WWDC 2016 First Thoughts

The first day of WWDC is in the books, and I jotted down a few first impressions before I get too into the technical sessions later this week.

Siri

Although I'm happy there's finally a developer API for Siri, I'm disappointed that it's limited to a fairly small set of applications for now. As a user, what I want most is for my favorite shopping and to-do list apps to get Siri integration, something that won't be possible with what Apple announced today. However, they strongly implied that Siri API support will expand to other situations in the future. It's also notable that the API works across all languages that Siri supports, and allows users to interact with much more flexible syntax than something like the Amazon Echo.

It looks like I was wrong about the Siri API being cloud-based, and Apple didn't say much about how Siri features will work across devices. I assume that each device will only support features for the apps it has installed. I hope they'll do something about the problem of multiple devices answering whenever I say "Hey, Siri," especially now that Siri lives on the Mac as well.

MacOS Sierra

I always had a fondness for the classic "Mac OS" name, and I'm happy to see it return, even with slightly odd spacing and capitalization. This year's code name Sierra may be meant to evoke the Sierra Nevada mountains, but I can't help but think of the 90s adventure games I loved so dearly in my youth.

Most of the changes on the Mac strike me as gradual evolutions rather than revolutionary new features, and I'm OK with that. The Mac doesn't need a ton of new features, it just needs to keep up with the times and other platforms. Siri on the Mac doesn't strike me as all that Earth-shattering, but can't hurt and might turn out to be handy here and there. I'm puzzled as to why Siri search results get stashed in Notification Center. Why not a smart Finder window? As someone who rarely opens Notification Center on the Mac, it's an odd choice.

Auto-unlock, Apple Pay on the web, and universal clipboard are small but handy features. Storing the Documents and Desktop folders in iCloud Drive is really appealing as an idea – get at all your files anywhere – but I'm nervous about reliability. I assume that it'll be possible to opt out of this feature, and I'll probably do that for a good while to make sure any bugs are worked out.

iOS 10

Aside from a big overhaul of Messages, the changes in iOS strike me as surprisingly incremental for the 10th version of iOS. Many of the updates, like Maps and the lock screen, look great and will certainly be useful and appreciated. Improvements to search in Photos, including face and object recognition, will be great provided that they work as advertised. I don't think the redesigned Music app does enough to solve the usability problem in Apple Music, but I'm happy to see Apple keep trying to improve it.

One of the bigger changes is something Apple didn't really talk about: de-coupling many core apps from iOS itself. Many of the system apps, like Mail, Maps, Compass, etc., can now be uninstalled. Moreover, they're now downloadable from the App Store. That implies that Apple could also update these apps on a different schedule from iOS itself. For example, they could roll out new features in the Photos app in January, instead of waiting for iOS 11. Whether that'll happen is an open question, but I hope Apple will take advantage of the flexibility.

Messages was clearly the biggest winner in iOS 10, with a ton of new features and even its own app store. Some of the full-screen messaging effects look pretty annoying, but that should shake itself out sooner rather than later. I particularly like how Messages embeds rich content and previews right into a thread. I suspect we'll look back on the old mostly-text Messages and think we lived like animals.

Of everything in the event today, I'm most puzzled by the lack of significant upgrades for the iPad, particularly multitasking. The multitasking app switcher, in particular, is such a mess that I can't believe Apple will go another year without improving it. Even something as simple as adding a search field would go a long way. I'm hoping that this is a feature that just wasn't quite ready and will appear before iOS 10 launches this fall. Barring that, perhaps it could be a 10.1 or 10.2 feature in early 2017. Here's hoping.

Apple TV

The only thing that really caught my eye during the Apple TV demo was the single sign on feature for authenticating with your cable provider. It'll make it much less annoying to download a new video on demand app. That one feature alone should make this a great update.

WatchOS

Apple Watch badly needed a software re-think, and Apple delivered. Gone is the confusing distinction between glances and apps, as is the rarely-used friend picker. Instead, you can now press the side button to see a list of frequently-used apps displayed in a horizontally-scrolling Dock. Apple also claims to have vastly increased the speed of Watch apps. Apple claimed to have improved Watch app speed with WatchOS 2, so I'm reserving judgement until I actually get a chance to use this. "Fast" is a relative term, but like Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it.

