While some of us doubtless ignored the iOS 8 hubbub this morning, it's safe to say that Apple's WWDC remains probably the closest-watched developer event in the industry, and likely has since the original iPhone made its debut way back in 2007. The WWDC keynote is where we see the world's most valuable consumer electronics company display how consumers and developers alike will interact with its new [usually software] products. It's a highly visual, buzzword-laden ritual that even many of the most ardent anti-Apple find themselves at least half paying attention to in the background, either on social media, blogs, or live video stream.
As an Android blog, we too pay attention. Not because we all secretly lust after Apple products, but because not concerning ourselves with what's next in iOS isn't really a defensible position to take - points of comparison, technical knowledge, and general awareness of what is happening in the industry at large is a necessary part of our job. Especially in regard to what is by far Android's largest competitor in the marketplace. (I'll admit, we're not paying as close attention to the Windows Phone keynotes.)
Today, Apple announced iOS 8 with a handful of interesting new features, as well as major changes on the developer side. As to the latter, I cannot speak from a point of professional insight - I am not a developer, and know very little about development. On the consumer side, though, Apple gave us plenty to see today, and Android fans like us will likely cry "copycat!" at a fair number of the changes which were unveiled.
Third-party keyboards, Apple keyboard changes
Yes, Apple has finally relinquished its iron grip on input methods in iOS, and is opening the App Store to submissions from third-party keyboard makers like Swype and SwiftKey, the former of which even appeared on a slide during the announcement. Why? While we probably won't ever know exactly what led Apple to this change of heart, there are a great many factors that likely drove the choice to declare open season on Apple's own keyboard.
First and foremost was probably user demand: even Apple has to acknowledge the complaints of its customers to a point, and third-party keyboards have been one of the most demanded iOS features for years. Making users happy makes sense. It also allows customers to personalize the look and feel of their iOS devices more, something Apple has resisted with almost comical stubbornness over iOS's 7-year history.
Second is almost definitely money. Third-party specialty and premium keyboards often carry a price tag, and many like SwiftKey and Swype sell licenses by the million. Special keyboards for emoji, custom CJK layouts and input methods, and themed keyboards are also substantial revenue generators. Apple takes 30% of that cut, and loses basically nothing by letting iOS users change the input experience, other than some twisted and absurd philosophical battle that has apparently kept this from happening for so long.
Finally, it takes pressure off of Apple to satisfy a never-ending list of user pain points and instead spearhead leading-edge developments in the software keyboard experience. I am sure development of the iOS keyboard will continue in earnest after this announcement, and there is no doubt going to be a greater focus on how that software evolves over the coming years, as opposed to attempting to satisfy more niche consumer demands. The keyboard development team probably experienced a simultaneous massive sigh of relief when this announcement dropped.
Speaking of, Apple also updated the iOS keyboard with - wait for it - a predictive text bar a la SwiftKey! Welcome to 2011, guys.
All in all - nothing to see here for Android users. Apple has long seemingly intentionally avoided feature parity with Android's input methods, and it seems like they've finally given in.
The iOS App Store will now let developers select users for participation in beta programs. It's not exactly clear how this feature will work, but it sounds like much more of a developer-controlled scheme than what Google introduced with its Google+ community beta tester system, which allows developers to open their apps for public beta testing (or closed, if they so choose) through the company's social network.
TestFlight sounds much more like Google's staged rollout system, allowing developers to select factors and a test group size in order to distribute an upcoming or beta update on a trial basis, with users having no easy way to express their desire to opt in unless asked by the developer (the user apparently does need to consent).
To be clear, this is not an Apple-developed feature. Rather, TestFlight was an existing service that was acquired by Apple back in February, when it then dropped support for Android.
Apple's definition of a widget is more like the OS X / Windows definition of a widget. You have a widget area (in this case, a pane on your notification pull-down), and in this area exist some things that are widget-like objects if you're looking at it from an Android perspective. Basically, it's a list of pertinent items linked to apps or functions in iOS that display information and allow the user to interact with that information in a variety of ways.
via The Verge
One of the more interesting examples displayed by Craig Federighi during the presentation was an eBay widget which showed items he had bid on and items he was watching, but allowed him to increase a bid on an item he was outbid on directly from the notification widget.
