbits known as complications are one of the pleasures of wearing a connected device on your wrist.
With support for third-party complications, app developers can take data from their apps and the Internet at large and insert them on our watch faces. I’m excited by the idea of putting the temperature from my home weather station onto my watch via Weather Underground, or seeing the Giants score via the MLB At Bat App.
Hiking to El Capitan
OS X gets a somewhat more minor update with El Capitan, named after a famous granite monolith within Yosemite National Park. It’s the Snow Leopard or Mountain Lion of the post-cat name era! OS X 10.11 (and yes, that’s the number) will focus on speed and stability, which is a good idea.
The new Metal graphics interface should lead to performance boosts, and while I wasn’t thrilled by the keynote’s long game demo, I was excited by Adobe’s endorsement. It augurs well for lots of graphics-intensive apps that Adobe declared it would use Metal for all of its Mac apps in the future, and testified that After Effects saw major rendering speed boosts and Illustrator gained a much more responsive interface after adopting Metal. That’s good news for Mac users of Adobe products and many other professional-level products that may now gain speed from the use of Metal.
As with Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion, we may also come to appreciate some of the small touches that appear with El Capitan. Making the cursor easier to find by shaking it is one of those touches, as is the addition of a very iPad-like split-screen mode and natural language search inside Spotlight.
And then there’s Apple Music
I’m a Beats Music subscriber and an iTunes user and I’m interested in seeing how Apple adapts to a world where it’s a provider of both a la carte music purchases and a streaming music subscription service. It sounds to me like Apple has entirely bought in to the idea that streaming music is the future of music consumption, and that while some people will choose to just buy music or combine purchases with subscription content, many others will just subscribe to a music service and use that.
Still, I appreciate Apple’s approach to integrating your purchased music with Apple Music. Essentially, iTunes Match—which is still available as its own standalone service—seems to be integrated into Apple Music. Apple Music subscribers can integrate their existing music libraries into the library offered by the streaming service, so it’s just one big music library in one place.
Mixing purchased music and subscription content, curated playlists, radio stations, and more is a big job—and I’m a little worried about if the new Music app is up to the challenge. With iTunes we’ve seen that Apple has often struggled to create a sensible interface to access a bunch of different content types.
I admit that I’m also curious about if Apple is revamping iTunes for the Mac as a part of this new approach. I listen to music on my Mac a lot, and Beats Music only offers a Web-based player. I’d like a good app to play my music from Apple Music. Is that a next-generation version of iTunes, or something else? I’m curious to find out.
By offering Apple Music for free for three months, Apple will let us all take its service for a spin. That might be useful for competing with Spotify and the rest of the music streaming services, but I’m not convinced that Apple’s major goal with Apple Music is just to steal other services’ customers. Apple seems to feel that, again using the power of being preinstalled on every single iPhone and iPad in existence, it may be able to expand the music-subscription market and sign up people who would never have signed up for a music-subscription service before. We’ll see how that goes, but a free trial will certainly let people experience what the service is like.
As for the keynote presentation that introduced Apple Music, well, it was hardly Apple’s finest keynote hour. The entire segment seemed undisciplined, sloppy, overlong, and oddly off message, and did a pretty lousy job of explaining the product it was trying to introduce. But once those memories fade, the service will succeed or fail on its own merits.
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