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WWDC

Why Apple Is Opening Up Its Software And Inviting Developers In

At WWDC, Apple signaled that it's opening up: One by one, its services are inviting developers to play.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937

[Photo: Disney Archives]

More than ever, Apple is realizing it can't do it all. That is, when it comes to building software and services, the technology giant that is most often criticized (or respected) for its "closed" approach is opening up.

At its World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) yesterday, Apple introduced a deluge of new features across its four platforms: iOS, Mac OS (formerly OS X), watchOS, and tvOS. For Apple's fans, its keynotes are typically littered with oohs and aahs (alongside a few shrugs) at all the new things Apple's gadgets will soon be able to do. But this year, we noticed a trend: Apple is making more of its services available to third-party developers.

Starting in the fall, iMessage, Maps, and Siri are all getting software development kits (SDKs) for developers to build new features around these services. The series of announcements comes less than a year after Apple added an app store to Apple TV and provided developers with an SDK for building tvOS apps, much like they can on iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

The keynote's Siri SDK announcement, much like last fall's announcement of the new Apple TV and its SDK, was frequently accompanied with the word "finally" in headlines and tweets. Indeed, Siri is now five years old, and the Apple TV is almost a decade old. For these products to be closed off from third-party developers for so long certainly seemed strange, especially considering that the iOS App Store opened its virtual doors only one year after the iPhone came out. The iPhone drives a massive percentage of Apple's revenue—and is intended for more constant, thorough use by its customers—but still.

So why now? Opening Siri up to developers has likely been on the table for a long time, but if someone helped push it to the top of the priority list, her name was probably Alexa. The voice-controlled artificial assistant that lives inside Amazon's Echo smart speaker has proven to be a surprise hit among consumers. When the Echo launched, Alexa was like a stripped-down version of Siri: a robotic, female voice with far less answers and functionality than Apple's voice assistant. But Amazon quickly added support for third-party services, and by earlier this month, Alexa boasted 1,000 integrations.

The unexpected success of the Echo has seemingly pushed other companies like Google and Sonos toward focusing more on voice control and at-home virtual assistants. Apple is rumored to be working on an Echo-style speaker of its own, according to The Information. But before that can happen, Siri needs to get smarter: She needs to hook into more services people use, learn new skills, and become as useful as possible. Apple can continue to work on the underlying voice recognition technology and designing the conversational UI behind Siri, but her new abilities will need to come from outside developers. Just like Apple could never singlehandedly fill its iOS App Store with 2 million apps by itself, it will need the help of outside developers to help train Siri in the ways of the world.

Satiating the demand for third-party dev support in Siri and Apple TV could well have been enough for Apple to tackle for now. But yesterday, it added two less widely expected invitations to third-party developers: in Maps and iMessage. As other chat products like Facebook Messenger and Slack become mini-platforms for conversational innovations, Apple likely recognized that its past approach of slowly rolling out new emojis and even adding third party keyboard support in iOS 8 wasn't going to cut it much longer.

Similarly, there are only so many things that a company with this many products and services can do to improve a utility like digital maps—especially after the embarrassingly imperfect launch of Apple Maps in 2012. The service has improved dramatically—It works just fine now—but in order to take it to the next level of usefulness, Apple needs to be able to plug Maps into other people's data and services.

Still, as sensible as opening up Maps and iMessage may seem, they probably aren't of dire importance right now. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be the beginning of a philosophical sea change at Apple: In order to truly keep up in the platform wars—its platform is what powers the hardware that keeps its profits so fat—Cupertino needs to open up. The App Store isn't likely to morph into the malware-ridden free-for-all that Android users tolerate, but don't be surprised if we continue to see Apple open up its software to developers and, in time, turn its famously profitable products into things built by crowds rather than always directed from on high.

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