To be clear, Apple has not shown any indication these "widgets" will go anywhere but a pane of the notification bar, and it seems highly unlikely they'll ever end up on homescreens. Given Google's increasing distancing efforts on the subject of widgets, one has to wonder what sort of rich, pervasive experiences it wants to integrate in notifications and the Google Now app to replace some of that functionality. Apple's answer essentially seems to be ultra-rich notifications - ongoing, static presences in a separate pane of the notification bar that allow you to customize the sort of information you want to see and be able to act on.
via The Verge
Apple was fairly sparse on details in regard to iOS widgets, but I'd say they're shooting for something of a Google Now-meets-OS X widgets hybrid here. Presumably, widgets would also be able to notify you of information, and allow you to act on certain information directly from the widget pane. This brings us to the notification changes in iOS, which are actually pretty significant.
Yes, Android has had actionable notifications for quite some time. The problem, though, as you've likely noticed, is that very few third-party developers have ever bothered to implement them. Even Google itself seems quite lazy about evolving its version of notification actions, and I can't say I remember the last time I actually used one myself.
via The Verge
Apple's implementation, though, goes a significant step further than Android's, and in an important way. Instead of merely providing action options tacked on to the notification, iOS 8 will actually allow actions to be completed directly from the notification, without ever leaving the app you're currently in. This is actually very cool. Some examples were simple things like a text message - when the drop down notification for an iMessage comes in, pulling down on it opens a small response window and the keyboard. Hit send, and the notification bar goes back up and you never left the app that was open. Apple is leveraging the notification bar as a go-between to reduce the amount of multitasking you have to do for simple things like quick email replies, calendar events, and liking a Facebook status. You can even act on notifications from the lockscreen.
via The Verge
No matter how much you dislike iOS, there's no denying this is a genuinely useful feature (even though I'm sure app / OS / ROM X already has something similar, thank you for letting me know). There's no word on the level of third-party integration that will be allowable with this feature, though Apple specifically mentioned that third-party apps would be able to integrate with the new notification center.
via The Verge
In catch-up news, iOS will finally allow apps to exhibit the intent / picker-like functionality that has existed in Android since, I don't know, ever, and make actions within an app extensible to other apps. This was widely expected, but it's big news for iOS nonetheless. This means you can take a photo in the camera app and then select an "edit" action and open it in the editor of your choice. Or, send a link from Safari directly to Gmail (yes, iOS really cannot do this right now, except with a few, select apps). Or tap an address on Yelp and open it in Google Maps instead of Apple Maps. More than anything, it means the sharing of content will finally open up on iOS beyond the few apps it currently supports for sharing actions.
This is a major functional addition at the OS level that will dramatically increase the sharing potential and interoperability of applications on iOS and it's something that developers will likely leverage heavily as time goes on, particularly since they've kind of sort of been doing it in Android forever.
Why hasn't iOS had this extremely useful feature to date? Who really knows.
With every WWDC, a flurry of rumors about revamped iOS multitasking whirl about like glowsticks at a terrible rave. Rarely do said rumors ever pan out.
They didn't pan out.
The only major change to multitasking in iOS 8 is the addition of a list of recent contacts above your list of recent apps in the multitasking UI, at best a feature of questionable usefulness, at worst totally unnecessary visual clutter and bloat.
Healthkit is an extremely ambitious, extremely ambiguous new app in iOS that will track every aspect of your health. Diagnostic tools, fitness stats, lab test results, a personal health profile, your current medications, nutrition data, sleep information, vital signs, and a bevy of other biometrics can all allegedly be stored in the Healthkit app.
Apple was typically light on details with Healthkit, as it tends to be with most of its services that attempt to pierce new markets. The basic idea of Healthkit is to integrate with every smart fitness and vital-tracking product you own. This, of course, relies on the makers of those products adding Healthkit support to them. This, in turn, will probably mean introducing new Healthkit-enabled versions of some products, some of which will likely be very expensive and may eschew compatibility with other competing smart health standards.
