WWDC: iOS comes into its own with extensions

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In some ways, iOS will always be the new kid on the block, the upstart, the whippersnapper. Obviously, the Mac OS will always retain its seniority by virtue of age. But what we saw from this week’s WWDC keynote announcements is that the mobile OS is about to embark upon a new stage in life—if not reaching full maturity, then at least graduating from childhood to adolescence.

It’s not just about the usual incremental increase in front-facing features. Rather, there's something deeper: an exponential change in the mobile OS’s power and in the things that we can do with it. There’s no better sign of that evolution than the introduction of extensions.

Extend this

developer extensibility screen editing

We’ve passed the point where we need to argue about whether or not one can be productive on an iOS device. The real question has become just how productive one can be. As good as iOS has become, there have always remained pain points, places where something that should be relatively simple takes many more steps than it should—or, at least, many more than it would if you were, for example, trying to do the same thing on a Mac.

All too often those slowdowns come when we need to move between apps. The addition of multitasking in recent versions has helped smooth that over, by making it easier to jump between apps. But its implementation—and iOS’s fundamental sandboxing restrictions—have kept multitasking a somewhat cumbersome process. We’ve largely been limited to moving between the apps that Apple wants us to move between, in the manner that the company wishes us to do it.

Extensions, however, aim to smooth such transitions. Their functionality is, for the moment, still limited; in some ways, the list of available types of extensions is reminiscent of that first list of app-multitasking options, back in iOS 4.

developer extensibility screen documents

At first blush, the scope of these extensions might seem narrow: sharing services, Notification Center widgets, storage provider options, photo filters, a document picker, and even third-party keyboards are all fairly specific, with very targeted uses—welcome ones, to be sure, but narrow all the same. But then there’s the extremely broad Custom Actions, which could open up an entirely different way of thinking about what apps can do.

Custom actions—for example the Bing Translate option showed off on the Monday keynote—are a window into much greater functionality. They actually let apps project a portion of their functionality into other apps, allowing you to harness the power of an app without even launching it.

This is game-changing for iOS. It’s the kind of feature that power users have longed for, largely because we’ve taken it for granted on the Mac—the Services menu, after all, has lived in the Mac’s application menu since the original release of OS X, even if many users largely ignored it.

Coming into its own

While iOS has matured over the years, as users we’ve still had to adjust our expectations of it, aware of its inherent restrictions—the dependency on battery life, for example. As a result, there’s long been a sort of unconscious asterisk next to iOS’s capabilities, a “good, but…” mentality. But while that hedge may not entirely go away with iOS 8, it will fade still further into the background.

developer extensibility screen notificationcenter

Over the last few iOS releases, we’ve started to see an increase in parity between iOS and OS X in terms of front-facing features—capabilities that roll out to both platforms at the same time, like Facebook integration. But what we’re starting to see with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are underlying technologies that appear on both platforms at the same time: Peer-to-peer wireless networking now makes it seamless to have iOS devices and Macs talk to each other. The new Swift programming language that Apple unveiled is equally applicable across its ecosystem.

The addition of extensions makes it clear that iOS is not just a consolation prize for Mac users. Perhaps we’ve known that logically—if for no other reason than simply comparing sales numbers between the two platforms. But for those of us who have long loved the ways that we could bend the Mac to our will, iOS always had an “also ran” quality. But the latest changes put the lie to that assessment, starkly positioning the platforms as equals and giving truth to Apple’s philosophy that all of these devices are here to stay.

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