Last week was a busy one for Apple--by some measures, the busiest week of the year. It was time for Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco. Here's the most important news to come out of this year's event.
The iPhone gets better battery life. As a part of Apple's announcement of iOS 9, due this fall, the company said that it had observed the behavior of regular users and found numerous ways to reduce power consumption. (For example, notifications received when the phone is face down don't light up the display.) According to Apple, an fully charged iPhone running iOS 9 can expect to see its battery life extended a full hour over its current battery life. iOS 9 also includes a low-power mode that can extend battery life a further three hours on a fully charged phone, though it's more likely that the feature will be used by people with desperately low batteries in an attempt to survive until they can reach a charger.
More battery life in any mobile device is good news, and increased battery life based entirely on software tweaks is even better news. iPhone users complain a lot about battery life, but in my experience Android users complain even more. The limited set of hardware iOS runs on allows Apple to tweak power consumption much more than Google can, and it's interesting to see Apple try to press its advantage here. But competitive questions aside, this is an improvement that will make users happy.
iOS upgrades just got easier. Updates from iOS 7 to iOS 8 were slower than previous Apple software updates, which isn't good for Apple or the various iOS app developers who rely on new features introduced during Apple's annual upgrade cycle. One of the biggest reasons for the slower adoption curve wasn't fear of upgrading but a sheer lack of storage space; the iOS 8 upgrade required 4.6GB of free space, which can be hard to come by, especially on a 16GB device.
But the iOS 9 upgrade should only require about 1.3GB of space, making it much easier to install on devices with small amounts of free space. That should speed the iOS 9 upgrade, which will be compatible with the same set of devices that iOS 8 was--Apple's not dropping support for any models, though some features may only work on newer devices.
Apple's also introducing features to the App Store that will save space on devices by dropping out incompatible or unnecessary resources from apps. For example, a 64-bit retina device won't need to download a 32-bit executable and non-retina resources. That will speed installation and updates, too.
The iPad gets a productivity boost. Apple's initial launch of the iPad included a productivity story--the iWork suite of apps was launched alongside the device--but since then, iPad development has crept forward in unison with the iPhone, and most attempts to use the iPad as a business productivity device have come from dedicated users with bleeding-edge third-party apps.
Finally, last week Apple pushed forward the iPad as a productivity platform, announcing several new features of iOS 9 that were squarely targeted at people who spend time with an iPad and a keyboard. For users of external Bluetooth keyboards, Apple added support for app switching via keyboard, as well as a visible display of keyboard shortcuts.
The promised upgrades to the software keyboard are even more impressive. The QuickType suggestion bar above the keyboard now doubles as a toolbar, which is extensible by third-party apps. And iOS has embraced the cursor for the very first time, at least for text editing--when you place two fingers down on the keyboard, you can move an I-beam cursor and use it to change the insertion point and select text.
But perhaps most importantly, Apple has decided to embrace the multi-screen app approach pioneered by Microsoft and allow iPads to run two apps side by side in portrait orientation. This feature only works on the iPad Air 2 (it's got more memory and processor power than any other iOS devices), so it may drive sales of new iPads this fall. And it promises to make life more productive for people who currently have to switch back and forth between different full-screen iPad apps to get work done.
A somewhat lesser feature, SlideOver, will allow users of older iPads to drag apps in from the right side of the screen for a quick glance or interaction. And iOS 9 will also enable apps that display video to show that in a picture-in-picture window floating atop the app you're currently using.
With these additions, the iPad seems much more functional--and creeps a bit closer to the space currently reserved for "real computers," but without resorting to a classic desktop interface. It's still very iOS, but with features we've come to think of as belonging to a PC, not an iPad.
Apple Watch gets native apps. The Apple Watch has only been out for a couple of months, but Apple's laying the groundwork for a major new software update this fall. The update is called watchOS 2, and should be a huge upgrade for third-party app developers.
Current Apple Watch apps actually run on the iPhone, with only the interface resident on the Apple Watch. With watchOS 2, Apple Watch apps will run on the watch hardware itself. Under watchOS 2, Apple Watch apps will be able to connect back to the iPhone, use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet when the iPhone isn't around, and access watch hardware that's currently off limits, including the speaker, microphone, and digital crown. The result should be dramatic improvements to third-party apps, which are undoubtedly the weakest part of the Apple Watch experience today.
Siri is becoming a search engine. Slowly but surely, Apple is building Siri into a contextually focused personal search engine. New natural-language search in Spotlight on OS X and a new Google Now-reminiscent search page in iOS 9 make it clear that Apple is trying to counter Google's power in the cloud with some cloud-assisted on-device search technology. This isn't Apple's area of expertise, but it's vitally important that the company get better at it. We'll have to see how iOS 9's "proactive" features compare to what Google provides when iOS 9 arrives.
Another year, same as the last. Apple may be changing a bunch of things now that Tim Cook is in charge, but the company is sticking to its traditional release schedule. Developers currently have beta versions of iOS, OS X, and watchOS. Public betas of iOS and OS X will follow this summer. And all of the OS updates will be released this fall--presumably within a few days of the release of the next edition of the iPhone.