In addition, Apple is promising to integrate Healthkit functionality with a number of healthcare providers, including highly popular providers like Kaiser Permanente, and the large Sutter system of hospitals and physicians. They'll be able to send your test results, diagnoses, and drug information to Healthkit. There was a slide with more expansive list of the initial partnered providers, but overall, the goals of Healthkit frankly seem just a bit ahead of reality, if you ask me.
While fitness trackers and smart health accessories are certainly on the rise in some niches, they remain far from mainstream. And the health product and medical service industries have been among the most notoriously stubborn to advance into the smart era, with many hospitals and doctors' offices still pushing off even basic digitization of medical records. Come on - we're talking about the people who begrudgingly abandoned the beeper... in the late 2000s.
If Apple thought it had an uphill battle with the likes of retailers and airlines with Passbook, it has a whole other thing coming with Healthkit. Android obviously doesn't have a remotely comparable feature, but I can't say I blame Google for not developing one - Healthkit reeks of a typical DOA Apple product: overambitious, underexplained, and exceptionally complicated. Don't expect it to make waves any time soon.
Homekit is, again, a very vaguely-defined new service that will debut in iOS 8. Its goal is to integrate home automation products with Siri, for the most part, allowing you to use voice commands to control supported smart products. August, Phillips, Honeywell, iHome, TI, and a handful of other manufacturers have partnered with Apple on Homekit so far, and others will likely follow suit.
Apple gave almost no details about how Homekit will work from a technical perspective, whether existing products will be able to add Homekit support or new ones need to be developed, and didn't even provide a look at the app that would power this feature (if there is one). We know it will work with Siri, and that it will somehow secure all your smart home products such that only your iOS devices can control them.
We know Google is working on home automation. After all, it bought Nest. Whether Homekit is going to be a serious contender in home automation is simply too early a call to make. Such a light description almost definitely means Homekit is still mid-development, and more than likely Apple is saving the "oohs" and "aahs" Homekit will inspire for the next iPhone reveal this fall. For now, it's just an idea.
Photos and auto-backup
You've used Google's built-in editor in the Google Photos and you have Google+ photo backup turned on? Great, you're now an expert on the new Photos functionality in iOS 8. Go out and spread the gospel we've all had preached to us by our great Googly overlords for the last year-plus. Oh, one thing: iOS will charge you more for your iCloud-based storage, because reasons.
What in the hell is "continuity," you rightly and understandably ask? Basically, it's platform (OS X / iOS) and device (tablet, laptop, phone) unification for multiple features all piled into a single, not particularly useful word, so let's break it down.
Let's say you're working on a Numbers sheet on your MacBook, and you walk into the kitchen to get something to drink, and grab your iPad. Your iPad, even on the lockscreen, already shows a small picture of the Sheets icon on the lower-left corner. Pull on it, and the sheet you were working on with your MacBook will pop up on your iPad exactly where you left off.
This kind of functionality is all of course enabled by the iCloud iWork integration, allowing you to jump from device to device to complete the same task you were working on without having to save as you go. Apple will expand this feature to 3rd-party apps using "iCloud Drive," essentially similar to Google Drive app integration, allowing services to sync users' data to iCloud so that it is persistent across all their iCloud-enabled devices. The functionality will also work with apps like Mail, Photos, iMessage, and other Apple staples.
Have you used Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, or Presentations? Congratulations, you've been living in the future for a few years already! Granted, Google doesn't passively alert you to these things like iOS's continuity feature will and 3rd-party integration remains pretty sparse, but it's the same basic principle (live cloud-synced documents and files).
It's the same for the "improved" AirDrop, which now sends files from OS X to iOS devices over your Wi-Fi network. Well, except it's actually probably still a little bit worse than Dropbox or even Google Drive since it requires a local Wi-Fi network to function.
The next pieces in the continuity puzzle are texting and calling, which admittedly even Google doesn't quite have down yet on its Hangouts platform. iOS will now let you send and receive SMSs on any iOS or OS X device in iMessage regardless of where they came from (eg, Android phones). It also now allows you to make or answer calls from your desktop just like you would on your iPhone. It's not clear if this is being accomplished via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but I'm guessing the former.
