Home In A Change From The Steve Jobs Era, Apple Is Listening

In A Change From The Steve Jobs Era, Apple Is Listening

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.

Apple has long held the belief that it knows what you want better than you do. The concept was actually core to Steve Jobs’s philosophy on product development: How could anyone know they wanted a personal computer if they didn’t exist? And it worked, for a long, long time.

“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want,” was one of Jobs’s favorite lines. 

Jobs didn’t care if customers wanted custom ringtones. He didn’t care if they thought that Flash was an indispensable standard for video on the Web. Jobs created iconic products with definitive designs and did not apologize for any of it. 

At WWDC, Apple sent a message to its critics. All of a sudden, Apple is listening.

If you are a fan of Apple products, this is unexpected good news.

At 2014’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple executive Craig Federighi poked fun at design chief Jony Ive—and himself.

Hair Apparent

For instance, take the keynote of WWDC 2014. It was … funny. Cheeky.

For Apple, that’s thinking different. It may present itself as a company that makes fun products, but Apple puts itself forward as a deeply serious company. Fun is for its customers.

That changed when Apple CEO Tim Cook—a warm, avuncular presence, but hardly the best showman—handed most of the presentation over to senior vice president Craig Federighi, who oversees all of Apple’s software development.

Federighi was the idol of the show. His coif—that thick mane of gray hair—was his costar. At one point, Apple showed what Federighi’s hair would look like on Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s rock-star designer who prefers the streamlined look of a shaved head. (The look works better on Federighi.)

Steve Jobs’s idea of a joke was landing zingers on the competition. Apple’s late cofounder was known for his stark earnestness and the ability to get the audience to believe that Apple’s new products were the best of the best.

The WWDC 2014 keynote showed that Apple is beginning to emerge from the shadow of Jobs.

Though the script of the WWDC keynote mostly followed Apple’s template for past events, the sprinklings of dad humor were enough to make it feel fresh. Apple’s not going so far as making fun of its own corporate foibles—still likely taboo in Cupertino—but humanizing Apple’s executives, most of whom are still relatively unknown to the wider world, is a smart idea. That Apple can mix up the product announcements and self-congratulations with a bit of playfulness shows excitement may not be dead at Apple after all.

Apple’s ability to listen to criticism and change its ways wasn’t just noticeable in the WWDC keynote. It extended deep into the platforms the company released this year as well.

Opening Up iOS (And Copying Android)

Anybody that pays close attention to the differences between mobile operating systems will tell you that a lot of what Apple announced in its new iOS 8 software for iPads and iPhones takes a lot of cues from Google’s Android.

Quick Thought: On Those 4,000 iOS 8 APIs

In 2013, iOS 7 was significant because of how Apple redesigned the look of the operating system. At the time, I took a look at the developer capabilities underneath iOS 7 and realized that it was much, much more than just a pretty new aesthetic. With iOS 7, Apple gave developers some serious capabilities.

It is early yet, but iOS 8 blows iOS 7 out of the water in terms of what it can do and what opportunities it gives to mobile developers. Look at the gaming capabilities and you can see how people envision the iPad as the next gaming platform console. Metal, SpriteKit, SceneKit and Game Center function together as a powerful set of frameworks for game developers. HealthKit, HomeKit and CloudKit allow Apple to take advantage of some of the most cutting edge trends in technology. In 2013, I said that Apple future-proofed iOS with iOS 7. This year, Apple has taken the future to a whole new level, giving developers the opportunity to build for the platform, outside of the platform, in the home, in a car or maybe even for your wrist.

If you really take a look at what is in iOS 8, there is nothing “meh” about it.

This is a distinct departure from Apple under Jobs—for whom Android was a subject of visceral disdain, not a rival to study and learn from.

The most pertinent example of Apple listening to user requests is the ability to add third-party virtual keyboards to iOS. Apple has insisted since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007 that its own keyboard was superior and that it didn’t need the likes of Swype from Nuance or SwiftKey to satisfy users. Android has long been friendly to third-party keyboards and the inability to put them on iOS has been a factor in consumers switching to Android—or, once there, refusing to switch back.

Apple has also copied some keyboard features from Android, like the new QuickType predictive text feature in iOS 8. QuickType will automatically fill in suggestions for you as you type, sometimes even personalizing the word to a specific person in your contacts list. Such text suggestions were introduced in Android years ago. Even BlackBerry had it in its ill-fated BlackBerry 10 platform.

The new Spotlight search in iOS 8 now lets you search the Web (with Microsoft’s Bing) in addition to giving App Store suggestions. In Android, Google search is, naturally, the default.

See also: What Developers Need To Know About iOS 8

Apple’s personal assistant Siri can now be activated with just your voice by saying, “Hey Siri.” Several Android devices have been able to pull this off since last year (like the Moto X and Nexus 5) by saying “OK Google” or “OK Google Now.”

The list goes on. The new iCloud Drive is essentially a version of Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox built specifically by Apple. The ability to put video previews in the App Store has long been a feature available to Android developers (through YouTube) on Google Play. Oh, you can now send voice messages in iMessage? WhatsApp, Voxer and a variety of other apps allow users to send walkie-talkie like voice recordings. The ability to sync photos directly from an iPhone to Apple’s cloud has been a feature for Google+ on Android since it rolled out in 2011. 

Basically, if you look at a majority of consumer features that Apple rolled out in iOS 8, most of them can be found on a different platform or within popular apps—and many have been there for a long time.

Apple is not likely to admit it, but the software builders in Cupertino seem to be responding to laments from users and enthusiasts about features present in Android and missing from iOS. And, for once—instead of offering rationalizations and excuses for its way of doing things—Apple listened, rolled up its sleeves, and gave the people what they wanted.

Quote Of The Day: “Android fragmentation turning devices into a toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities.” ~ ZDNet reporter Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, cited by Apple CEO Tim Cook at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference yesterday.

Some may say that Apple has lost its mojo because it is cherry-picking popular features from other platforms and touting them as new and exciting in iOS 8. That’s one way to look at it. I’d argue that Apple has always picked up and refined features from around the industry. If anything, it’s just being less shy about it.

And if the surface of iOS 8 resembles other reservoirs of technology, there is considerable technical ferment roiling beneath it. If you look beneath the surface of iOS 8 at the 4,000 new application programming interfaces released with the platform, you will see a powerful and flexible operating system that developers will be able to use to create tons of useful, fun and engaging apps.

Innovation is alive at Apple. And that includes changing not just the company’s mobile platforms, but the company’s own internal operating systems, its culture and habits and quirks and predilections. Apple has found its ability to listen to what customers want and for the first time in a long time, it is actually giving it to them, even if those features were introduced somewhere else first.

More On Apple, iOS 8 And Mac OS X Yosemite

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