After the WWDC 2016 keynote — A few thoughts

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After major Apple events such as the 2-hour keynote that took place on 13 June, it’s always hard for me to write an article with my observations; first because — especially in the case of this WWDC 2016 keynote — the event is packed with announcements and news to digest, and secondly because many other good writers are quicker at sharing their thoughts; so when I finally sit down and start writing my contribution, I feel there’s nothing much to add.

Of all the many articles I read this past week, It’s Tim Cook’s Apple Now: What WWDC 2016 Teaches Us About His Vision for the Company by Rick Tetzeli is probably the closest to the kind of piece I was planning to write myself. The following passage in particular:

Perhaps more notably, the keynote made clear that Cook is determined to fix whatever Apple products seem less than stellar, including the Watch, Apple Music, the App Store, and many services dependent on wireless connectivity. That’s a continuation of the company’s longtime focus on spending time and money to continually improve existing products. But the keynote was even more notable because it made clear that Apple’s business concerns and goals are different — and more ambitious and complicated — than the ones Cook inherited from Jobs. Once upon a time, Jobs defined the “Apple experience” as the merging of hardware and software in a single device in a way that no other company could match. Over time, that definition grew to encompass an iPad, a Mac, and an iPhone, and all that a user could accomplish because these were wirelessly connected. Cook is expanding that universe significantly.

While some commentators believe that the company is still focused on individual devices, the keynote was full of improvements devoted to two concepts: continuity and artificial intelligence. The continuity part made clear that Apple wants you to be able to do whatever you need on whichever of its devices you are using. Start a document on a Mac, you can wrap it up on your iPhone. Start editing a slide show on your iPad, finish it up on a Mac or an iPhone. Track your physical activity on a Watch, check it out later on your iPad.

The word that sums up all of this is ecosystem. Apple’s focus is its ecosystem as a whole, a seamless ‘environment’ surrounding the users and offering them a coherent, cohesive experience. This isn’t exactly a new goal, but never before has it been so apparent how Apple wants to have a whole functioning organism rather than just improve each different platform to offer better hardware products. The ‘Apple software quality is declining’ debate of the past months made a lot of people hope that Apple would concentrate on fixing what doesn’t work rather than introduce fancy new features for novelty’s sake. During the WWDC keynote, as Apple executives were outlining some of the key new features of the upcoming versions of watchOS, tvOS, Mac OS and iOS, I easily noticed a common denominator — Apple is introducing new features whose main purpose is to fix some user interface or user interaction annoyances for each of those platforms. And such improvements will not only affect a single platform, but — as Tetzeli points out — they’ll improve and solidify the interconnection between all four of them. For the first time, while watching the keynote, I found myself thinking It’d really be nice to also have an Apple TV and an Apple Watch now, the two Apple devices I usually had a very limited interest in.

The glue of Apple’s ecosystem are cloud services that work behind the scenes to hopefully guarantee that seamless continuity and experience mentioned before. And the impression I had during the keynote is that Apple is showing an increasing confidence in iCloud.

  • Siri on the Mac means additional work for the underlying services. Some have wondered why Siri didn’t come before on the Mac — I think that perhaps it’s because Apple didn’t feel the underlying infrastructure ready or robust enough.
  • The new Universal Clipboard feature relies on iCloud. (Interestingly this is billed as an iCloud feature rather than a Continuity feature, in which case this would mean that copying data won’t necessary be limited to devices in close proximity, writes Ryan Smith at AnandTech.)
  • Ryan Smith, again, notes that Apple has also expanded iCloud Drive’s functionality a bit, pushing it to a more generic cloud storage solution. For macOS Sierra, iCloud Drive will now be able to sync up the Desktop and Documents folders, moving away from the more application-centric approach it’s best known for. Apple is pitching this as a convenience feature; Mac users who are accustomed to saving files in those locations can now just access them remotely via iCloud as opposed to having to change their workflow to better mesh with how iCloud has traditionally worked.
  • The new Optimised Storage feature in Mac OS Sierra also relies on iCloud for the most part.

All improvements announced at the keynote are welcome. I’m not an Apple Watch user, but the increased speed, UI tweaks, and new apps coming with watchOS 3 are certainly making the watch a more compelling device. Same goes with the AppleTV. I was mainly interested in seeing what’s coming for Mac OS and iOS, and Apple didn’t disappoint in the least.

That said, there are a few things that, for now, I’m filing under the I’m not sure I like category.