Hangouts is still missing some of the pieces in regard to this kind of SMS / call functionality on the desktop, though I can't imagine Google isn't working on something similar. Given iOS 8 doesn't ship till this fall, Google still has quite a while to reach feature parity with iMessage, something they're undoubtedly aware of.
Finally, continuity allows you to automatically start your phone in hotspot mode from your laptop without a need to set up or touch the device. That's definitely handy.
Continuity wasn't the only area where Apple beefed up iMessage. The client now supports an even richer experience - you can send self-destructing audio and video in iMessage (or persistent), and group chat now supports the ability to leave a conversation as well as share locations among the chat's members. Chat-specific DNDs have been implemented, attachments are now shown in bulk in the chat details area.
Many of these are features Google's Hangouts still lacks, and admittedly, Hangouts has been one of the most often complained-about products Google has launched in recent memory. Given, though, that Hangouts is supported across iOS, Android, PC, Chrome OS, OS X, and anything that can run the Chrome browser, though, Hangouts still does have a major interoperability advantage, one that's not likely to disappear any time soon.
Still, iMessage's newest features are enviable ones, and I would kill for some more fine-grained notification control / DND on Hangouts.
iTunes / App Store family sharing, app bundles
Realizing that many families share not just devices and platform but apps themselves, Apple's new family sharing feature is actually pretty nice. It allows up to 6 people in a family group, all under the same credit card (not clear if that means same account), to share and manage all content they buy and download from iTunes and the App Store. Permissions can be delegated such that a family leader has to authorize purchases for certain group members (children), so that the chance of Johnny racking up $800 in Candy Crush debt is greatly diminished. For families, this feature will undoubtedly be very useful, so long as it's intuitive enough to use that people will take the time to enable it.
All content purchased from iTunes or the App Store can be shared among family members, so there's no need to pay twice. This will understandably miff content creators and developers a bit, as it reduces their chance to double-dip in the same household, but it makes a lot of sense and sounds very convenient.
Android does not currently have a comparable feature, though Android tablets do have multi-user support while the iPad does not (though iOS does have the "restrictions" system that can be very useful when handing your devices off to young children).
One last tidbit was app bundles, which allows developers to sell their applications in bundles for a reduced price to buyers. This is basically about getting developers more money, and the potential for abuse, if you ask me, is damn high - this could turn into a free-for-all in the casual gaming arena, with developers selling "bundle packs" of crappy content add-ons to squeeze money out of players.
Siri is still here or something
Everyone's least-favorite personal assistant got a quick nod at WWDC, adding support for hotword activation (WHERE EVER COULD THEY HAVE DIVINED SUCH AN IDEA FROM) - "Hey, Siri" - and dropping in Shazzam-sourced song recognition with iTunes integration. Siri also now supports 22 new dictation languages, and has enhanced voice recognition. Hooray!
Google Now laughs at your shenanigans.
iOS 8 still hasn't been detailed closely enough for us to have a clear picture of just what Android is up against, but that's what happens at every WWDC. It's not until we see the flagship hardware iOS 8 will be attached that things really come into focus, and for that, we'll have to wait till fall.
My preliminary opinion? Apple seems very much full-steam ahead on making iOS a more serious, capable mobile operating system. While it doesn't seem like iOS will be getting more open any time soon, it does appear that with things like actionable notifications, widgets, and Apple's "continuity" features that the "bumper-bowling" operating system will be gaining more power-user appeal. Granted, Android still has a great many advantages, like customization, superior voice control, deep Google integration, outstanding sync, and fine-grain control over many functions on your device. Not to mention a much wider choice of hardware, and less restrictions on interoperability - I don't need a Chromebook to take advantage of Android's cross-platform features, whereas with Apple, if I want the full experience I need a shiny new aluminum companion.
Still, iOS 8 does appear to be addressing many of the core concerns critics have voiced in regard to the operating system over the years, and so it's very interesting to see Apple moving the software in this direction. I'm certainly eager to update my iPad, I'll say that much.