Thanks to the truly impressive degree to which Apple’s operations are scrutinized and made the subject of intense speculation, it’s pretty easy to go into a major Apple event, like its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), prepared enough to avoid encountering any major surprises.
So it may not sound out-of-the-ordinary that the keynote that kicked off the annual event this year didn’t deliver anything too far from the targets set by pre-conference rumors and reports. But the fact remains that while there were some small surprises, this year’s WWDC disappointed with derivative features. As Farhad Manjoo noted in The New York Times, Apple didn’t announce anything surprising at WWDC and didn’t show off anything that was particularly innovative, either. Most of the features that Apple unveiled for its phones and computers can be found on competing devices and operating systems.
While most of Apple’s big announcements were predicted weeks or even months ago, most Apple fans, or those who look with interest at the company’s influence on the tech world, will admit that it’s a little hard not to find anything to get excited about during one of these events. Especially because they represent the rare instances during which Apple publicly unveils the work that’s been going on in secret to bring new capabilities to some of our favorite devices. We found a few surprises — albeit small ones — among the not-so-unexpected announcements. So here’s what did — and didn’t — surprise us in Apple’s WWDC keynote.
iOS 9 is perhaps the most widely anticipated product discussed at WWDC. But little about its unveiling at the conference came as a surprise. The new version of the mobile operating system brings some incremental improvements, starting with the devices that will be able to download the free upgrade. Emil Protalinski reports for VentureBeat that with new iOS releases, Apple typically drops support for older devices. But all devices supported by iOS 8 will also be supported by iOS 9. Apple also announced that the amount of free space required to upgrade has been significantly reduced; while iOS 8 needed 4.66GB, iOS 9 will need just 1.3GB.
The new version of iOS will bring better battery life that adds up to about an extra hour, a low power mode that turns off features to get an extra three hours, and improvements to its Siri personal assistant, which is currently significantly less useful than Google’s competing Google Now. That could change with a new system, called “Proactive Assistant,” which will learn from your activity and your data to surface relevant information when you need it. (More on the Proactive Assistant in a moment.) iOS 9 will also see Apple Maps finally providing public transit directions — starting with several large cities in the United States and China — a feature that Google has long offered. And iOS 9 adds multitasking to the iPad, enabling a split-screen mode long seen on the Microsoft Surface.
Perhaps the most surprising of Apple’s iOS announcements was the news that the company will launch a public beta for iOS 9 in July. Chris Welch notes for The Verge that the beta is similar to Apple’s program to enable Mac owners to participate in testing of a pre-release version of OS X Yosemite. That program represented the first time that Apple released an early version of its software for testing by average users — big news for Apple even though the number of people who use Macs represents just a small fraction of those who use iPhones and iPads everyday.
To Welch, Apple’s decision to effectively expand the field of beta participants by introducing the program for iOS comes as “no surprise” considering the focus that Apple has placed on fixing bugs and optimizing performance with iOS 9. (Though users will, of course, also be able to test out the features that are new with iOS 9, as well as give feedback on the release’s performance and stability.)
The Proactive Assistant was not a surprising announcement; in fact, it was pretty universally expected that Apple would announce an initiative called “Proactive” that would leverage Siri, Contacts, Calendar, Maps, and more. Nonetheless, Proactive Assistant is one of the more interesting features to debut with iOS 9 and could remedy the only real shortcoming of iOS as compared to Android: the shortfall between Apple’s personal assistant and Google’s. Manjoo notes that Apple has long lagged behind Google “in its efforts to have your phone predict how you use it, and bring up information accordingly.” That could change with iOS 9.
With Proactive Assistant, your iPhone can search your email to see if you know the random phone number that’s calling you, and offer suggestions for people, places, and apps in the search bar. Developers will be able to tap into the search system to enable the phone to search within their apps. Mark Sullivan reports for VentureBeat that if Siri knows you’re going to work out, it can surface your music app on the lock screen of your iPhone. Or Siri can automatically deliver traffic information ahead of a meeting scheduled on your calendar. While it’s not clear yet if or how Apple’s features improve on what Google’s accomplished, Manjoo thinks that Apple’s turn to artificial intelligence should set a precedent that will greatly benefit users.
And an iPhone could become the go-to for users who want a smart, contextually-aware assistant like Google Now without the privacy drawbacks. Apple, unlike Google, will reportedly refrain from mining people’s data in the cloud, and it won’t send personally identifiable over the Internet or to any third parties. That small surprise could prove a valuable advantage for Apple as it seeks to catch its assistant up with Google’s.
Beats Music cofounder Jimmy Iovine presented Apple’s new streaming music service, which is unsurprisingly called Apple Music. Expectations for the music app were widely discussed ahead of WWDC, and what Apple delivered doesn’t deviate far from what we’d gathered from months of rumors and reports. Manjoo reports that Apple Music is simultaneously “a music-purchase app, a streaming app, a radio service and a social network.” Iovine said that one of the greatest benefits of Apple Music is that it’s programmed by humans, not machines. Apple’s radio station will reportedly be programmed based not on data, but on the merit of the music itself.
