Compete Report: Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8

Compete Report: Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8

Better together (tm)

Apple events always generate a disproportionate amount of media attention, even its developer events such as last week's WWDC 2014. At this conference, Apple announced new versions of Mac OS X and iOS that it will release later in the year. And while neither is all that interesting on their own, Apple has finally adopted the integration strategy that makes Microsoft's products and services so interesting. So for the first time in any meaningful way, OS X and iOS will actually work better when they're used together.

This is, I think, the one truly profound development to come out of WWDC for end users, and if the firm is successful in marketing this functionality, it could help drive some of its many iOS users to the less-used but more expensive Mac platform. (The Swift programming language and other developer advancements from the show are of course be interesting to the developer audience.)

Here, I'll provide a high-level overview of what we saw of both OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, and compare what's happening to the relevant Microsoft platforms. But I'll also call out the new integration features that help them work better together: This is in many ways a bigger competitive threat than any individual OS X or iOS features: Not that a user will adopt some Apple device, but that they will adopt multiple Apple devices and platforms.

Here's what they announced. Not everything, of course. This isn't an Apple blog. But the big box stuff.

Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite

Given the maturity of the Mac platform, it's not surprising that Mac OS X Yosemite (or version 10.10) is an evolutionary upgrade. This is not a dig, or a complaint, but just a reflection of reality. Since Apple isn't creating a Frankenstein-like melding of both OS X and iOS (as Microsoft is doing in Windows 8.x) there's simply less to do. As Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green once said of Windows, "change was needed. I don’t know that building just another Windows 7 would have been helpful." Apple's approach, of course, is to keep going down the same path. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just different, and it limits how different subsequent OS X releases can be.

So what does it look like?

The first thing you'll notice is that Apple has begun reapplying translucency effects to OS X, in a manner that is somewhat similar to the translucency effects that debuted on the mobile device side in iOS 7. As with Microsoft's attempts to blur the lines between PC and mobile with Windows 8.x and Windows Phone 8.x, this approach has some pros and some cons. The big issue, I think, is that Apple had already figured out that these kinds of translucency effects didn't work in earlier OS X versions and had scaled back those efforts. It's unclear why they're OK again now. (The good news? You can mostly turn off the translucency.) But I prefer the flat look of Windows 8.1, both on the desktop and in Metro.

Speaking of familiar, the icons in OS X Yosemite have been restyled to look like those in iOS. In fact, they're even better because they don't include the silly rounded rectangle border that mars the iOS versions. This is a change I like quite a bit, though there are some weird inconsistencies in that some icons are just flat while others are flat but tilted to the left for some reason. Maybe that will get fixed in 10.11.

I also like the changes to the window control buttons: They finally work like the similar buttons in Windows, with the maximize button—get this—actually maximizing the window, in this case to full screen. It only took a decade and a half.

The Finder windows themselves have flat, simpler toolbars by default, but that weird translucency effect in both the sidebar and while you scroll through a folder full of icons. That seems gratuitous to me. But the Dock finally loses the silly 3D-looking shelf and is now just flat, as it should be.

There's also a new system font. This is the type (ahem) of thing that keeps Mac users up at night, but I think it looks great. Apple almost always gets typography right.

The Notification Center—something still sorely lacking in big Windows, though we finally have such a thing in Windows Phone 8.1—has been updated with a Today view, providing an "at-a-glance" view of your schedule, reminders, weather and more. It's kind of a widgetized version of the Outlook Today view from days gone by. And, again, we need this on Windows.

Apple's in-OS search feature, Spotlight, has been updated with bigger, more obvious search type and a nice search results window, but this is one area where I think Windows is doing just fine, particularly in 8.1. It's interesting to see Apple adding web sources to search results, though. That was controversial when Windows did it first. And no offense to Apple's vaunted design prowess, but Microsoft's presentation is better too. (That's kind of a rarity.)

The built-in apps get various small updates. Nothing worth obsessing over.

Like its predecessor, OS X Yosemite will be given away to existing customers for free. It's hard to argue with that.

iOS 8

With Apple issuing the first-ever major update to iOS last year with iOS 7, it's no surprise—nor problem—that the firm is back on the evolutionary update bandwagon for this year's update. The only surprise is the name: This should have been called iOS 7.1, not iOS 8.

Most of the changes are under the hood, which is actually sort of odd when you consider how controversial the flat and bright iOS 7 overhaul was with users. But when you upgrade an existing iDevice to iOS 8 and boot back into the system, surprise... it's almost impossible to tell the difference at first.

But there are of course differences. The iOS keyboard is now customizable, so developers will be able to replace the stock keyboard, as is possible on Android, and finally bring Swype-style keyboards to the platform. Windows Phone 8.1 has Swype-like keyboard functionality already, but Microsoft doesn't let developers (and thus users) replace the keyboard.

Touch ID, currently available only on iPhone 5S, has been updated as expected, since the original release only lets you use this feature to unlock the phone and approve Apple-based purchases. I had expected a lot more here, like third party app support, but it appears Apple is moving slowly in this regard. Instead, Touch ID will be able to unlock apps that need to verify your identity, but no personal data is transferred out of the device's trusted module. The apps just gets the approval or not.

