At WWDC 2016, Apple is finally embracing Not Apple

Apple introduced so many developer-friendly features and policies, it's clear the company knows it can't grow its platforms on its own.

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Credit: Jonny Evans

Apple’s relationship with Not Apple has always been a little bit tricky. In the darker days, the company needed the support of outside developers in order to keep the lights on and build the popularity of its products and platforms. In the sunnier days after Steve Jobs’s return, Apple flexed its muscles more, and looked upon outside companies a little less favorably.

I always got the sense that many people inside Apple during that era, including Jobs himself, saw third-party software and hardware developers as followers riding in Apple’s wake and making money off of its greatness. But the announcements made Monday at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference continue a trend: Apple is embracing Not Apple more than it has in years.

Bridging the walled garden

While Apple opened a door for software developers with the App Store, for much of iOS’s history most of the system has been off limits. Initially, apps were islands unto themselves, with little to no way to communicate with one another or integrate with fundamental features of iOS.

Things are changing. In recent years Apple added photo and sharing extensions to the mix, and the ability to read files from a common location. iOS 10 will break down even more barriers that once stood in the way of third-party apps.

Siri, one of Apple’s key strategic features, has been opened to third-party apps for the first time. Apple’s starting slow with this one, as it did with background tasks, push notifications, and other new iOS features when they were first introduced–only a few types of iOS apps will have access to Siri out of the gate. But it’s clearly the start of something much bigger, and it’s a decision that will make Siri better while it also makes apps much more powerful.

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Being able to use Siri with third-party apps is a game-changer, even if it's limited to six categories of apps at first. 

If you’re traveling, a mapping app (whether it’s Apple Maps or Google Maps or Waze) is more than just a tool to get you from one location to another: It’s also an encyclopedia of information about the world around you, at least ideally. In iOS 10, Maps will be open to extensions from other apps (perhaps initially limited to restaurant reservations and ride sharing, but presumably that list will expand over time as well). I can imagine directories of services being able to add their data to your maps, for example.

Then there’s Messages, one of the key updates of iOS 10, which offers the ability for third-party apps to insert all sorts of information, from stickers to scheduling to money transfers. There’s only so much stuff Apple is ever going to be able to build itself, that third-party app developers will be more than happy to build and insert in an app like Messages. And this is the beauty of Apple opening itself up like this: Apple’s own apps get better while developers get access to some of the most important apps and experiences on the platform.

Developers also now have access to the lock screen and notification center, with displays of video, animation, and other app data that bring the richness of their apps into hallowed places where previously only Apple itself could tread.

More open, more developer friendly

There are a few other areas where Apple seems to becoming more welcoming. Originally, Apple walled off access to iCloud on the Mac, limiting it only to apps that appeared in the Mac App Store. The idea here was to use iCloud as a carrot to convince developers to put their apps in the Mac App Store. Now the company has changed its approach, and any registered Mac developer can gain access to iCloud.

Once again, that’s good for users, developers, and ultimately Apple. It might be bad for the Mac App Store, but let’s be realistic–iCloud is a more important strategic direction for Apple than the Mac App Store is, and forcing developers into the Mac App Store just so they can get access to iCloud was not a move that resulted in happy developers.

ios 10 voip api callkit phone calls Apple

Developers of VoIP apps can make them look like "real" phone calls, as opposed to plain iOS notifications.

Then there’s the happy news for makers of audio and video communication apps such as Skype: At long last, they’re essentially peers of Apple’s own Phone and FaceTime features. A Skype call can ring your phone with the same interrupt-driven interface as if you got a phone call or a FaceTime invitation. There was a time when allowing third-party telephony services favored access to the iPhone would’ve seemed like something that would never happen, but with iOS 10 it will be a reality.

Finally, though no one mentioned it at the keynote, developers at WWDC are well aware that Apple has altered the deal on the 30 percent cut it takes from App Store transactions, offering a reduced 15 percent rate beginning in the second year of any subscription relationship on the store. Extended subscription relationships between users and app developers are good for the developers and, yet again, ultimately good for Apple. And yet there was a time when it seemed that the 30 percent rule was inviolable.

Those were the old days, when Apple was focused more on itself than the rest of the world. Whether it’s because of competition, financial headwinds, or just the maturation of its biggest platform, today’s Apple has thrown many of its doors open and is welcoming in the outside world. In the long run, it’s going to be good for users, developers, and Apple alike.

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