In iOS:

  • I’m ambivalent about the new design of Control Centre. On the one hand, it has improved visually; on the other hand, I don’t like the additional swipe to reach the audio controls. For panels and UI elements that work as overlays, I like things to be quick and simple. Yet iOS 10 seems to be going in the opposite direction.
  • On a similar note, Apple has doubled down on Notification Centre as a centre of activity that’s getting a little too busy for my tastes. I know there are people who are thrilled by being able to do more stuff directly from Notification Centre, but I don’t see the appeal of, for instance, engaging in an iMessage conversation right from the lock screen (while I admit it’s convenient for quick yes/no replies). Sure, the 3D Touch enhancements let you interact with notifications in a powerful way, but things aren’t going to be equally handy for those with an iPhone lacking 3D Touch. It’s a personal preference, of course. I just like notifications to be ‘passive’ and just a shortcut to launch the relevant app and do stuff inside the app. Today’s iPhones are incredibly fast devices — I don’t see how doing everything in Notification Centre is this huge time-saver. It’s a matter of habits, I guess.
  • I understand the disappearance of the historical Slide to Unlock gesture. Rise to Wake and pressing the Home button to unlock the device are both gestures that make a lot of sense and, in a way, unify the unlocking behaviour for everyone — whether one’s iPhone has Touch ID or not. Still I’m in full agreement with Michael Rockwell when he writes: Two changes that I just know will annoy me for a few months after iOS 10’s release is that they’ve moved Today View and the quick access camera gesture on the lock screen. Today View has been moved, spatially, to the left of the lock screen while the camera is to the right of it — swiping from either direction slides the corresponding feature into view. I can already see myself unintentionally accessing Notification Center or Control Center instead of Today View or the camera. Those gestures have become a huge part of the way I interact with my device and it’ll take some time to retrain that muscle memory.
  • For all the talk about the iPad being the future of personal computing, I would have really loved for Apple to showcase at least one iOS feature specially tailored for the iPad, instead of hearing a lot of sentences ending with …And it’s great on the iPad as well.
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    In Mac OS:

  • I know it’s a bit silly, but as a long-time Mac user, I just can’t stomach the macOS spelling. First Apple drops the ‘Mac’ in ‘Mac OS X’ in 2012 because— actually I don’t remember the reason; it probably suited some narrative. Now Apple puts the ‘Mac’ back and drops the ‘X’ because it suits another narrative. I’ll just write Mac OS and to hell with it all.
  • Optimised Storage sounds like an interesting feature on paper, but I really hope it’s not entirely automatic and active by default. That there’s going to be some clear ON/OFF switch like with Time Machine. I don’t know you but, whether it’s new or older files, I’d like to decide where they go and when to move them. Ryan Smith at AnandTech observes that Given the capacities of modern Macs, it goes without saying that to free up any significant amount of space you’d have to move multiple gigabytes’ worth of files to the cloud, so the cloud-hosting aspects of Optimized Storage seem to rely pretty heavily on buying up to a larger storage tier on iCloud. This makes me hopeful about the optional nature of the Optimised Storage feature, and that you can choose not to use it if you don’t want to.
  • The question of Mac OS Sierra’s system requirements is a bit puzzling. If I read the information correctly, Sierra requires processors with the SSE4.1 instruction set, so the minimum requirement becomes the Core 2 Duo ‘Penryn’ CPU. Now the official list of supported Macs states: All late-2009 (and newer) iMac and MacBook computers, and all 2010 (and newer) MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac Mini and Mac Pro computers. But the list of Macs with a Core 2 Duo ‘Penryn’ processor is longer, and includes Mac models that go as far back as early 2008. In my case, for example, my 15-inch MacBook Pro is a 2.66 GHz mid-2009 machine which officially is not supported by Mac OS Sierra, but apart from the graphics card, it has identical specs as the 13-inch mid-2010 MacBook Pro, which is included in the list of supported Macs. My guess is that it’s just a matter of the 7-year support period Apple guarantees for its machines. When Sierra is released this Autumn, all Macs introduced before late 2009 will be more than 7 years old, and their status will change to ‘Vintage’ for Apple Support. I have to update my MacBook Pro anyway, so I’m not really bummed, but I suspect there will be a few machines which technically can run Sierra even if they’re not officially supported. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Mac OS Sierra Installer will let users proceed anyway or just display a warning like Mac OS Sierra cannot be installed on this Mac. (There will be hacks, I’m sure.)

Overall, I enjoyed the WWDC keynote, and I can’t wait to see the new Mac OS and iOS in action. All these new features in software are also making me anxious to see the new hardware Apple will introduce in the next months. I own aging devices by now (mid-2009 Mac, an iPad 3, an iPhone 5), and while I can’t complain about their continued dependability and usefulness, I really wish I could upgrade all of them in one fell swoop. But for how I work, the Mac always has precedence, and the hardware design and connections of the next MacBook Pros will largely influence my choices for the upgrade. If they end up being too similar to the 12-inch retina MacBook, I may even consider switching to a desktop machine or to the more affordable MacBook Air (provided Apple will maintain the Air’s current keyboard design, which I clearly prefer over the ultra-flat keyboard design of the retina MacBook).

To conclude, I believe we’re entering a phase where Apple is building a truly compelling ecosystem — not just from a hardware/software integration standpoint, but also considering Apple’s privacy-first approach. When I look at the alternatives, I think Apple’s a great platform to be locked in today.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!