Welcome Cracks in the Walled Garden

The first good sign was the opening video. Last year's video was a visually pleasing but somewhat abstract statement of purpose about Apple's design principles. The message seemed to be, "We're Apple. We know design. Learn from us." This year, the video focused on people talking about apps and how they improve people's lives. The content wasn't amazing, but the contrast was stark. Apple often takes a moment to nod toward the importance of developers, but this felt bigger than that. Rather than focusing inward on their own expertise, Apple was focusing outward on the people who build on their platforms and use their products. The video ended with the words "thank you" addressed directly to developers. I'm not sure how this went over in the room, but as a user who feels deep gratitude for the apps I use every day, I felt like that thank you was long overdue. And that was just the beginning. Apple spent the rest of the keynote demonstrating this new outward focus by tearing down walls.

Critics of the company love to toss around terms like "walled garden," in reference to Apple's paternal approach to interoperability. It's a fair criticism, especially when it comes to iOS. The App Store, sandboxing, and iCloud each put their own restrictions on how users can access software and data. But another way to see it is that Apple has always been a device-centric rather than a data-centric company.

Other players in the computer industry always saw a sharp divide between the hardware and the software, but Apple has always tried to take a holistic view, controlling as much of both the hardware and the software as possible. This approach only increased with iOS, which gave Apple even greater control of what software could be loaded onto the device, how applications could communicate with each other, and what users could (and couldn't) customize about their experience. That level of control made iPhones and iPads more approachable than any computing devices had ever been before. And Apple's device-centric approach filtered down to developers, who made apps that themselves felt like mini-virtual devices, each with their own unique designs, powers, and solutions.

But overtime, that device-centric approach has felt more and more limiting. Every time you tap on a notification and get pulled sideways into a new app, or you tap open in and find yourself flung in a different direction, you feel your head bump against the walls of the walled garden. Apple wants to hide the file system because ordinary users find it confusing, but is it really less confusing to open a photo in a photo editing app, make changes, and then have to export them as an entirely new photo to the Photos app?

Apple has finally decided to tackle these problems, making the walls of its many walled gardens rather more porous. The most obvious of these changes is a new iCloud document picker, which will allow iOS apps to select a file and then save it without creating second copies. This is the closest Apple has come to introducing a real file system to iOS, and without a demo, it remains to be seen what it will actually look like, but the keynote mentioned that iCloud will not be the only storage option for this document picker. Theoretically, customers could choose Google Drive, One Drive, or even Dropbox.

Other changes include interactive notifications, such as the ability to accept appointment requests, respond directly to messages, and apparently take action on third party notifications (though the only example was Facebook). So instead of having to bounce over to the app in question, entering its little garden, you can just interact with the information itself wherever you are. Another example is third party widgets in the Today view of Notification Center (something that carries over to the Mac). Again, you'd be interacting with the data of an app or the feature of an app without having to enter the the app itself. And Healthkit and Homekit, which were touted as rumors in the run up to the keynote, were described as aggregators of data from other apps. The data, liberated from its silos, can be collected, examined, and transformed with new meaning.

Apple also pulled down the walls between iOS devices and the Mac. There's a new feature called "Continuity," which gives devices a variety of ways to share data more fluidly. You will be able to use Airdrop to send data between Mac and iOS. You can also "hand off" tasks from one device to the next. Writing an email on your phone? Easily switch to writing it on your Mac. Get a call or an SMS on your phone? View the call or the message on your Mac. Each of these features frees the computing task at hand from its confinement to one specific app or one specific device.

But finally, the feature on almost everyone's iOS wish list came true. Apple introduced "Extensibility," a kind of inter-app communication that would allow apps to open up instances of each other's UI to take certain actions. The example Apple showed was of opening a photo in the Photos app and being able to use a filter from another installed app without leaving Photos. It isn't clear yet whether one third party app will be able to interact with another third party app, but that was the implication.

The larger implication is that developers can now begin to think about apps as either stand-alone powerful pieces of software or as extensions of other pieces of software. I don't really want to buy any more apps that let me add filters to my photos, but I might buy an extension to my main photo editing app that gives me extra features.

Power users are no doubt cheering all of these additions. For me, what's really exciting is not the features in themselves (though I am excited to try them) but the apparent change in philosophy, the willingness to trust the users and the developers. With iOS 7, Apple seemed to be saying that people are comfortable enough with touch interfaces that they don't need skeuomorphic designs anymore to make them feel comfortable. With iOS 8, Apple seems to be saying that people are comfortable enough with the various data they manage through their devices and their apps. That data can now begin to move more fluidly between those devices and apps.

Recently, in "Sharing the Ecosystem" I wrote,

I find it fitting that the number one request on most people’s lists for iOS 8 is better sharing of information between apps. What Apple needs is better sharing, period. Healthy ecosystems are all about sharing. “Better can’t be better if it doesn’t consider everything.” Just as Tim Cook sees the value in sustaining the world’s ecosystem, he needs to see the value in sustaining the developer ecosystem. It’s those developers who can provide the real return on investment, making both his products, and the world, better.

I came away from the keynote feeling that Tim Cook understands this. He chose to begin the keynote with a thank you to developers, and he ended it by asking all the Apple employees in the audience to stand up to receive recognition. For the last two decades, Apple was defined by one man's vision, even if there were many people behind that vision. Tim Cook wants to celebrate all the people working to make Apple better. I have rarely felt more hopeful about the company.