Special: Thoughts on WWDC 2016 Keynote

by on June 14, 2016

Over the years, the tone of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote has changed from being entirely developer-focused to being something that is a mix of setting the tone for the rest of the conference for developers, getting the general public excited about new technologies that will be available in the fall, and offering a bit of a mid-year peek in at Apple's core values. This year was no exception, as Apple had to kick the App Store changes to a few press conversations last week, and instead showed off refreshed versions of watchOS, tvOS, macOS, and iOS.

watchOS 3

This update excited me, as I have been using an Apple Watch for about a year and have been mostly satisfied with it, except for the aspect of launching and using apps. Besides simplifying the interface by combining app launching and glances, Apple also promised that apps would load instantaneously. I hope this is the case, although the early consensus among developers is that it's true.

The other changes are mostly welcome refinements one would expect with a new operating system—new faces, some improved faces, Reminders and Find My Friends added, and removing a few steps for navigation and interacting with notifications. I thought the SOS feature was great, especially if it can work without a cellular connection and connect strictly through Wi-Fi (think foreign country and an iPhone without service). I'm curious what the countdown will really be, as I've caught myself having certain buttons pressed down on various devices (mostly iPhones). The scribble feature reminds me a lot of Palm's Graffiti, but using normal characters, and will be good in a pinch when I may not be able to talk to respond to notifications.

I think this update make the Apple Watch a more-liked product and also will ensure that early adopters will replace their original Apple Watch with the next one whenever that happens, rather than writing off the platform after a year of frustration. By providing these changes to the current-generation model, it will also create a better user experience and probably lead to less recommendations that start with, "Other than apps, it's great…"

The focus on accessibility really shows what I like about Apple. As a company, they certainly want to sell a lot of products and keep you coming back, but the fact that they do focus on accessibility so everyone can enjoy them shows that that is more at play. Even minor changes like "Time to roll" for wheelchair users make products like the Apple Watch feel more inclusive.

tvOS

Since the Apple TV 4 was a bit of a rethink, it only makes sense that it sees some gradual updates around the one-year mark. Dark mode is a welcome addition, both for those who like to watch content in the evening, and also those with plasma displays.

Single sign-on for cable accounts makes sense, although I'm still hoping for a day when we can have any content we want on the Apple TV without a traditional TV service. We are a step closer, as SlingTV is now available for the Apple TV.

Finally for the Apple TV, Apple has a new Remote app in the works to make an iPhone a fully-capable Siri Remote. Although this should have shipped last year, it's a welcome addition.

macOS Sierra

I always thought the Mac OS X/OS X branding was clunky, especially after about 2003 and when the cat and place code names were tacked on for public consumption. We're still technically at a revision of version 10 of the Mac operating system (10.12), but the branding will drop the X, preventing random people from pronouncing it as the letter X.

Naming aside, this update seems to be a minor revision that just happens to add nice to have features like Siri, Apple Pay support, unlock with Apple Watch, and tabs for more windows. There's a lot of little changes like this and some people may find them impossible to live without once introduced, but it does show that the Mac is a very very mature platform.

Looking at some of the geekier changes, it seems macOS Sierra is going to set the stage for bigger changes down the road. Most notably, there will be a new file system across all Apple devices, replacing HFS+, although it won't appear for another year and will currently have a number of limitations.

iOS 10

I'll start off by saying that I wish this update had more iPad-specific features, although I think we'll see them as we get closer to the release date. On the iPad front, it looks like split-screen Safari is the big change. Other than that, the rest of the changes apply to all iOS devices. Most of these are incremental, but there is a new design language at play and the overall feel seems more like when Apple went from Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard—it's the same, but a lot of things work ever so differently and the overall look has been adjusted.

The redesigned lock screen and notifications make sense, as much of this has been a work in progress ever since Notification Center was introduced. If it's more convenient, great, if not, we'll probably see yet another change in iOS 11. By making notifications more interactive, you'll be able to snag bits of content without going into apps, much like notifications on the Apple Watch that are sometimes dictated by the apps you have installed.

Siri getting an API seems natural, although I would've liked to see the merger of Siri and Spotlight—why can't I type things for Siri? Currently, Siri does pull data from other providers, so why not get better detailed information if available? I hope developers take advantage of this early, as it could be a great addition for use in the car.

Photos gained some features found on older versions of iPhoto on the Mac: face detection and mapping. It also added the ability to understand photos by translating things like the people, places, or things in the pictures as keywords. Google has been doing this for awhile, and it may sound creepy, it seems Apple is using onboard processing to help calm privacy concerns. By finding commonalities, the new Memories feature will allow photos to be linked by things such as the people in them or the places or time they were taken, which should be much smarter than just the prior Events. Additionally, this processing is used to smooth out Live Photos. I see all of this as a natural and incremental update, since an iPhone 6S can do a lot more instantly with a photo than an original iPhone ever could.

The changes to News also make sense, as the current version becomes a never-ending scroll and sometimes shows content you don't really like. By having sections and feeling a bit more like a newspaper, this could be a more enjoyable experience. The new look also seems bolder, both in terms of typeface and general tone and this carries over to Music.

Music needed an update, but for someone that prefers to hoard buy music and sync with iTunes Match, it seems Apple is continuing the march to most users subscribing to Apple Music or put up with lots of useless buttons and controls. I do like the new depth to the interface (it reminds me a bit of Palm's webOS), and the News-like design. Maybe they'll convince me to make the switch to a subscription.

Finally, among the big changes, Messages got a lot of new features. Besides having an API for apps to get involved (payments through Messages!), the service steps up to be more like competing options. Links are now shown as rich content, rather than just a URL that boots you out of the app. There are ways to convey tone with bubble animations, stickers, and giant animations upon sending a message. Although I may use many of these, it's clearly targeting those that spend a lot of time in Facebook Messenger or Snapchat.

In the developer builds, iOS 10 will not be supporting any device with an A5, leaving the iPhone 4S, iPad 2, iPad 3 (aka The New iPad or iPad with Retina Display), iPad mini, and fifth-generation iPod touch behind. If they do include these in the fall, I will be amazed with the iPad 2's longevity, but also think to myself that it's probably time to move to supporting A6- or even A7-and-newer devices only. I also seem to recall Apple not offering iPad support for early iOS 7 betas and not including a few models of iPad and iPhone in some early versions of iOS 8 or iOS 9 betas.

Swift Playground

Apple also showed off a new tool for learning Swift in a fun and engaging way. While this is no Xcode for iPad, it is a nice start and I'll be excited to play with it once it's available. It seems to be aimed at kids who have an interest in programming, but is still not childish in that an adult won't find value from it. Products like this can only help Apple's platforms as a whole and get developers interested at a young age (although a nine-year-old was in the audience as an attendee already).

Waiting

I'm excited about these changes, as they will make most of my devices better and put Apple the at the same level or slightly ahead of the competition. There are so many new little features that I know that I've missed a few or really don't have an opinion at this point. Still, many of the watchOS and iOS changes feel like Apple is adding some playfulness and joy to the interfaces, which is a stark contrast with iOS 7 through 9. That especially makes me excited for the future, which is what a WWDC keynote should do.

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