WWDC: Apple's third act will keep entertaining

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There’s a certain script to these Apple developer conference keynotes: Act One is a boring set of business updates about how well Apple is doing. Act Two is a dazzling set of new features added to its two operating systems, OS X and iOS. And finally, Act Three is the promise of great technical detail of interests to the developers who will be staying at the convention center all week, as opposed to the press who scurry away as soon as the keynote music fades.

This year, the WWDC keynote didn’t go according to that plan. Act One was cut due to time constraints—there wasn’t enough time for more than a slide about major initiatives such as HomeKit and HealthKit, so there certainly wasn’t time for slides of the latest Apple Store openings around the world.

Act Two was pretty good. Apple executives—and by “executives,” I mean Apple Software Superman Craig Federighi—showed off the new versions of iOS and OS X, including new system features, design flourishes, and changes to Apple’s provided apps. Most regular users of devices, if they notice at all, consider these sorts of features the the defining characteristics of a new operating system. Mavericks is the one that took the leather off of the Calendar app. iOS 7 is the one where all the icons got flat.

Act Three is the place for under-the-radar stuff. These are the features that the mainstream media doesn’t understand, but that make developers whoop loudly as they’re announced. They are supposed to be subtle, esoteric things that make the platform better, and eventually emerge as cool apps and functionality that users discover months down the line.

Not this year. Not this keynote. On Monday, Act Three was the star, and it will be paying off continually for users for the next year.

The wonderful world of apps

When you get a new version of an operating system, either via upgrade or by buying a new device with the new version preinstalled, the change happens all at once. Every new feature is suddenly there, and since Apple doesn’t generally add major features in between releases, life pretty much stays the same for the next year. Monday’s Act Three announcements were all about enabling third-party developers—those people whooping in the room at esoteric technical things you might not fully understand—to keep on enriching the experience of being a Mac and iOS user long after Apple’s finalized iOS 8 and Yosemite and shifted into bug-fix mode.

The ways Apple is opening up app access to iOS in particular will change the experience for users more than any single OS feature. And it will happen in unexpected ways, because those developers are very, very clever, and tend to think of approaches that nobody—not even the people at Apple who enable them—has anticipated.

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Third-party keyboards will be available throughout the system in iOS 8.

Take, for example, opening up the iOS keyboard to outside developers. That doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, especially since Apple announced that it’s upgrading the standard iOS keyboard with an intelligent autocomplete bar. Yes, this announcement means that popular alternate methods of input like Swype and SwiftKey will make their way from Android to iOS. But what’s tantalizing is that thousands of iOS developers will be thinking of clever new ways to use that keyboard. Will 1Password offer a keyboard that’s linked to its database of passwords? Will someone create a keyboard designed specifically for people who speak in Emoji? I’m trying to come up with wacky examples here, but that’s sort of the point—the real-life examples will probably be wackier and weirder and more wonderful than I can possibly imagine.

Endless possibilities

Of course, the keyboard is just the beginning. Developers will also be able to add their apps to sharing buttons throughout the system, enabling cross-app communication that’s unwieldy or impossible today. You’ll be able to bring up portions of one app inside another for the very first time on iOS, making the experience for users that much richer. Your favorite photo-filter apps (right now mine is Camera Noir) can work right inside the Camera app. Apps can modify the contents of Safari windows, making the Web-browsing experience better. And of course, apps can display widgets in Notification Center, letting you get small bits of information without launching the complete app.

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Extensions finally provide a way for apps to project actions and features into other apps. 

It’s easy to think of the most obvious uses for these features, and on the day iOS 8 is released, I imagine that there will be an avalanche of apps supporting those features. But then it’s going to get interesting. Apple will release iOS 8 and walk away, but developers will continue noodling, exploring these features and trying out new approaches. Over the next year, there will be innovations that surprise and delight users, and they won’t be trapped inside a single app interface—they will be able to spread themselves across many more parts of the iOS interface.

The developers I’ve talked to at WWDC are incredibly excited about the possibilities, especially in iOS 8. That excitement now is going to translate to some pretty amazing stuff come September—and on into 2015.

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