The Best Of Apple's WWDC 2014

Remember, it's a conference for coders--so we decompiled the news. Here's what you need to know.

At its annual World Wide Developers Conference today, Apple introduced significant upgrades to its desktop and mobile operating systems, moved into the connected health and smart home spaces, and introduced a new programming language that will speed up the your app experience.

The keynote is aimed primarily at programmers, and even the most consumer-friendly announcements today could leave many feeling downright bored. You can receive a phone call on your iPhone and answer it on your Mac, which becomes a speaker phone. There's a cloud-based storage system similar to Dropbox or Box, and it will archive all of your photos. And several other small but useful changes will come to your iPhone and desktop later this summer.

But for programmers today offered a bonanza. A new programming language, Swift, will let developers make apps faster and more powerful. Changes to the App Store, including a list of trending apps and video previews, fix that nagging discoverability problem. In all, the software developer kit (SDK) for iOS 8 offers more than 4,000 new APIs to play with, including HealthKit and HomeKit -- which will speed the development of connected health and smart home apps.

Many of these new apps and features were shown on stage only briefly, and without testing them out it's impossible to say whether or not they will amount to much. Anyone out there still using iTunes Radio? That was one of the biggest introductions from last year's WWDC.

Here's a brief look at the announcements from today that got us excited.

iOS 8

This is the operating system that your iPhone 6 is going to use, and it will be available as a free upgrade for existing iPhone and iPad owners in the fall. If you have access to the developer program, it's available in beta starting today.

Best New Feature: Health
Health fitness devices are great for gathering up statistics, but less good when it comes to displaying that data in a useful way. It doesn't help that each dashboard is sitting on a separate website, behind a different password. And until now, there's been no way to collect all that data into one place. The Health app changes that by offering you a singular health dashboard that can ingest data from multiple sources. Calories burned, sleep patterns, heart rate, and an emergency card that can include blood type and allergies are all available from within Health. Apple also talked up a partnership with Mayo Clinic that will allow the app to securely share information with health care providers, potentially alerting them when there is a problem.

Mayo Clinic was profiled by Apple in a video around this time last year.

The Rest
Handoff. Start an activity on one device, finish it on another. The interoperability of Apple devices may finally be at hand.

Improved search. The spotlight feature, which currently finds results just on your device, is being expanded to include Wikipedia and search engines.

Better typing. The predictive typing that now exists on the keyboard is getting more personalized and learning from your corrections. The keyboard will also support third-party apps such as Swype.

Cloud storage. The iCloud Drive will make it easier to find and edit documents or photos across devices, keeping them updated as you move around.

OS X Yosemite

The desktop interface is becoming more interchangeable with the one on your iPhone with Apple's newest operating system. It looks different, with translucent toolbars and updated app icons -- they even changed the primary font. The Mail app is getting a long-overdue update, Safari will once again be faster than Chrome or Firefox, and cloud storage will be front-and-center, and that Handoff feature will let you start an activity on your desktop and pick it up again on your mobile device from right where you left off. It's going to be available to everyone in the fall.

Best New Feature: Mail and Messages.
Apple's current email app, Mail, is not only missing some obvious feature but often sluggish if you have a large archive. The Yosemite update is promising a speedier app, along with some nifty new features. The first is the ability to annotate documents using a touchpad. Ever tried to sign a pdf and email it back to someone? You probably had to print it on paper, sign it, scan it, and then email it. Annotations lets you draw right onto a document or an image. And if you draw, say, an arrow, then the "Markup" feature will automatically turn your scribble into a nice neat arrow icon. A Mail Drop addition lets you send images or files up to 5GB to any email address, and have it encrypted in the cloud along the way.

Messages, meanwhile, takes a whole bunch of features from WhatsApp and Snapchat to become a much more feature-rich tool. It now supports group conversations, the ability to record short audio clips, and add custom titles to ongoing message threads so that they can be found later.

The Rest
Phone Calls. Finally you can answer a phone call coming to your iPhone on your Mac, which turns into a speakerphone. What took so long?

Text Messages. Send and receive SMS and iMessages from your Mac, without picking up your phone.

