Some Apple (AAPL) fans were disappointed this week after their favorite phone- and device-maker held a massive media session without offering up any new phones or other exciting products. Where was the iWatch? The iPhone-like "disruptor" of a whole new market?
But the two-hour keynote at Apple’s worldwide developers conference, known as WWDC, inspired plenty to get excited about on the software side. Apple packed updates of the operating systems for iPhones, iPads and Mac computers coming in the fall with new features that will be genuinely useful for regular users, many app developers say.
One of the most anticipated announcements was Apple’s HealthKit software. Apple isn’t getting into the health-tracking game itself, at least not yet, but rather created a central repository for iPhone users to keep track of any kind of health and fitness data from all the many apps already available. It could include Nike’s (NKE) Fuelband app tracking running mileage as well as more-serious apps such as Glooko, which collects blood sugar readings for diabetics.
HealthKit also may be setting Apple up to introduce its own health-tracking hardware, some analysts suggest. Apple could be readying a fitness band, heart-rate monitor or even iTattoos (bodily stamps that can feed vital signs to a phone) that will link into HealthKit enabled apps.
Focus on security
Apple’s implementation will give users control over sharing of information and provide strong security, explains developer Ken Yarmosh, CEO of Savvy Apps. "Apple is trying to bring some order to the hottest areas of innovation,” Yarmosh says. HealthKit “offers consumers the Apple peace of mind around privacy and security, which is paramount for this type of sensitive information.”
Apple is taking a similar approach in the realm of home automation, Yarmosh says. Many companies already offer phone apps to unlock a door, turn on the lights or set a thermostat from afar. Under the new HomeKit feature, an iPhone owner can centralize control of various apps and use the Siri digital assistant to operate them by voice. Still, as with Apple's CarPlay initiative to integrate with automobiles, it could take quite a while for HomeKit to gain widespread acceptance.
Apple also decided to loosen up on the tight limits it had imposed on iOS apps communicating amongst themselves. Google’s (GOOGL) Android and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone systems allow apps easily to pass information from one to another, so, for example, a photo can be uploaded to Pinterest or an email can be saved to Evernote. Apple locked down apps and allowed sharing only with a handful of favored apps such as Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB).
But the upcoming iOS software breaks Apple’s old rules and allows apps to interact through a feature it’s calling extensibility. In one demonstration, Apple showed the camera app allowing another app called VSCO to edit a photo. And Microsoft’s Bing translator could translate a Web page seen in Apple’s Safari app. Apple is even letting users install their own keyboard apps to replace the default keyboard for the first time.
“This sounds simple and obvious, but it's super powerful,” says independent developer Steve Streza. “New apps will be able to immediately integrate with every other app on your device, without any effort on the part of other apps.”
Users will be able to share photos directly with a brand new social app without waiting a year to see if Apple decides to incorporate it into the operating system, for example.
Owners of multiple Apple devices immediately should be able to take advantage of developer Manton Reece's favorite new feature, called continuity. Apple is forging closer connections between iPads, iPhones and Macs, so that a user can start an email, for example, on one device and pick up exactly where they left off on another device. The closer ties, which also allow a user to answer a phone call from their computer, encourage customers to buy all Apple hardware, as well.
Finally, Apple had some good news for families that own multiple phones and devices. Only 11 years after the iTunes store began selling music, Apple is allowing members of the same family to share their separate purchases.
In the past, someone who bought a movie, ebook or app on iTunes could only share that item with another person who signed into their device with the same Apple ID. But kids and parents typically have their own accounts, the better to keep separate calendars, contacts and whatever else junior doesn’t want mom and dad to see. With the new Family Sharing feature, however, items purchased by different people can be shared among up to six family members.
Some of Apple's innovations won't help consumers directly. Most regular customers will probably never even hear about Swift, the company's new programming language for writing apps."Swift will never make a direct or noticeable difference to consumers," says Dave Verwer, a developer and author of the newsletter iOS Dev Weekly. "However, the improvements that Swift brings will make the platform even more attractive to new developers, increasing the already huge amount of companies developing for iOS."
“Whenever Apple or any platform comes up with new languages or frameworks that simplify the process of writing great software, it gives developers a head start that inevitably leads to greater and greater apps,” adds developer Daniel Jalkut. The situation is not unlike the development of word processors and specialized writing apps, he says. “Nobody doubts that great books were written back when the only implements for doing so were pen and paper, but with every technological advance … there have been correlated advances in the craft of writing.”
Not every new feature is a sure-fire hit, of course. Apple’s Ping music sharing network never caught on and the first version of its Map app had a lot of glitches. But even without snazzy new hardware, there’s likely some hit new features coming in the fall.