Last week, I predicted that a big focus of Apple's WWDC keynote would be on platforms that aggregated data, tasks and functionality from a range of solutions and across Apple's various products and services. And that theme played a prominent role in yesterday's keynote.
Apple's "Continuity" initiative is all about using the right device for the right task at the right moment and shifting between devices seamlessly. It very much leverages all of Apple's solutions to create a very smooth flow from iPhone to Mac to iPad and, in some instances, to iCloud.
Working across all your Apple products
One of the major features under the Continuity umbrella is AirDrop, Apple's self-configuring content-sharing system that has been available in OS X since Mountain Lion's release two years ago and in iOS 7 since last fall. There was only one glaring deficiency: Macs could only detect and share files with other Macs and iOS devices could only see/share with other iOS devices. The big news is that AirDrop will work between iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite -- both due out this fall. One of the biggest advantages of AirDrop, in both its Mac and iOS iterations, is that the technology functions completely without any configuration.
Macs and iOS devices won't even need to be on the same network to share content -- as long as they're near each other, they can detect and establish ad-hoc access. This allows for immensely easy collaboration at a moment's notice and is so much simpler than signing onto a corporate network share, attaching a file to an email, or using a flash drive to transfer information.
Building on that effortless ease-of-sharing is Handoff, a new feature that will allow users to, well, hand off a task from one device to another. You can, for instance, begin composing an email on an iPhone and then finish the process on a Mac. Handoff really demonstrates, perhaps more than anything else that Apple announced at the keynote, the value of its ecosystem and the company's focus on delivering an end-to-end user experience.
Handoff isn't the only way Apple showcased this experience by a long shot. The ability to relay text messages and voice calls (complete with caller ID and the contact information associated with the caller) from an iPhone to a Mac, or to answer or initiate calls on a Mac -- using an iPhone or making the call directly from the Mac -- give us another peek at the unified vision, centered around the user, that appears to be Apple's goal moving forward.
Another feature Apple execs highlighted, sure to be a hit with road warriors and those of us who occasionally work in coffee shops, is an automatic hotspot feature. Using your iPhone as a hotspot isn't new, of course, and it was available on Android well before it was available on an Apple device, but Apple has made using it completely effortless. There's no need to configure a network or pair your Mac to your iPhone using Bluetooth; the connection simply occurs automatically with your iPhone appearing in the network menu in the Yosemite menubar.
This integrated experience doesn't stop at the individual level. Apple also announced family-sharing capabilities that create a seamless experience across multiple devices and Apple IDs, in part based on the credit card associated with those accounts and devices. The feature allows sharing of iTunes purchases, photos and photo streams, reminders and calendars. It also appears to be Apple's effort to put the in-app purchases scandal -- in which kids spent hundreds or thousands of dollars without their parents' knowledge -- behind it. Purchases made by minors now require parental approval and parents will get a request alert on their devices asking for just that.
Crafting new platforms
While a major theme was Apple as the platform, the company is also building out new platforms with third-party partners as well. These include the anticipated home automation and health tracking platforms as well as some unexpected additions.
HomeKit is the name for Apple's new home automation platform. To be clear, Apple isn't getting into the home automation game itself. Instead, it's working with a range of companies already building iOS-compatible smart-home devices. What HomeKit offers is secure pairing and control of various devices as well as the ability to group these devices into collections of devices called scenes. Scenes are designed as a way to automate several devices with a single command like locking the house and turning out all the lights when going to bed.
One of the advantages of this approach is that consumers can dip their toe in the home automation waters one device at a time. Another is that some device commands and scenes can be invoked verbally through Siri, which in iOS 8 gains an always-listening option such as that available on Android devices.
Computerworld's Ken Mingis and IDG Enterprise's Keith Shaw discuss what they liked (and didn't) at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference keynote.
Despite some big expectations about a new Health platform, the announcements about HealthKit APIs and Apple's Health app were buried in the middle of the two-hour-long keynote. That makes it easy to dismiss, especially since Apple didn't unveil, or even talk about, a sensor-laden watch to go with it. But HealthKit is likely a bigger deal than Apple let on.
The keynote focused on discussing the practical values of its Health app and those APIs -- the ability to record a range of metrics from varying devices including activity, weight, blood pressure, sleep and data associated with chronic diseases. That's useful information and it shows that Apple is building support for a broad health data platform.
Yesterday's demo also touched on the possibility that health data can be communicated to a physician or another healthcare professional if key metrics fall out of a specified range. That really capitalizes on the power of a mobile health platform. Apple's presentation left the impression that we should expect this capability someday, but not too soon, which I think was strategic on Apple's part. That's particularly true in light of Samsung's much flashier announcement of a device -- the Simband -- and the SAMI cloud-based health aggregating service, which won't ship for several months.
I say this because of two things that Apple noted about HealthKit.
One is that the Mayo Clinic, one of the most highly regarded medical organizations in the country, is partnering with Apple to develop such a platform. In addition to being a top-notch medical facility that incorporates numerous highly-rated hospitals, the Mayo Clinic has been at the forefront of mobile health solutions. It recently conducted a study that showed consumer-oriented activity trackers could predict recovery time following heart surgery and it has one of the most comprehensive and well-designed apps for hospital patients on the planet. In addition, it recently launched its own mobile health app/service that, for a monthly subscription, connects users with a personal health assistant that can handle a wide range of tasks -- researching obscure diseases or forms of cancer, locating and setting up consultations with specialists, making medical appointments and handling follow-ups, and even helping users select a primary care doctor or health insurance plan. Those features are all available regardless of whether the services are provided by the Clinic or not.
The other is a partnership with EPIC, one of the biggest producers of electronic health record (EHR) systems in the country. EPIC commands a large share of the hospital EHR market and is commonly used by hospital chains, medical groups and practices. If Apple is planning to create a platform that truly links data from a mobile health platform to doctors, working with EPIC is a huge coup. The two partnerships, and Apple's hiring spree of healthcare executives over the past couple of years, give the company a lot of credibility in the medical community among doctors and other providers, hospital and healthcare administrators and health IT professionals.
iCloud Drive and CloudKit
Announcing iCloud Drive, an expanded version of Apple's existing storage/sync/backup service, Apple has finally delivered a version of iCloud that can compete with others in the space like Dropbox, Microsoft's OneDrive and Google Drive.
Apple also touted CloudKit, a platform designed to allow developers to build cloud-based applications. Although it didn't make many details about CloudKit public, Apple described the platform as one in which it handles most of the back-end architecture needed to make those apps function. This would appear to position Apple as a competitor in the consumer, prosumer and potentially the small business or even enterprise cloud application markets.
Beyond the consumer features and new platforms
While Apple spent a lot of time showing off selected parts of iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, it also announced major functional upgrades for developers, including changes to the App Store, a new programming language "Swift" and 4,000 new developer APIs. That is an important reminder that despite the media attention the annual keynote always garners, the real meat will be in the training sessions, labs, and other events Apple has planned for the developers this week. That applies to those there in person and those attending virtually through the WWDC app and their membership in Apple's developer programs. (All of the information is under Apple's non-disclosure agreement.)
Suffice it to say that Apple is staking out new ground, and some of that ground -- like HealthKit -- is ground that the late Steve Jobs might not have been interested in. Given the building blocks it's putting place, I'm looking forward to seeing what the company has in store over the next six to 12 months.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).
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