Apple returns WWDC to the developers, but it comes at a price

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If you’re an Apple fan and not an Apple developer or obsessive, there’s a good chance you walked away disappointed today. A long keynote that focused more on new standards, APIs, and features that allow other features, many of my colleagues seemed less than impressed during our live blog. But the keynote set up developers with the tools to make much more powerful, fun, and useful apps for the future, meaning that come fall, when iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite come out, almost everyone on Apple’s platform will benefit in unpredictable ways.

For one thing, more developers are getting access to many of the features Apple’s held close to itself. For example, you can now reply in the notifications window to a variety of prompts, such as bidding on an eBay auction without even entering eBay’s app.

They also unveiled a new programming language, Swift, which looks to have some great tools to cut down the learning curve for iOS, make certain kinds of programming mistakes difficult or impossible, and further encourage developers to write for iOS first or only.

While the developers in the room went (relatively, for developers) wild, the move wasn’t universally lauded:

Apple unveiling a new language is a big deal, even though it won’t impact users directly. If it works out well, it means more developers building better apps for all of Apple’s devices. Objective-C was developed in the 1980s, and while it had gone through a number of evolutions, a lot of developers thought it was overdue for a successor. (Google introduced a programming language of its own, Go, in 2009.)

It also led to some really predictable developer humor:

There were a lot of other developer-friendly features, such as app bundles and preview videos in the App Store, but the updates also include new challenges for those who want to work with but not for Cupertino.

The most prominent example: RunKeeper, a local fitness app that found tremendous growth through the App Store and has ambitions of owning the “health graph” ecosystem, partnering with other apps and devices to build out a broad look at how healthy its users are and how to help them meet their goals. Apple unveiled its own version of this health graph, HealthKit, and announced partnerships with Mayo Clinic and Nike. The early examples appear relatively limited, but have ecosystem providers like RunKeeper directly in their sites.

Same for HomeKit, Apple’s Internet of Things and home automation entry, which looks to be treading similar territory to Boston’s Robin and which creates a mix of a social network and command-and-control center for the devices around the house.

Even more interesting will be to see how developers tackle the choice of either letting users interact with their apps through notifications or making users actually open up the app to use it. This will be particularly true for the many, many Apple apps that rely on ad revenue: If you spend less time in the app, there’s fewer opportunities to advertise to you or pitch an In-App Purchase. As a user, though, it sounds like a great tradeoff.

Together, and with all the dozens of other tweaks, updates, and enhancements, Apple offers a much (if sometimes subtly) richer experience to users while in turn empowering developers with tools they’ve been asking for for years. So while we’ll have to wait a while (next fall, most likely) for new devices, I’m pretty excited with the territory those devices will be treading.

Michael Morisy is the founder and former editor of BetaBoston. Follow him on Twitter at @Morisy or email him at [email protected].
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