July 18, 2016 // By Mark Wilkinson
The World Wide Developer Conference for Apple came and went this path month with some notable but not surprising announcements. Is Apple saving this year’s surprises for its iPhone 7 debut? It's hard to tell, and even those in the developer community with access to the full set of talks have not revealed any new surprising API changes that would hint at new hardware features for the next iPhone.
This year was about Software, and not just new versions of the operating systems, Apple has clearly doubled down on its 2-year-old language announced in 2014 called Swift. So much so that it's releasing an app geared towards kids for learning to code, in Swift of course. I'll expound on this at the end of the article, but for now here are the highlights of what was revealed.
The jury is still out on the Apple Watch and similar wearables, with adoption growing but not exploding. It doesn't take a futurist to realize wearables will only grow in scope and importance, much how when mobile phones went from being a clunky (and obnoxious) thing of the wealthy business class, and now we can't imagine a life without these mini computers in our pocket. The smart watch should really be seen as an extension to this mini computer and not a watch. Sure it tells time, but the primary purpose it serves, whether it's a FitBit or an Apple Watch is a data gathering device.
Most were expecting a new watch to be announced, maybe something slimmer, lighter, and with new features. Instead, we were treated to a preview of WatchOS 3, promising new software features, faster app load times, and easier access to your common apps. All of these are a welcome addition to the Apple Watch early adopters. My initial reaction to the device was mixed, I liked the wealth of information you can put into 1 customized face. With a turn of the wrist I can see the time, date, my next calendar event, outside temperature (of where my iPhone is telling the watch I'm located), battery life, and activity rings. All of that on a 38-mm sized face. Impressive, but it took some studying online to find all the not so obvious features. 4 months on and I can't imagine it not being on my wrist, much like the panic attack most of us would have when we're out, we reach down for the pocket that carries our smart phone and feel it's empty.
As I mentioned, the selling point for wearables like the Watch shouldn't be as a watch, but as an extension to your phone. The most useful feature I get out of the Watch ironically prevents me from pulling out my phone as much, and that's notifications. The majority of notifications I get sent to my phone need only be glanced at and nothing more. The watch executes this nicely. I get the reminder about the upcoming meeting, a simple "yes", "no", "I'm running late" in a text or the confirmation email. With your phone, it's too tempting to pull it out with every vibration, thinking that you may miss that 1 important text of the day, or reminder that you simply can't ignore. With the Watch it's a short wrist turn at the keyboard then back to work. In turn, my phone is used less, and I'm not sure if Apple considers that a bad or good thing.
Now, with my thoughts on the Watch out of the way, here's what's coming to WatchOS:
There will be 3 new watch faces. The most important to me being the activity rings face, which will reduce the number of times I have to drill down into the activity app to see where I'm at during the day on my goals. The other 2 being a numerals and Minnie Mouse face.
Faster App Launches and a Dock
One of my chief complaints now with the device is the slow loading time for some apps. There can be up to a minute or more on some apps – which is bad – and may not be the fault of the watch but the app maker, I'm not sure. Regardless, there are times when I just press the crown button to take me back to my watch face instead of waiting for the app to finally load. With WatchOS 3, your commonly used apps will be in a new Dock and updated more often which will greatly decrease the amount of time it takes to launch.
Scribble, SOS, and Activity sharing
A new feature will be added that lets you use your finger to write out a response to a text. I imagine this will work much better on the larger 42mm face than my 38, we'll see. Another new feature is an SOS call to emergency services using the home button. This will be useful to anyone who needs to quickly get help in any situation without having to pull out a phone. Activity sharing will be added to let you share your progress with friends, much like you can already do with wearables like FitBit.
Lastly, and most exciting to myself, is the ability to unlock your Macbook with your Watch. The idea being that once your watch is on and unlocked, there's no reason it can't tell your laptop to also unlock when you sit back down in front of it. For those of us who lock and unlock our machines probably a dozen times or more a day, this will be a nice feature. I also believe is a small step towards a future where wearables will be your identifier, wherever you are, whatever space you walk into. I can see this opening up to a world where your car unlocks when you approach, or when you approach the front door of your house, etc. You will be identified and verified by your wearable(s).
3D-Touch is here to stay and will be expanded in iOS10. Personally I haven't found it all that useful, but I also haven't given much of a chance. I see the benefit and the trend towards making your most common tasks easier and quicker to access and execute. It's really just an issue of developers adding it to their App's capabilities. With iOS10, notifications will now carry more information that you can drill down on through 3D-Touch. This sounds useful as many notifications, especially for email, offer too little information, requiring you to unlock and open the app. Hopefully 3D-Touching on something like this will let you read the whole message, quickly respond, accept a calendar invite, etc.
New Lock Screen and Control Center
As mentioned above, 3D-Touch will enhance the new lock screen and new features like clear all notifications (from the lock screen) is greatly needed. Widgets are now a swipe to the left and the camera a swipe to the right. Control Center has been redesigned and now offers multiple pages of information, which in essence gives you more control of the device without having to unlock it.
Siri for Developers and on the Mac
Siri SDK will now be available for developers to use inside their apps. This will allow an easier way to carry out your common tasks, 2 such examples would be sending a message in messaging app (like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger) or summoning a ride through Uber. Siri is also being added to macOS Sierra (the new naming scheme for OSX) for the same reasons.
Probably the most focused feature of the iOS10 presentation was the expansion of the Messages app. A whole host of things are being added like new animation effects, Digital Touch (AppleWatch-esque message creation with your finger), and finally opening Messages to developers via a dedicated Messages App Store. The idea being similar to the Siri SDK, giving developers the option to use Messages to place orders, make payments, etc.
Maps will be updated with needed features like better searching, proactive suggestions based on your location, and more information while following directions including a better dynamic view. Again, developers are being treated to access inside the app, Uber being another example, you would simply summon Uber while in Maps now.
Swift is the Future for Developers
I remember vividly the tepid response from outside the Apple world when Swift was announced at the 2014 WWDC. The thought was, who needs a new language with all the great options already available, not to mention the quirky yet beloved language of the Apple Developer community, Objective-C? For those of us already enamored with Objective-C and all its nuances, the Swift announcement was pretty shocking, but widely welcomed. We gladly programmed in Objective-C, but deep-down looked forward to its eventual replacement. What that was going to be was anyone's guess. Swift most likely answered everyone's wants and needs for a new language to program apps for the Apple Ecosystem. 2 years on and it's making pretty advanced strides in versatility, robustness, and safety. Safety being its selling feature. And now with the new Swift Playgrounds app on the iPad made specifically for kids, Apple is not hiding its intention to bring a new generation of tech-savvy app-creating enthusiasts over to its platform. The message is clear, Apple wants Swift to be the way to program on its ever-expanding world of devices and starting kids off with a new language, in a fun and interactive (mostly game development oriented) way, on a device (the iPad) the majority of which are already intimately familiar. This no doubt is a winning solution, not just for Apple but for the tech community as a whole. More capable programmers in the world means more useful and inventive applications that in turn pushes technological advancement and human life forward.
These were just a small sample of what was discussed and what I felt was most relevant to developers. The trend is easy to see here, Apple wants developers to integrate completely with their apps in order to give the user a more continuous experience, instead of what we've mostly had up to this point which is each app isolated in its own world.
The trend in technology and computing in general was on full display at this year's WWDC. Computers and wearables are our future; they will serve the purpose of making tasks, life, and learning easier.
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