Five actually useful real-world things that came out at Apple’s WWDC

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Game-changers? Could be

Once a year, the world’s biggest computer company gives us its annual dump of new platform stuff for developers. And while Apple likes to add a bit of froth, the signal-to-noise ratio at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is actually pretty high. Below, I’ve unpacked the five big platform announcements relevant to people wanting to use the technology for some useful real-world purpose. What do you actually need to know? Read on.

No platform merge

Senior VP Craig Federighi ended speculation that iOS and macOS will merge. “Are you merging iOS and macOS? I’d like to take a moment to briefly address this question. No. Of course not.”

Fair enough. Only a few weeks ago this speculation was revived after reports that Apple would use its own chips for its macOS laptops, and deprecate Intel chips. Aha, the armchair pundits concluded, with everything Arm inside, it would make sense to make Macs iOS first, with maybe some compatibility mode or VM for running legacy Mac apps.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, I pointed out. Apple has a huge installed base of non-touch professional apps, and making them second-class citizens on £2,000 hardware would be taking things too far. Even for Apple. That would be like taking a huge installed base of a non-touch desktop OS, and making the mouse and keyboard the secondary, inferior interaction mode.

What kind of maniac would do something like that? Oh, wait.

Cross species co-operation

What Federighi said next, though, was tantalising: Apple will enable and encourage iOS apps to run on macOS. The “Project Marzipan” revealed by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman in April was actually real (but perhaps not called Marzipan). This makes perfect sense, and developers already working on the mass market (mobile) will be able to leverage that familiarity on the desktop. However, Apple runs into a similar issue to the one Microsoft encountered with its brutally dogmatic design of Windows 8. Metro-first forced people to use touch apps on devices without a touchscreen, clawing around using keyboard and mouse. There are currently no touchscreen Macs. So some similar compromise will need to be fashioned. We’ll wait for the details revealed in sessions for the nitty gritty, specifically, how much can an iOS actually do on MacOS.

Robot commands

Apple’s on-off-on-again devotion to scripting is on again, and when allied to Siri enhancements (see below) starts to get really interesting. Scripting is almost as old as the Mac. If you consider HyperCard to be scripting, this story is older than a “millennial”. For well over a decade, scripting was handled by Automator, which could handle both simple point-and-click automation of repetitive tasks for non-technical users, yet handle AppleScript, and Unix shell scripts too. Apple laid off its Automator lead, Sal Soghoian, in 2015, just as automation was getting sexy again thanks to the IoT hype, and investment was flooding into companies like IFTTT.

So Apple acquired Workflow last year, and yesterday saw the fruits of that work. App developers will expose functionality that can be identified by Siri, so quite sophisticated workflows can be created by talking. I hope this is secured with some kind of voice ID. If it isn’t then catastrophic mischief becomes possible.

(The old voice recognition gag: hover behind someone at a Unix command prompt and say “arr emm dash eff slash”.)

Draining the swamp

Unlike Google or Facebook, Apple has not built its business around acquiring personal behavioural data. It merely sells overpriced hardware, and does not have an advertising business to feed. So the very prominent targeting of stealth tracking was welcome. Future versions of the Safari browser will now disclose only minimal information to websites, and try to extinguish stealth tracking. Last year Apple made a gentle start by expiring tracking cookies, but this seriously raises the game; Apple’s demonstration explicitly targeted Facebook. The WWDC Demo presented the following dialog box:

That’s a fairly direct barb aimed at the heart of Facebook’s business model (and Google’s). Each ad broker is trying to build the most comprehensive data silo on the individual it can – so-called “super profiles”. The justification is that advertising allows content and services to be “free”.

A few years ago Microsoft ran a “Scroogled” campaign pointing out the creepy nature of the consumer data collection. Apple’s latest campaign, where a stranger wanders over and peers over your shoulder, is similar, but more subtle and less antagonistic. That the world’s biggest technology company is saying “this is not necessary” is significant.

(Safari plug-ins will need to be rewritten, though.)

Security

Apple also raised its game with two interesting security features: giving third-party password managers parity with Apple’s own password manager, and an impressive demo of end-to-end encrypted multiparty voice calls via FaceTime. Both should make Apple a bit more business friendly.

Deskilling Siri

Siri is the designated front end to Workflow on mobile, but it’s encouraging to see Apple focus on trying to speed up what you want to do, rather than interrupting you with things you didn’t want to hear or know. “Helpful” AI that isn’t helpful or even wanted is becoming a bane of modern technology. On Huawei’s latest cameras, AI turns grass fluorescent and the Palace of Westminster orange.

The other interesting thing with Apple’s approach is that it eschews the vast libraries of skills and scripts which intimidate the user. The end user will have to do a bit of work, but it’s probably less than ploughing through the cruft you find with Alexa before deciding there’s nothing quite appropriate.

There was much more interesting consumer-focused news for developers at WWDC, but I’ve highlighted five that change the user experience significantly. Remember, that’s what Apple tries to do once in a while. When it succeeds, it makes the competition (MS-DOS or Symbian) look like a fossil. If Google and Facebook aren’t careful, they could go the same way. ®

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