iOS 8 and Yosemite are the next step in unconstrained computing

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One of the great joys of installing a new operating system is scrutinizing the features born with it. iOS 8 has no shortage of new and enhanced features—Continuity, QuickType, voice notes appended to iMessages, Family Sharing, and Spotlight improvements. But it can be just as satisfying to step back and examine what these features mean and portend for the technology of tomorrow.

The window on your stuff

With the introduction of iCloud in OS X Lion and iOS 5, Apple shifted from a computer-centric “digital hub” model—where your computer acted as the brains of the outfit and stored the bulk of your data—to a stuff-centric scheme. Under this scheme you didn’t care a great deal about where your stuff was—on your computer, in the cloud, or stored on a mobile device. Rather, it was important that you had access to it, regardless of which of these devices you used or where you were.

Liberating as this was, it was difficult to escape the idea that while you had greater access to your stuff, you were still constrained by the device on which you experienced it. If you were typing on an iPhone, you were going to be hampered by the device’s small keyboard. If, on your iPad, you received a text message, you’d have to switch out of the app you were currently using and move to Messages to reply.

With iOS 8 and the upcoming OS X Yosemite, Apple is attempting to remove or disguise these constraints by allowing you to pass off certain tasks to the most appropriate device. When that’s not possible, it makes the process of completing them more fluid.

text handoff

Why must SMS messages remain confined to your iPhone?

Pass or fail

Handoff is Apple’s means for moving tasks to the most appropriate device at hand. Regardless of how fleet your fingers may be on your iPhone’s keyboard, odds are that you type faster and make fewer mistakes on your Mac’s keyboard. Rather than force you to continue banging away on a lengthy Pages document just because you pulled it up on your phone, hand it off to your Mac when you’re within range.

Headed out the door with your iPad? Pass that half-read PDF file within Safari from your Mac to the tablet for later perusal. Leave your iPhone upstairs? Grab calls and messages sent to it on the iPad or Mac that sit beside you in the basement office.

In the past, iCloud has allowed us to handle some of these tasks through Documents in the Cloud and shared bookmarks. But Apple’s latest efforts further soften the demand that the first device to touch your data or communication be the one you’re forced to use.

App cramp for all

Some people accustomed to using a Mac were frustrated that iOS allowed for so very little communication between apps. For example, on a Mac it’s no challenge to expand a text snippet into just about any app using Smile’s TextExpander. And it’s the work of a moment to enter a password, personal data, or credit card information into a Safari page with AgileBits’ 1Password. Yet to do these things with the iOS versions you had to launch a separate app for each. Thanks to iOS 8’s app extensions this is no longer the case.

TextExpander 3 + Custom Keyboard lets you expand snippets through a custom keyboard. And 1Password 5 can be accessed via a Safari extension so that you needn’t leave Safari to dig up information held by 1Password. It’s early days for both apps (and certainly for iOS 8) but it shows the way forward—a day when you’re not jumping from app to app to perform simple tasks.

And speaking of the frustration of moving between apps, consider text messages. You receive a text on your iPhone under iOS 7 and you have to launch Messages to deal with it. Really? A communication so immediate demands you launch an app? Not with iOS 8’s Quick Reply. Now, just swipe the message on the lock screen or pull down on the notification at the top of the screen and dash out your reply. Done.

quick reply

With Quick Reply, no more launching Messages to reply to a text.

Reaching out

Another constraint was sharing media and information between a close-knit group. Yes, you could share calendars between family members but sharing apps and media was a pain requiring that you create an Apple ID and use it on all the devices you wanted to share with. iCloud’s Family Sharing puts a dent in this problem by allowing you to use one account to control all shared content. In its current implementation it’s not perfect, but it too demonstrates Apple’s desire to tear down walls.

And then there’s cloud storage. Storing documents in iCloud makes sense, and it was a welcome feature when iCloud was introduced. But limiting access to just a handful of Apple apps made far less sense. Opening up iCloud storage to all comers on a computer and compatible apps on iOS devices via iCloud Drive (which will be implemented with Yosemite) means fewer trips to Dropbox or Google Drive or OneDrive. Granted, the ability to then share these files with others would be welcome, but at least we’ll have fewer occasions to play the “Oh, this one goes to iCloud and that one goes to Dropbox” game.

iCloud Drive means fewer constraints on the kinds of files you can store in the cloud.

And finally, with iOS 8 and Yosemite, your devices can better reflect the Web’s knowledge. Instead of pulling up Spotlight to search just the contents of your device, it can make queries beyond that device and tap the power of Wikipedia, news sources, Apple’s stores, and the Internet at large.

The disappearing device

Accept these efforts as directed with some larger mission in mind and you find that it becomes increasingly unimportant which device you use to interact with the world around you. Each is simply a window on that world—transparent and unconstrained.

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