Apple's excellent Notification Center has been updated to support interactive notifications, a wonderful feature. If you're doing something on the phone and a pop-up notification for a new text message appears, for example, you can pull down the notification to open an inline reply box. No need to navigate to the app, which is good because iOS navigation—thanks to the lack of a hardware Back button—is a nightmare for the casual user (i.e. most people).

Interactive notifications work for all kinds of notifications, Apple says, including Calendar, iMessage, and many others. And it also works on the lock screen, where you swipe horizontally to get some new, large action buttons (which appear throughout iOS 8 now). This is a killer feature that Windows/Phone lacks.

Speaking of navigation, Apple has added people to the multitasking screen that appears when you double-tap the Home button. (Similar to pressing and holding the Start button on Windows Phone.) From this view, you can now see recently-accessed people and apps, a nice de-appification feature that, frankly, should have debuted on Windows Phone first.

The built-in apps get various small updates, and as with Yosemite, these are nothing to spend any time on. It's all good but not earthshattering. (A new feature in Mail lets you do other things in the app in the middle of composing a message; Microsoft added this feature to Mail in Windows 8.1 previously courtesy of a Snap-based two window view.)

Better together: OS X + iOS

In many ways, the most interesting things about Yosemite and iOS 8 occur when you use them together. This is the sort of "better together" strategy that Microsoft employs so often, and it could help Apple sell more (and more expensive) Macs to its loyal and huge iOS user base. In other words, it's a smart move.

The big cross-platform bucket is called Continuity. It's really a set of different features, or services, that will work across both Mac and iOS and help users transition from device to device. This is especially important on the Apple side, because that firm believes you need three devices: A smartphone (iPhone), a tablet (iPad) and a computer (Mac). On the Microsoft side of the fence, we think most people can get by with two, where at least one is a hybrid (phablet or 2-in-1 PC). Apple's strategy makes sense for Apple since they make all their money on device sales. But these features are neat.

The first Continuity service is AirDrop, which has been around for a while but now works between Macs and iOS devices. AirDrop is basically cross-device sharing, and you can share photos, videos, websites, locations, and more.

Handoff is a second Continuity feature that's based on proximity, and this one looks very interesting. In compatible applications, you can begin working on a document on, say, a Mac, and then pick up your nearby iPad and continue working on the same document. (Or vice versa.) It works with any iOS device (including iPhone), so it's useful for such things as messaging too.

Instant Hotspot is another Continuity feature that helps your Mac connect to your iPhone's cellular broadband. Windows had this feature first (and yes it works with Windows Phone). It's quite useful.

Where things really get interesting is in those areas in which Apple is bringing smart phone integration features to the Mac. The first is with iMessage, the firm's proprietary messaging platform. With Yosemite, iMessage will be able to work with your iPhone-based text messages (SMS/MMS). But it also works with phone calls too: You can use your Mac to display caller ID or as a speaker phone. These features have huge implications, not the least for Skype, which has offered some phone-related features for years, but not smart phone integration from a PC/Mac.

But the way this works is very interesting: The Mac hasn't magically gained phone calling capabilities. It's using your iPhone—which must be nearby, a fair enough requirement—to make the call. That's pretty brilliant.

And then there's iCloud, which has been bolstered by a new cross-platform offering, iCloud Drive. It's exactly what it sounds like: A cloud storage service. But while many have positioned iCloud Drive as Apple's version of Dropbox, the truth is it's Apple's answer to Microsoft's OneDrive integration in Windows. In the past, iCloud worked pretty well, but apps had to be written specifically to allow this device-to-device integration, whereas OneDrive drops right into the Windows file system and works with everything. (OneDrive integrates with Windows Phone differently.)

With iCloud Drive, Apple's cloud storage service works more like OneDrive. Your iCloud Drive-based folders and files are available from Finder (Mac's File Explorer), eliminating the need for developers to hand-craft each app to use the service. Only an Apple audience could applaud the addition of such a feature this late in the game, but whatever. If you use OneDrive, you get how key this functionality is.

(There's even going to be a Windows client for iCloud Drive, which makes sense given Apple's switcher strategy. There's an OneDrive client for Mac, already, of course.)

How close is iCloud Drive to OneDrive? There's even a Mail Drop feature that lets you pass large email attachments through the service, much as users can with OneDrive.

Final thoughts

Apple's platforms are mature and formidable, and the overall user base—several hundred million on iOS and 80 million on the Mac—are nothing to sneeze at. This year's improvements to these platforms are likewise impressive, and exceed in many ways the capabilities available in Windows, Windows Phone and Android. Yes, there are new features we've had for a while now—the ability to "speak" a text message, for example—but in a world in which Apple markets very well and others do not, our own advantages often get lost in the mix, while Apple's are amplified. The thing is, I can't begrudge Apple that, mostly because in this case there are some nice new/unique features. Microsoft has its work cut out for it.

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