Apple’s history of innovation is defined by the epoch-shifting gadgets it launches at splashy media events—the first iPhone in 2007, for instance, or the Apple Watch last September. And the continued breathtaking success of the iPhone—74.5 million sold in the last three months of 2014, driving the most profitable quarter of any company in history—can overshadow an underappreciated truth about Apple’s good fortune: Many of the company’s most meaningful accomplishments don’t make for particularly memorable stagecraft. That’s because they’re about subtle software refinements that make its existing hardware products more useful.
In the case of iOS 8, the newest version of its mobile operating system, Apple focused on empowering third-party developers to build interesting new things. HealthKit is a centralized clearing house for data collected by wearable gadgets such as smart watches and fitness trackers, such as heart rate and steps taken. HomeKit gives gizmos like Internet-connected thermostats, light bulbs, and door locks the ability to work in concert with each other, with voice control by Siri.
Other new features allow apps to insinuate their way into the operating system and Apple’s cloud services in ways that previous iOS versions did not. If you’ve upgraded to iOS 8, you may have noticed that the TouchID fingerprint sensor is more reliable than ever. You’re then more likely to use Apple Pay, which means your experience checking out in popular apps like Airbnb, HotelTonight, Instacart, and Lyft is even more magical. Camera apps can tap into iOS 8’s Visit Monitoring function to predict whom you might want to share a particular photo with based on where you were when you took it. And Continuity lets users smoothly transition in-progress tasks such as email and phone calls from iPhone to iPad to Mac.
It’s too early to judge the long-term impact of all these features, given that they depend on what other companies do with them. Still, they’re evidence that Tim Cook’s Apple is developing its own character—one deeply influenced by Steve Jobs, but not slavishly so. Jobs, after all, was fond of boasting that Apple was the only outfit in the tech industry that was solely responsible for "the whole widget"—hardware, software, and services, all integrated into a seamless experience. With iOS 8, Apple is loosening its control over future widgets in ways that its control-freak cofounder might have rejected. But they’re putting Apple even more boldly at the center of "the whole widget" of our technology-powered lives.
Apple is the most famously secretive company in technology. But among the numerous things it did in 2014 which bucked its reputation was to release a public preview version of its new OS X Yosemite operating system for Macs. Available months before the final version shipped in October, the preview was free and freely available to anyone curious enough to give it a try—the first time since the original version of OS X back in 2000 that nondevelopers had the opportunity to use a version of the software that was still a work in progress.
[Illustration: Tavis Coburn]