The Apple Music interface has been redesigned from the iPhone’s current music app, and demonstrations didn’t reveal anything too surprising about the interface. The streaming service will cost $10 a month for a single user, as expected, or $15 for a family account. Users will gain access to a large catalog of music, plus the new Beats1 radio station and a new tool called Social Connect for interacting with musicians. The service will debut on June 30, and will be available on iOS, in the new iTunes apps for Mac and Windows, plus on Android later in the year.
The service’s Android debut, which might seem like the most unexpected part of the announcement, actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at all. Apple will be entering a crowded market in trying to get users to adopt its streaming service, and it needs to cast as wide a net as it can when looking for paying users to get on board.
Mac OS X El Capitan
Craig Federighi, Apple’s Mac software chief, showed off the new version of OS X, which is strangely named “El Capitan.” The update focuses on fine-tuning existing features, and, as expected, doesn’t bring a design overhaul as last year’s Yosemite did. Instead, it brings small improvements: the Safari browser shows which tab is playing sound or music, taking an obvious cue from a nowhere-near-new Google Chrome feature that shows a speaker icon next to the tab that’s playing sound. Mac windows are more easily resized, and two apps can automatically split the screen, a feature that’s long been available on Windows and even through third-party add-ons for Mac.
El Capitan will also bring some improvements to your Mac’s search capabilities, and Manjoo reports that the best addition is natural language search capabilities for Spotlight Search. “You can look for ‘mail from Bob I ignored’ and your delinquent mail shows up,” Manjoo notes. “I’m looking forward to trying, ‘Which Mac features were in Windows first?'”
In a twist we didn’t anticipate, Apple is bringing its Metal graphics technology from iOS to the Mac’s graphical system, which will bring better performance for games and multimedia editing. Manjoo notes that the improvement is unlikely to make up for the Mac’s major shortcoming as compared to Windows: its lack of top-quality games. Dean Takahashi reports for VentureBeat that the move represents a reversal for Apple; in the “good old days,” Steve Jobs didn’t prioritize games on Mac, and Apple paid the price with market share lost to the PC. Windows rules when it comes to computer gaming, and Apple could face even more competition when Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS begins appearing on Steam Machines in October.
This one doesn’t come as a surprise at all: Apple is already making third-party apps on the Apple Watch more capable than they were at the device’s launch. The Apple Watch has so far not been entirely open to developers, and third-party apps are are restricted in their operations because they depend on companion apps running on a paired iPhone for most of their functionality.
Apple demonstrated the new Apple Watch SDK that enables developers to create truly native Apple Watch apps, which will run on the watch itself instead of depending upon a paired iPhone. With this new SDK, developers can access the microphone and play audio from the watch. Apple Watch apps can also play video, access health data, and use the accelerometer and Taptic Engine. The idea is to make third-party apps on the Apple Watch as useful as they are on iPhone — an important development given the fact that the apps currently available on the Apple Watch are pretty much the least interesting aspect of Apple’s new wearable device.
Kevin Lynch, the Apple executive who oversees the Apple Watch’s software, showed off new faces for the watch. App developers can now add information to watch faces. A new feature called Time Travel enables users to rotate the crown to see how the calendar and other information changes throughout the day. Other updates include the ability to add more than 12 people to your friends list, use more colors in the drawings you send to others, reply to email, and tell Siri to start tracking a workout or to turn on the lights in your house.
Apple introduced News, a news-reading app, that doesn’t look particularly innovative. It takes a data-driven look at the news you read everyday, and suggests the stories and publications that are in line with your tastes. Manjoo reports that News looks a stylish competitor to Flipboard and other similar apps that are already available on iPhone and Android. Flipboard itself is already built in to some Android phones. “Which is not to say it’s a bad app,” Manjoo notes of News. “It looks quite nice. Even if it isn’t new.” The app aggregates content from a variety of publishers, including Conde Nast, The New York Times, and ESPN, and supports rich photography and animation.
Apple also made a few minor announcements related to Apple Pay. The mobile payments system will soon be accepted at more than a million locations, and will soon roll out to Canada and to the United Kingdom, where it will be accepted on the London Tube. It will also begin supporting loyalty cards. Apple is also changing the name of the iPhone app that manages Apple Pay from Passbook to Wallet.
Also during the keynote, Apple debuted Swift 2, an update to the programming language in introduced last year. Swift is going open-source, meaning that a diverse array of developers can now contribute to its development. The announcement appealed to the app developers in the audience, as did Tim Cook’s announcement that the App Store has passed 100 billion downloads and paid out $30 billion to developers.