Overall, I'm very happy that Apple kept an open mind about the Watch with a willingness to change the things that weren't working. The updates announced for WatchOS 3 make much more conceptual sense to me, and if they're anything close to as good as today's demo they should make the Watch much more pleasant to use. Interestingly, no mention was made of the "honeycomb" home screen, so I guess that it remains even in a de-emphasized state.

Siri, iCloud, and Swift on the Server

WWDC kicks off in just a few days, which means it's prediction time. This year I've got one that's a little off the wall: Not only will there be an API for Siri, but it'll be iCloud-based and take advantage of Swift on the server.

Implementing a Siri API this way would solve a number of potential problems, and fits with several converging trends from Apple.

Siri exists on an ever-growing list of Apple devices. It started out as a feature specific to the iPhone 4S, then gradually expanded to subsequent iPhones and the iPad. Then came the Apple Watch and Apple TV, and rumors strongly indicate Siri will arrive on the Mac soon. Users expect Siri to have more or less the same feature set on all these devices, which is pretty much what happens now with its core features.

That gets a little tricky when you consider how and where third-party apps and services could integrate with Siri. Unlike the Apple Watch, which is paired to one and only one iPhone, Siri isn't a good fit for apps that pair to extensions in their iOS counterparts. For example, if Uber creates a Siri app that allows you to request a car, you'd expect that to work from Siri on your iPad or your Mac just as much as on your iPhone where the Uber app is installed.

To me, the most logical solution is to make the apps server-based. Installing a Siri app would create an association between Siri and your Apple ID. Then Siri could provide that app's functionality from any device where you've signed in with your Apple ID. The app could store your personal data in your private iCloud storage, allowing it to remember things like login credentials. From the user's perspective, Siri apps might be installed through some kind of Siri App Store, or through a prompt in a native app. Either way, the main logic of the app itself would live on the server, perhaps interacting with local native apps on each device through new API.

Storing Siri app logic on the server also ties in to the steady progress Apple has made in advancing services like CloudKit. Last year Apple added CloudKit JS, which allows developers to connect to CloudKit through other web services. It's not hard to imagine additional expansion that lets developers configure server-side logic within CloudKit itself, logic that might be perfect for Siri.

Finally, Apple has been working on getting Swift running on Linux, which suggests at least a passing interest in running Swift on the server. Given the company's strong push to drive Swift adoption, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Apple use Swift as the language of choice for cloud-based Siri apps. Even better, it could provide the start of a framework for running Swift in server environments elsewhere.

This prediction is a wild guess, but if Apple does something along these lines it would create some pretty cool opportunities. Finding a way to coordinate a voice-driven assistant across multiple devices is a problem that most other companies haven't tackled. It would also be a very Apple-y way of moving further into cloud-based services and pushing developers to adopt Apple's cloud technologies. I can't wait until next week to find out whether I'm right or wrong.

Favorite Podcasts

The hubbub over podcasting in the past week or two got me thinking about the shows I enjoy the most. Most of them are from smaller producers, probably not the type of people who get invited to meetings with "leading podcast professionals." I started making a list of my favorite shows. Many of them are technology- or Apple-related, which shouldn't be too surprising. Here are the top 10 as of right now:

10. This American Life

It's a cliche, but This American Life is the show that got me into podcasting. My favorites are the more investigative episodes, but nearly all of the segments are compelling. There's something reassuring about host Ira Glass' voice, and many of the episodes stand up to repeated watching. (Which is a good thing, because they occasionally recycle segments or episodes.) It's a great general-audience show for car trips.

9. The Talk Show

I think it's fair to say that John Gruber is the single biggest name in Apple punditry. He's been a consistent, smart, and thoughtful commentator for over a decade, and his podcast The Talk Show has survived through a number of iterations. As enjoyable as the tech commentary is Gruber's discussion of pop culture, particularly his long series on the James Bond movies with Dan Benjamin. That said, you have to be willing to tolerate Gruber's unfortunate taste in baseball teams. Go Red Sox!

8. Savage Lovecast

Dan Savage's relationship and sex advice podcast is one of the first I remember discovering. His advice and commenary are compassionate, sane, and often hilarious. The show usually begins with a "rant," often on political topics, which is a bonus if you're a big leftie like me. This probably isn't a show to listen to in the car with your parents or kids.

