When Tim Cook took to the stage at WWDC this week you could tell something was different. Usually the keynote is dedicated to showcasing all the front-end, user-centric features of the next iOS and OS X, with the new developer tools taking a backseat at private labs during the week. But this time Cook revealed that a full third of the keynote would be dedicated to showcasing the greatest features of the iOS 8 SDK—something Cook boasted was the "biggest release since the launch of the App Store."
It turns out that wasn’t just hyperbole. As WWDC winds to a close here are what developers told us are four of the massive changes to the iOS SDK that will make coding for it better than ever. What's most surprising? In an uncharacteristically sympathetic way for Apple, they seem correspond to the most prevalent developer complaints.
"It appears that Apple really listened to a lot of the issues being raised by the app development community and has responded with a release that is focused on addressing our concerns, which is reflected in their claim of 4,000 APIs in the iOS 8 SDK," says Kris Ramanathan, CEO and cofounder of Netomat, the company that makes the critically praised Spotliter photo and video app for iOS.
Ramanathan’s assertion is something that I’m not used to hearing from developers, who always seem just a bit dissatisfied after each WWDC. However this year things seem different and virtually every developer I spoke with agrees with Ramanathan’s statement.
The reason so many developers are so excited about the iOS 8 SDK is because it appears Apple has finally heard their number one call—for iOS to be more open—and given it to them. This is apparent in various areas of the OS. Area’s like Touch ID, Apple’s biometric security feature that developers can now use for identification in their apps. Area’s like the iOS keyboard, which now allows developers to make their own keyboards and for the user—if he or she so chooses—to propagate that keyboard out to the entire OS.
But perhaps the biggest area where Apple has shown it has heard developers’ cries for a more open iOS is that of what the company calls Extensibility. For the first time ever, third-party apps can now use extensions to talk to other third-party apps in iOS and share data back and fourth.
"Extensions are fantastic," says Dan Nolan, engineering lead & cofounder of Proxima, one of the first companies to take advantage of Apple’s iBeacon API when it was released last year. "The ability to share information between apps in an easy and seamless way is something iOS has sadly missed for a long time, but it's obvious Apple wanted to do this thing right. From playing around with extensions I can say it's obviously something that's been thought through quite extensively. We're going to see some very awesome stuff come out of extensions."
But iOS 8’s newfound openness isn’t the only thing developers who I spoke with have been celebrating. That’s because Apple finally got around to fixing its much maligned iCloud service with a new framework called CloudKit, which seems to fix virtually everything that was wrong with iCloud from a developer’s perspective.
"CloudKit is the elephant in the room here," Nolan says. "It's a huge amount of data and capabilities given to the developer for free. It's going to set off a massive renaissance in terms of cloud-capable apps that users are going to love. CloudKit is also going to enable young developers—instead of having to set up databases or handle backends—young developers that want to make social, sharing, or other apps can do it on iOS with a few lines of code. To me, that's incredible."
CloudKit eliminates the need for developers to write server-side application logic and also provides developers with authentication, private and public databases, and structured and asset storage services with an allowance all the way up to 1PB in asset storage and 10TB in database storage at no cost to developers.
"I think it is what iCloud should have come out as with iOS 5, where Apple hosts pretty much anything you can throw at it," says Lee Armstrong, CTO at Plane Finder. "This is a step in the right direction and is similar to services such as Dropbox's API, and Parse [now owned by Facebook]."
But Armstrong notes that iCloud still isn’t perfect. "Our biggest issue though is that it appears this is iOS/Mac only. For someone with [an Android app] and a web presence it is not clear if they can also connect into the iCloud backend."
"It’s no secret that every app developer now looks for some sort of way to get Apple to feature their app as that is far and away the single biggest driver of downloads," says Spotliter’s Kris Ramanathan. "However, it appears to us to be a total crapshoot as to which apps get featured and which don’t. Our Spotliter app has gotten excellent reviews on blogs and by users who have downloaded it but because it wasn’t featured in the U.S. App Store; generating broad awareness of its existence and its wonderful capabilities is difficult."
Ramanathan is describing the bane of most developers’ existence. You spend months—sometimes years—creating an amazing app, but when you release it into the App Store, it simply gets swallowed up and lost among the other one million-plus apps in the Store.
And as the App Store gets more crowded the chances of someone discovering your app diminishes. It’s this discoverability problem that is the number one complaint Apple hears from developers about its Store. That’s why in iOS 8 Apple has taken steps to help users find more of the apps that are relevant to them. In iOS 8 a new tab will be added to the App Store called Explore. Here users will be able to easily search through categories and subcategories of apps. They’ll also have access to a new trend chart, which suggests apps for whatever people are talking about most on social media.
"These are important steps to discoverability and quite important to smaller developers like us who don’t have large marketing budgets to heavily promote our apps," says Ramanathan. "Apple has seen and acknowledged this issue and now seems to be taking meaningful steps to address it."
"I think it goes a long way to help solve the issue," agrees Lee Armstrong. "Discovery in the App Store right now is broken and it is great to see them attempt to fix it. The biggest issue is search. We do a lot of work on trying to optimize our Store text but it is more a dark art than a science."
"Those changes were needed and are definitely huge improvements over the current App Store in terms of discoverability. We all know as developers how hard it is to make your app stand out from the crowd unless you get featured," says Jeremy Le Van, cofounder at Sunrise, but he cautions, "Let’s hope that the algorithm feeding the trending and related searches are working well."
Of course discoverability is only one piece of the puzzle to getting someone to download your app. The other piece is making your app’s App Store page appealing with the limited marketing tools—only text and five screenshots—Apple gives you.
In an effort to improve in-App Store marketing in iOS 8 Apple is allowing developers to upload short videos demoing their apps. Virtually every developer I spoke with said they expect the ability for users to see video previews to be a big factor in the ability to increase download numbers.
"Because Spotliter is a photo and video camera app with unique visual touch effects," says Ramanathan, "these videos will help us highlight the unique features and the absolute simplicity of our app and will hopefully drive additional downloads."
Steve Kusmer, cofounder at Abvio, agrees, yet he expresses a concern others have told me. "Videos provide a richer way to get the values of our apps across. However, they take a lot of work and special talent to do well, so I worry a bit about what this does to the overall ecosystem. Will small development teams be able to keep up with huge teams with big video budgets?"
While Apple seems to have hit it out of the park with the latest iOS 8 SDK, most of the developers I spoke with are still hungry for more. The biggest "wants" still left on their lists include the ability to allow third-party apps to be set as the default clients on a user’s device and a Siri SDK so Apple’s virtual assistant can be used to control their apps.
However, with the continued refinement of the OS and iOS 8’s more open ecosystem, new powerful Swift programming language, and its host of new frameworks virtually all developers agree with Tim Cook’s assertion that the iOS 8 SDK is the biggest release since the launch of the App Store.
"This is a massive leap forward in terms of developer support, tooling, and capabilities," says Proxima’s Dan Nolan. "The apps we are going to make on iOS 8 are like nothing you've seen before on a mobile device. Coupled with extensions, integrations, and the ability to bring more of your code back to the Mac we're probably going to see a renaissance in Mac development—more than we already have. Apple's going hard on ecosystem and their’s is unparalleled—from CloudKit to Handoff they're making it so that regardless of what device you're on you can keep working on what you're doing. It's a huge change."