WWDC 2013 – My hopes and predictions for software

by davidnielsen

WWDC is a developer event and that means new software, new APIs to play with and new OS previews for our Macs and iOS devices.

Apple put OS X on a years cycle much like iOS recently and we already know to expect previews of both iOS 7 as well as OS X 10.9 at this years WWDC.

iOS 7

With Scott Forstall officially out and Sir Jonathan Ive in charge of both hardware and software design big changes are expected. The common wisdom is to look at the evolution of Apple’s Podcast application for iOS for clues to how Ive will be changing the visual language we are used to.

If that is any guide the skeomorphic metaphores are out and a flatter look is in. As Ive was only put in charge at what must have been the halfway point of the iOS 7 development cycle I doubt that there has been much time to implement wide changes but I do expect some visual changes to key applications such as Mail.app, Calendar and Contacts, these are core iOS applications and certainly ones in need of a once over. I am hoping that iBooks will also be losing it’s wooden bookcase and embracing what ebook reading can be, I believe Marvin ereader application is a good direction to go in generally in this respect (in terms of the reading experience, Marvin is getting rather functionally overloaded and certainly nothing Apple would ship themselves).

Of new features it is widely rumoured that the social integration will be expanded with Vimeo and Flickr. Of these I think Flickr is the most important to consider as Apple has had a long standing relationship with Yahoo! and currently is trying it’s hardest to lessen their dependency on Google. Both though are signs that Apple are opening up to working with more partners and it is a good thing.

I hope that they will open up the Online Account system to 3rd parties so that I could e.g. add my Mega.co.nz, Dropbox, Kickstarter, Diaspora and other services there. It would likely also encourage app developers to rely on the system account store rather than having the user type in user names and passwords in every application. This would be a general good and the standard application review process could likely to enforced to avoid abuses of such an opening of access. It would though mean that if application developers start relying on it, that users would have better more central control over what applications have access to what accounts, and with what privileges. In fact if this is opened, I would suggest that Apple reject all applications that rely on 3rd party accounts which does not adopt the API to improve user privacy control.

I also hope that users will finally be able to set their default applications for mail, browsing and so on in some way. If they also allow you to remove their applications if so replaced it would be perfect. Additionally it would help stimulate the app ecosystem for this types of applications, to allow the Sparrows of tomorrow a greater change of success than the Sparrow that died all to soon. Something that would I suspect be greatly welcomed by both users and developers alike.

OS X

I love OS X, but I realise that it is not the most important of the OS projects in Apple’s world. It is also the project we have heard the fewest rumors about. There are some who say that with iOS taking on a more userfriendly, easy interface, OS X will be taking a turn towards power users. I believe this is untrue and if it turns out to be true I would be a mistake. OS X is the only desktop platform that keeping steady in a climate where traditional PC and laptop sales are falling. Making Finder more awful by adding tabs as has been suggested rather than making it more intuitive and elegant (like GNOME3’s Nautilus).

One reason we likely have not heard much about OS X is that Apple have had to pool effort behind iOS 7 to get it ready for preview.

Another is that OS X as it stands is pretty good, in fact what it mostly needs is having some long standing issues addressed such as the fact that the file system is 20+ years old and currently held together by duct tape and gum.

You don’t however change a filesystem overnight, and for what it is worth HFS+ in its current state is fairly stable and performs okay on the hardware Apple provides. I think Apple will change the file system eventually but it is not a project for this year and it shouldn’t be. I think it would be more trouble than it is worth. It is also a hard thing to get right, failing to do so is certain to cause dataloss and that is something Apple will want to avoid at all costs, even keeping HFS+ alive for another couple of years.

Services

I think the biggest changes to both iOS and OS X will be in services and integration.

iCloud

iCloud is famously popular with users, it generally works well for the cases we see it. E.g. this very blog post is written in the excellent Byword, in a text file that is stored on iCloud. I have worked on it using both Byword for iOS and OS X seamlessly, and once I publish the post the original document will stay where it is.

For developers though iCloud is a completely different story.