7. Under the Radar

On Under the Radar, hosts Marco Arment and (Underscore) David Smith discuss independent iOS development for 30 minutes. Marco and David are both developers I admire a lot, and since we do very similar work, I really enjoy hearing their approaches and perspective. The per-episode time limit is partly a carry-over from David's previous show Developing Perspective. It can help episodes from getting overly rambling and taking over too much of the listener's time, but it's a great show and I sometimes with it were longer!

6. Serial

My feelings about Serial are very dependent on whether we're talking about Season 1 or Season 2. Like most people, I was totally captivated by the first season, and I'm pleased that the producers have continued reporting on new developments in the case. Season 2, on the other hand, was largely a slog. There were elements that I enjoyed, but for some reason I didn't find the subject matter all that compelling. Still, I'm looking forward to a third season.

5. Thoroughly Considered

This show started off as an interesting accompaniment to a Kickstarter campaign for Obi, a pet toy then in development by Studio Neat. Unfortunately the Kickstarter campaign didn't succeed, but the show has continued with Myke Hurley and Studio Neat co-founders Tom Gerhardt and Dan Provost. It's interesting to hear Dan and Tom talk about a business largely focused on making phyiscal products, since that's pretty different from what I do. At the same time, the way they run their business makes a lot of sense to me, and I admire their practical and non-buzzword-y style.

4. Upgrade

Upgrade has quickly become one of my favorite shows, despite having a fair amount of topical overlap with others in this list. Jason Snell and Myke Hurley discuss the latest news in technology, particulary (but not always) as it relates to Apple. I've been reading Jason's work since I got interested in the Mac in the 90s, and his experience and attitude make all the difference on Upgrade. He's been following Apple and technology in general for long enough to put things in perspective, and can be critical without over-reacting or becoming shrill. Jason and Myke have a great rapport as well.

3. Liftoff

I've been interested in space for as long as I can remember, and this show with Jason Snell and Stephen Hackett scratches that itch for me. The hosts discuss both space exploration and space science, and are occasionally joined by knowledgeable guests. It's informative while remaining accessible. Liftoff comes out every two weeks (or "fortnightly") and is one of the first shows I listen to when it comes out.

2. Startup

I'm a little surprised how much I enjoy this show, given my general antipathy toward typical startup culture. Nonetheless, Startup is very well produced and tells interesting stories. In part, this show strikes a chord with me by following the people behind a business, telling stories about what it's like to be involved in some pretty unique situations. The most recent season is more one-off stories than a continued narrative arc, and I'm curious to see if that changes how I feel about the show.

1. Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP)

When it comes to Apple-oriented tech podcasts, I think ATP is unquestionably the king. I have no idea if the numbers back that up, but pretty much every Apple nerd I've talked to listens to it. Each week, Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa go on a meandering discussion of news in the tech world, particularly as it relates to Apple. All three are knowledgeable on the subject, but the best part of the show is hearing each host's distinct personality and how they relate to each other. Each show is long and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Podcasting and Big Media

I've felt a creeping sense of dread ever since the New York Times ran its now-infamous article about pocasting. I'm not a podcaster myself, but I do listen to quite a few of them, and the Times article has me worried that things are about to change for the worse. A great many podcasters have responded to the article, including fantastic written responses by Marco Arment, Federico Viticci, and a great discussion between Myke Hurley and Jason Snell (43:11, skip directly to it here).

Those responses did a great job of covering things from the podcaster's perspective, but there's something else bothering me as a listener. It's a feeling that podcasting as it stands today, a medium that I get a great deal of enjoyment from, is about to change for the worse. Regardless of whether Apple or any other company caves to their demands, it's clear that the Big Media world is coming for podcasts, and that doesn't sound like a good thing.

Based on the Times article, the changes requested by "Leading Podcast Professionals" won't do anything to increase my satisfaction as a listener. They're not about providing me with new features that are currently impossible. They're all about business. In fact, I think we could boil the requests down to one simple premise: Make podcasts more appealing to advertisers. If the Big Podcast world gets what it wants, they stand to make significantly more money. Users, on the other hand, will get...mostly nothing. User don't need data or analytics, nor will those things improve our listening experience.

