Don't knock Apple Inc. for not showing off, or even promising, any breakthrough devices at yesterday's Worldwide Developers Conference. It is otherwise occupied, building a Disneyesque castle designed to hold its customers captive as long as possible.
Apple's enticements, as presented yesterday, suggest the company is focused on two goals: sprucing up the castle's interior and making sure it offers everything customers could get outside its walls.
Many new features fall into the nice-to-have-but-nonessential category: translucent backgrounds, the ability to mark up photos that come as e-mail attachments, scrolling though the Safari browser's open tabs, or bringing up Wikipedia articles in a Spotlight search. The Mac, and the iOS operating system, already provide a decent user experience and have done so for years. If you're like me, you probably tried to use some of the enhancements in the last two or three versions of Mac OS but then forgot all about them.
Other novelties belong in the copycat category. The new iOS8 will have widgets, interactive notifications, predictive typing (I can already see the boost this will give to sites like damnyouautocorrect.com), third-party keyboards and the ability to access apps from within other apps -- all like Android, the operating system Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said people could only choose "by mistake." The messaging app, which Apple says is its most frequently used, gets a number of features familiar to users of WhatsApp, Snapchat and Moped, including voice messages, disappearing videos, tap-and-hold buttons and a separate list of photos shared in a chat. In a sarcastic tweet, WhatsApp Inc. founder Jan Koum called the enhancements "very flattering."
Seemingly unnecessarily, Apple is also trying to imitate others' cloud-based services. It promised, by the fall, to make users' photos visible on all devices as edited on any one of them. If you use Dropbox, you already have that. A handoff feature makes it possible to start writing an e-mail on the iPhone and finish it on a nearby Mac, something Gmail users have been able to do for years. The new iCloud drive will work more or less like Google's drive and comparable services from Microsoft and Dropbox.
Apple's efforts aren't futile. As a customer, I appreciate the company's perfectionism and willingness to address persistent complaints, such as the lack of third-party keyboards. I am grateful for its efforts to enhance its operating systems so that I have to use fewer apps. By taking such good care of me and offering me more than I ever asked for, Apple is trying to fence me in. The Apple universe is an almost hypnotically cozy one.
Apple wants to do the same for makers of wearable and home-automation devices: luring them in with software like HealthKit and HomeKit, inviting them to make the iPhone the universal remote, the single data center, the universal passkey.
The problem with Apple's attractive castle is that when you leave, your carriage will turn into a pumpkin. You will need to hunt for third-party apps to get access to functions Apple made available out of the box. Your seamless user experience will be ruined. And if you're a developer hooked on Swift, life will seem much harder if you go back to Objective C.
This captivity may be a reason to resist the castle's charms: Given the slow pace of Apple's hardware innovation, it may soon be possible to assemble a better experience using apps and devices from various developers and manufacturers. There are more people working to that end outside the castle walls than Apple can ever hire. Being in the open field has its advantages.
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