There's a certain script to these Apple developer conference keynotes: Act One is a boring set of business updates about how well Apple is doing. Act Two is a dazzling set of new features added to its two operating systems, OS X and iOS. And finally, Act Three is the promise of great technical detail of interests to the developers who will be staying at the convention center all week, as opposed to the press who scurry away as soon as the keynote music fades.
This year, the WWDC keynote didn't go according to that plan. Act One was cut due to time constraints — there wasn't enough time for more than a slide about major initiatives such as HomeKit and HealthKit, so there certainly wasn't time for slides of the latest Apple Store openings around the world.
Act Two was pretty good. Apple executives — and by "executives," I mean Apple Software Superman Craig Federighi — showed off the new versions of iOS and OS X, including new system features, design flourishes, and changes to Apple's provided apps. Most regular users of devices, if they notice at all, consider these sorts of features the the defining characteristics of a new operating system. Mavericks is the one that took the leather off of the Calendar app. iOS 7 is the one where all the icons got flat.
Act Three is the place for under-the-radar stuff. These are the features that the mainstream media doesn't understand, but that make developers whoop loudly as they're announced. They are supposed to be subtle, esoteric things that make the platform better, and eventually emerge as cool apps and functionality that users discover months down the line.
Not this year. Not this keynote. On Monday, Act Three was the star, and it will be paying off continually for users for the next year.
The wonderful world of apps
When you get a new version of an operating system, either via upgrade or by buying a new device with the new version preinstalled, the change happens all at once. Every new feature is suddenly there, and since Apple doesn't generally add major features in between releases, life pretty much stays the same for the next year. Monday's Act Three announcements were all about enabling third-party developers — those people whooping in the room at esoteric technical things you might not fully understand — to keep on enriching the experience of being a Mac and iOS user long after Apple's finalized iOS 8 and Yosemite and shifted into bug-fix mode.
The ways Apple is opening up app access to iOS in particular will change the experience for users more than any single OS feature. And it will happen in unexpected ways, because those developers are very, very clever, and tend to think of approaches that nobody — not even the people at Apple who enable them — has anticipated.
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