In fact, the only changes I'm likely to see (hear?) as a listener are ones that will make my experience worse. Suppose, for example, that some shows become exclusive to tailor-made podcast clients that provide analytics data that others don't. That only makes my life harder. Instead of using a big playlist that can play all my shows one after another, I'd suddenly have to switch apps between each one. Even worse, it's easy to imagine that the big podcast players would love to make it impossible to skip ads. (This is also why I don't think the streaming-TV future is really all that bright. I'll take my TiVo, thanks.) Plus, clients run by media companies tend not to be very good. Take a look at streaming video off most TV networks' web sites, or even using the DVR that comes in your cable box. Not so great.

Of course, it's possible that making podcasts more lucrative will lead to new podcasts that wouldn't have been possible without a bigger budget. It's possible. But I'm already pretty happy with the shows that are available to me today. Frankly, I don't have a lot of room in my listening schedule for more of them. And as should be obvious by turning on network TV, a big budget is no guarantee of quality.

I'm guessing that most of the shows put out by these big players aren't really ones I'm interested in. Most of my favorite shows are from smaller (but still great!) producers like Relay FM and The Incomparable. My biggest fear is that if Big Media succeeds in collecting all this data and walling off their shows, ad rates for independent podcasts will plummet, putting their viability in jeopardy.

Fortunately, the Times article makes it sound like Apple wasn't particularly receptive to the demands of the "Leading Podcast Professionals." Hopefully that means that independent podcasters are safe for the time being. But the writing is on the wall. There's nothing to stop the big players from building their own apps and services and walling off their content in them, or making deals with other third-party podcast clients. If they do, the best-case scenario is that enough listeners refuse to follow that open podcasts remain viable.

Improving Apple's Services Problem with a Single Button

Apple's online services take a lot of heat for being unreliable. The details have shifted over the years, but the basic form remains the same: Changes made on one device sometimes don't show up on others. The situation improved somewhat since Apple introduced CloudKit and started migrating apps to it, but problems still occur. It happened to me just recently: I added a note to the Apple Notes app on my iPhone, then switched to my Mac, where Notes was already running. No note. Fortunately, I found a quick fix: I quit the Notes app on my Mac, re-opened it, and bingo – my note appeared.

Quick fix or not, Notes felt broken. When it comes to this type of situation, Apple's vaunted "it just works" philosophy just...doesn't work. I assume that re-launching Notes prompted the app to sync with iCloud, which when pulled down my note. But many users might not know to try re-launching the app. All they'd see is an app that hasn't properly synced their changes from one device to another. That's a pretty quick way to reinforce the "Apple services aren't reliable" meme.

Apple makes things harder for themselves by omitting any kind of sync status indicator or manual sync button. Consider the Kindle app as a contrast. When I open a book on my iPad, it almost always offers to sync my reading position to the last page I read, even if that was on another device. Every now and then, however, it fails. In that case, all I have to do is open the menu and tap the Sync button to trigger a manual sync. Problem solved. As a user, that feels much less "broken" than the Notes app, where there's no obvious solution to the problem.

I get where Apple's coming from: They want sync to feel seamless and effortless, something that happens without the user having to think about it. But the fact of the matter is, it doesn't work that way. Sync rarely does, because it's a very hard problem to solve. Apple isn't alone in having trouble with it by any measure. But by not giving users a way out when problems do happen, they increase the perception that Apple services don't work well.

Apple probably doesn't want users to start thinking that they have to tap the Sync button in order for their data to be synced. Indeed, that seems like something some users might start doing. For example, lots of users force-quit apps from the app switcher when it isn't necessary. But Apple lives with it because it offers a way out of a rare and undesirable situation. That's far superior to leaving them stuck wondering why the software doesn't work as intended. (In fact, you could argue that unnecessarily force-quitting apps is more harmful than unnecessary syncs, since those apps won't be able to continue running background operations.)

Adding an unobtrusive manual sync button to cloud-based apps could go a long way to improving the perception of reliability. Obviously, the ideal is for sync to work automatically all of the time. But it'd be better for Apple to bow to reality that sync doesn't always work perfectly than to continue letting users get stuck.