The most obvious problem is that iCloud is only available for iOS and OS X. Developers who wish to support additional platforms will have to use something else, this is not in Apple’s best interest. Apple will have to make iCloud available to developers not using Apple’s platforms and deploying via their their App Stores exclusively. Tim Cook seems inclined to bringing iCloud to more platforms and opening up a bit more in his All Things Digital interview so hopefully this will happen.

Secondly, while the relatively simple key-value pair syncing and document store works well, whereas the complicated CoreData syncing does not (see e.g. this article on The Verge. Sadly the latter is by far the most valuable part of iCloud and one that desperately needs to work for iCloud to live up to its promise.

Thirdly, iCloud is quite tied to the core iOS and OS X code base and as such is on basically a yearly schedule. This means that the feedback loop for bug fixes and new features is far to slow. They need to decouple iCloud and make it a separate SDK which is on a more rapid cycle such as the 6 week cycle seen with web browsers.

Unless Apple does something about their iCloud problem it will fail to catch on the way Apple is betting on. Apple also has a terrible history with regards to providing and running services. They do wonderful products and beautiful end user software but they just cannot seem to grasp how to do services. They will have to get good at it really quickly and I don’t think they can do that on their own.

I also think there is a reason that the Moscone center decorations are not featuring the iCloud logo that otherwise is prominent on Apple’s packaging and other material. They know it is broken, and they have nothing to announce… Yet. I suspect a special developer event will be held later this year, I just don’t think they have managed to get this ready for the big WWDC event and they will hurt because of it.

I think the Flickr integration is the first sign that Apple are warming up to Yahoo! and I hope it means that they are looking at either buying them outright for the talent and expertise or expanding their existing work relationship by e.g. contracting them to run and maintain Apple’s services on Apple’s terms. Apple cannot afford to screw this up any longer and it will hurt them in a bad way if they continue to attempt and fail.

Luckily for Apple, Yahoo! while improving under Marissa Mayer’s leadership is still in a bad place and would likely be inclined increasing their reliance on Apple to remain relevant.

So my prediction is that Apple will acknowledge that they cannot fulfill their iCloud promises as things stand and that they need to change rather than dig in and continue to fail terribly like they did under Steve Jobs.

This is I believe going to be the first time Tim Cook can really shape Apple’s future in a deep and meaningful way that Steve Jobs would never have done, and it is because he is ready to publicly apologize for falling short of his promises. Having already done so with regards to Apple Maps for its initially disappointing state and taken steps to improve that product to where it is today.

They will likely do so by buying Yahoo!, it is already a company they have strong ties with, Yahoo! being the providers of e.g. Weather data to Apple.

Also Yahoo! under Marissa Mayer understands the importance of Apple’s platform as the number one mobile web consumer. I believe they will make a good match and with it Apple also gains some of the social aspects it has failed to build in the past with such miserable failures as Ping.

iTunes

Apple began work on remodelling iTunes last year and I believe this work will continue. Eventually we will see them dramatically simplify the application by splitting it out into separate entities for Music, Video, Podcasts and Books. I don’t think this will happen this year, iTunes is simply to critical to Apple currently and the job it too big.

We have though already seen this start to happen on iOS, with the applications being split up but the iTunes app itself not being removed.

An improved iCloud should help towards this end goal and I think we will see Apple integrating iCloud more with iTunes this year.

iRadio

One thing that will help any such iTunes refactoring come to pass is the rumored Pandora/Spotify/Rdio competitor iRadio. Every Indication is that this will be announced today, the required deals with big content appears to have been signed and all is ready.

I am still unsure about the rumor that this will be a free ad supported service. Going in that direction would be very unlike Apple and I certainly hope this is not true. At any rate I am happy with Rdio and will likely stick with them, though it would be handy to be able to access the big collection that such a streaming service provides from my AppleTV as it is connected to our sound system.

Safari

Safari after Google forked WebKit is in a position to clean up the WebKit codebase a lot, I hope this happens over the coming year. I also hope that Safari is radically simplified and becomes settings-wise more like Google Chrome. Mostly though I hope that Apple realizes that they need to decouple Safari from OS X and iOS and put it on a more rapid schedule to keep up with Firefox and Google Chrome. Doing this would show commitment to Safari and it would ensure that improvements get into users hands more rapidly.