Instant Hotspot. A feature that will surely come in handy at airports and hotels around the globe, you can turn your iPhone into a wi-fi hub for your Mac. This feature is already available, but difficult to set up and use. The update promises to make it much simpler.

Personalization. The notification center, that distracting alert box showing when you get new email or have an appointment coming up, can now include stocks, weather, and customizable widgets from the App Store. Multitasking at its finest, because you aren't distracted enough already.

MIA URLs. The "streamlined" toolbar in Safari appears to no longer show a complete website address instead only offering the top level name. It's also faster and has privacy controls that are more on par with its competitors.

Cloud Storage. It starts with 5 GB of free space for any kind of file you want to remotely store, which makes it better than Dropbox (2 GB free) but not as robust as Google (15 GB free). Like other cloud services, you can access the files from any Apple device, and even sync it with Windows too. If you plan to take advantage of storing your entire iPhoto archive in the cloud, then you'll soon want to upgrade to the 20 GB option (.99 cents per mont) or the 200 GB one ($3.99 per month). That pricing is competitive, but getting existing Dropbox and Box users to switch will require significant improvements in usability and functionality.

The Developer Bonanza

Apple can buy its way into hipness by dropping $3 billion on Beats Electronics. But persuading developers that they should build apps for iPhones and iPad instead of Google's Android devices, or even Oculus Rift, requires smarts that money can't buy. And today's announcements include everything from a technology that improves the graphic performance of video games to an entirely new programming language.

Best New Feature: Swift. In the last decade, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all introduced new programming languages. Swift is Apple's overdue entry into the space, and it will make coding for iOS and OS X easier and the resulting apps better. It builds on C and Objective-C, the languages used to build apps today, and incorporates an interface for building apps called Xcode Playgrounds. To delve into how it works, grab the free Swift e-book that Apple released today in the iBooks Store.



One developer said it resembled Javascript minus the semicolons. And apparently it supports emoji.

The Rest
Cross-App communication. Your iPhone and iPad will finally be able to talk to one another using Extensions. Let's say you prefer the filters in VSCO Cam to the ones in the Camera app. Now you'll be able to apply a filter from VSCO directly within the Photos app without having to switch from one to the other and output in between.

Smart home. You'll soon be able to control your lights, thermostat, and garage door from your iPhone thanks to the new HomeKit framework. It's compatible with Siri voice control, and a bunch of actions can be daisy-chained together. That means you can tell your phone to "get ready for bed" and automatically close the garage door, arm the security system, and start the dishwasher. Initial partners include Honeywell, Philips, Kwikset and several others.

There are some features I didn't add above. Family Sharing will let you up to six people share iTunes purchases across devices. Shazam will be integrated with Siri, offering further novelty to what is already a novelty app. AirDrop is a useful way to wirelessly share between iOS and Mac, though it's unclear why you wouldn't use iCloud now. The Photos app got some nice new editing features, but they are long overdue, and Apple has gotten this one wrong in the past. Plus, widgets are back--those small, limited-functionality apps that can tell you the weather or a stock price will now come from outside developers. Maybe someone should make a widget just for keeping track of all the new features in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, because you probably won't ever use half of them. But the other half might just change your life.

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6 Comments

  • Noah,

    You wrote: "One developer said it resembled Javascript minus the semicolons. And apparently it supports emoji."

    Swift == Javascript - ;

    What a load of peurile hogwash. And you quoted it?

    Objective-C is a truly loathsome language; Swift offers some real improvements. Your source's comparison of Swift to Javascript is of a shallow and inconsequential nature. The most notable Swift feature being the addition of a quite powerful generic types system. This is going to change iOS/OS X development for the better.

    Anon, Andrew

  • Gregg Hothem

    I still use iTunes Radio. I may be the only one, but I do.

    When are they going to add a phone function to the iPad and iPad mini? Want to make a large format phone, just add phone features to the mini.

  • I figured at least one person would step up to say they used iTunes Radio, I'm sure lots of people do. But the Beats acquisition seems to send a pretty strong signal about the future of that product.