Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) has become one of the company’s showplaces for announcing new technologies. While everyone waits with baited breath for news on the forthcoming iPhone 6, this conference focused more on new software and developer technologies… and there were a lot of them. Better yet, for those of us who didn’t score Willy Wonka-esque “Golden Tickets” to the event (this year they went out on a lottery basis), most everything was exhaustively streamed, covered, and analyzed.
New OS X: Yosemite
Most people would be surprised to learn that iOS and OS X are quite similar, having stemed from a common ancestor (NeXTSTEP/OpenStep); both platforms share a common language (Objective-C) and numerous related bits and pieces. With OS X 10.10 (they’re now named after California landmarks — 10.9 was named Mavericks — as Apple had run out of big cats), OS X’s relationship with iOS gets ever-closer: the mobile OS’s look-and-feel has been emulated to a degree (with more of the “flat/thin” look); additionally, there’s a Safari browser revamp, an overhaul of Spotlight searching, and cleaner, simpler icons and Dock.
“A Mac running Yosemite will now recognize when an iPhone is near it, and will be able to pick up calls and make calls through the iPhone’s cellular connection. Users will also be able to simply click on a phone number shown on a website to start a phone call, or select a person from Contacts, Calendar or Message to initiate a call.”
New iOS: 8
On the surface, iOS 8 doesn’t look like as big a jump as last year’s iOS 7, what with the radical (and controversial) revamp of the entire look-and-feel that went down in 2013. But under the hood, it looks like iOS 8 will deliver the bigger punch than its predecessor. Yes, some of these features have been in other mobile OSes (Android in particular) for some time, so it’ll be interesting to see how iOS leverages these concepts:
- Inter-app communication has long been weak in iOS. Stemming from security sandbox considerations, apps have had very limited capacity to share resources with other apps. This looks to be changing in iOS 8: Custom Actions will allow, as an example, for a photo in iPhoto to be assigned to an Address Book contact in one step instead of the cumbersome “open in the target app” mechanism that exists today. Document handling gets a further boost with the OS enabling sharing of documents across applications without having to make app-specific copies.
- Apple also relented on some of their “black box” mindset in allowing custom keyboards to be used in iOS at last; up until now, any “custom” keyboard was really just a standard keyboard with additional buttons tacked on. Similarly, the new Touch ID fingerprint identifier on the iPhone 5S will now be opened up for third-party developers to use. They’ve also made the keyboard smarter overall with “predictive typing” that’ll hopefully minimize (if not eliminate) all those “damn you, autocorrect” embarrassments.
- With the “Internet of Things” emerging as a big new technological area, iOS stepped up with both HealthKit and HomeKit. The former will allow for greater health and fitness functionality from iOS devices, while the latter will enable more seamless connectivity to “smart home devices” such as thermostats and lighting; this no doubt was a strategic move in light of Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest.
- For those of us who want to respond to text messages “in one go” without having to unlock, enter Messages, and respond, iOS 8 delivers with Actionable Notifications:
Annnd Last (But Not Least)… A New Programming Language (Yes, Really!): Swift
Put any random group of developers in a room, and within minutes (or seconds) they’ll start debating the merits of their favorite programming languages: syntax, thread handling, strong-versus-weak typing, verbosity, object-orientation… the points to be argued about can seem endless. Well, now there’s a new contender for them to debate: with iOS 8, Apple introduced a next-generation language called Swift.
This has been a long time coming: recall that iOS is derived from OS X, which is in turn derived from NeXTSTEP. This means the most cutting-edge iDevice is running apps written in a programming language that’s well over 25 years old.
Of course, that’s not a total dealbreaker: C (on which Objective-C is based), C++ and Python aren’t exactly spring chickens either. But with its somewhat arcane Smalltalk-style object syntax, and two-plus decades of NeXT and Apple cruft on top of it, iOS’s development language was crying out for a bit of modernity.
It still remains to be seen how helpful or easy-to-adopt Swift will be (though Apple helped things along by releasing a full e-book of the language spec and a beta build of developer tool Xcode for iOS 8); however, the language’s simplified “scripting-style” syntax looks compelling; even more tantalizing is the “playground,” where developers can write code and see its result in real-time in a window alongside. It may be a game-changer or merely an overhyped extension, so we’ll be watching closely to see how this new bit of developer technology unfolds.