It's a sunny day in Cupertino

Mon Jun 2, 2014

This morning’s keynote at Apple’s WWDC was all about sharing. And sharing is good, as any mother will tell her three-year old. But in a brilliant play by Apple, the true impetus behind all this sharing is a calculated effort to keep developers on-board and users locked into their ecosystem.

The relaxed smiles on the faces of Tim Cook and Craig Federighi belie the fact that these public presentations are actually highly scripted performances designed to counter negative public perception and set a new tone for the future. The tone Apple projected today was benevolent and at times jovial. One humorous interlude saw Craig suggesting OS X Weed as the next name for the Mac operating system - a playful nod, no doubt, toward prolific pot-smoker Dr. Dre’s new job as an Apple employee. But now that Dr. Dre is hip hop’s first billionaire, the implicit suggestion is that he has to reign it in a bit and get to work by 9am - as relayed by Craig in a bizarre phone call with Dr. Dre during the presentation. But hey, if Steve Jobs himself popped LSD to expand his mind, hiring potheads into senior management is actually pretty conservative.

After the laughs were over, the sharing began in earnest. OS X now shares a design language with iOS with plenty of transparency and “flatness”. It actually looks great, and as someone who gets a kick out of UI design, I’m really looking forward to it. But the main focus for the new OS is the seamless sharing of information between hardware platforms. Dubbed “continuity” by the Apple team, users will be able to start a task on one platform and pick it up on another without interruption, thanks to proximity sharing. One great example is that your Macbook will detect when an iPhone is close by and allow the user to set up a WiFi hotspot from the Macbook.

When it comes to content, Family Sharing allows multiple Apple users in a family to share music, movies, books and apps with each other. I can see this as being genuinely useful - now you only have to pay once for apps everybody in your family uses.

This tight platform and content integration may be a transparent attempt to promote “stickiness” and lock users into the platform, but to their credit, Apple didn’t stop there. On iOS, all manner of APIs have been shared with developers with the end result being that third-party apps now have more access to the software and hardware architectures of Apple’s previously walled-in garden. For instance, and I never thought I’d see this, third-party keyboards can now be installed. I can just imagine the conversation around the conference table:

Craig: We need to improve our keyboard. How about predictive typing?

Anonymous Developer: Sure, but Swiftkey already does this - won’t they be pissed? Do we really want to get tangled up in legal issues…

Craig: There’s a company called “Swiftkey”? Shit, I want to name our new programming language “Swift”! Ah, screw it, let’s just do the predictive typing thing anyway, but open up the keyboard API to keep Swiftkey happy. I mean, nobody is going to install it anyway.

Developers don’t pour money into iOS app development because they love apple. They devote their precious resources to it because Apple’s user base tends to be more affluent than Android users. But this demographic divide is slowly shifting - and with Android having the largest install base by far, Apple is terrified of losing the one thing they have over Android - a developer community that builds for Apple first. So by sharing all these APIs, toolkits, etc. including a whole new programming language designed to make app development easier, Apple is killing three fat birds with one stone. Developers are happy with all the new goodies, users are happy with the promise of more choice and customization, and in one deft sidestep, Apple also counters the public perception that they are a cold, closed-off company unwilling to compromise.

Nicely done guys. It’s a sunny day in Cupertino today. But Apple isn’t giving up too much control. Apple is just setting up more sandboxes for us to play in (such as widgets sandboxed in the notification area) as long as we share nicely with the other kids. After all, according to Apple’s weather app icon, it’s always sunny in Cupertino.

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