Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New proposal for a Java bridge to native APIs

A new Java interface to native APIs, dubbed Project Panama, has been tentatively proposed. At this stage, it's hard to tell if it will go anywhere. What is true is that so far, the Java Native Interface as always been something of a second-class citizen. Although there are other projects such as Java Native Access designed to ease the pain of access to native APIs from Java,  a way to do so from within the standard libraries would surely be welcomed by many.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Is a split-screen interface really coming to the iPad?

You may recall a rumour that the iPad would soon be getting a split-screen interface, allegedly allowing two applications to run side by side in Landscape mode. The rumour has been received with skepticism and, given that WWDC2014 has now passed without a whiff of such a feature, appears so far to be untrue.

I actually assumed that the sources behind the rumour were actually referring to the new App Extensions framework-- whereby an application can offer up certain types if "plugin" to other applications-- that will indeed be introduced in iOS 8.

However, it appears that the rumour department of 9to5mac are persistent with their story. They cite apparent evidence in the form of a de-compiled section of code from the beta development kit which includes references to calls that apparently are designed to support a "multiple app display layout" of some sort.

My thoughts:
  • the de-complied code presented isn't exactly a smoking gun; it's not terribly clear exactly under what circumstances this code is intended to be used;
  • given that this year's update is highly developer-focussed, and that a split-screen feature could have significant implications for developers, it's an odd feature to "sneak in" outside of the developer conference-- Apple have now spilt the beans on various major new features to the OS, so it seems slightly unnecessary for them to be so secretive over this specific feature if it is really in the pipeline any time soon;
  • with the App Extensions framework, Apple have clearly put some thought into how they want app-app interaction to work; it seems a little clunky for them to introduce a separate feature that simply lets two arbitrary apps sit side by side;
  • on the other hand, there is good evidence that Apple are planning to introduce devices with more diverse screen sizes, and a larger-sized device would make a split screen function a little more viable.

Which iOS innovations are most anticipated by users?

At the beginning of last week, Apple made some fairly major announcements for the forthcoming update to its operating systems in what was-- in the words of Apple's CEO-- "the mother of all releases for developers". And it's fair to say that the new features open up a range of potential for new types of applications for Mac-- and for iOS in particular-- that were previously not possible. At some point or other, a release packed with features for developers will hopefully translate into a release packed with new features and applications for consumers.

Certain of these features, such as the new Health application which was widely leaked even before the event, appear to have been latched on to by the media despite the fact that they are probably only relevant to a minority of developers. Whereas, for example, CloudKit-- which has huge implications for the ease with which developers can now create a whole class of scalable client-server applications with minimal investment-- appears to be a subject of salivation for developers whose implications have yet to be appreciated by other commentators.

But as tech heads, it's still helpful to try and get an ear to the ground when it comes to finding out what matters to users. One insight is provided by French site igen, which is currently running a poll among users on which feature they have been most interested by.

At present (out of just over 2,000 respondents), the front runners are features at the "business" end of the spectrum: Continuity and iCloud Drive (50% and 16% respectively of respondents selecting these as their preferred feature). Interactive notifications and innovations in the messaging system, despite their swagger-laden demos at the KeyNote, have so far raised less of an eyebrow (12% and 6%). HealthKit receives an extremely low level of interest (3%), perhaps because of a current lack of adoption among health providers in Europe compared to the US (if not because of the fact that data privacy is more firmly entrenched in French law and digital ethos). Unfortunately, the survey did not single out App Extensions, which will effectively enable whole new categories of applications to be developed for the two operating systems.

You might not have rushed to incorporate Continuity or iCloud Drive into your apps. But from one informal survey at least, it appears that if you do so, you will be responding to two of the most anticipated features among users.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Is iOS 8 really trying to "crush" DropBox and WhatsApp?

In a recent article on Wired, Marcus Wholsen apparently comes to the conclusion that the new features announced for iOS 8 are an attempt to "crush" or steal the territory of DropBox and other apps. He sums up Apple's attitude as:

"Don’t try having your own ideas and not play with us, because we will take them, we will do them better and we will crush you in the process."

before going on to write:

"The new iCloud Drive for file-sharing and syncing takes direct aim at Dropbox, which Steve Jobs famously wanted to buy. Even the new iCloud photo features are an open assault on Dropbox’s new app Carousel for uploading and storing pictures"

in addition to effectively describing the new features for Messages as an attack on WhatsApp.

I must admit that I find such conclusions slightly surprising. Or at least, I see the new features in a different light.

As I see things, Apple is not simply trying to steal territory from DropBox. Rather, they are creating a more level playing field. Moreover, they're creating a more homogenous playing field that is closer to what users want and expect on a device nowadays. Via the new Extensions API, they are making it easier for DropBox-- but also for any other cloud storage provider, including Apple themselves-- to become more integrated into a wide variety of apps (and indeed into the OS itself). Users that find it convenient to use DropBox will not only be free to go on using it, but will find it integrated into more  apps. Now that cloud storage is an everyday expectation rather than a novelty, a major issue with iOS as it stands is that certain applications tend to be coupled with storing documents in one particular storage provider. The new functionality in iOS8 promises to iron this out and make applications much more "storage agnostic".

It's true that the new features of the Message app are largely playing catchup to other messaging services such as WhatsApp. Features such as sharing one's location are now so basic that it's somewhat surprising that they weren't already included. (Actually, I hadn't even noticed that this feature wasn't-- I guess I just assumed it was there if ever I needed it.) However, I really wonder if the presence or lack of such a feature is what will switch people over from WhatsApp to iMessage rather than more fundamental things such as which messaging system one's friends and contacts are using...? WhatsApp is presumably free to go on adding innovations to its messaging system; meanwhile, Apple has now added to its system features that have become de facto standards.

Mac OS "Yosemite" and iOS focus on "continuity"

A key theme of the updates to Mac OS and iOS this year is what Apple is referring to as continuity: being able to start a task on one device such as an iPhone and then continue it on another device such as a Mac. This notion was demonstrated at the WWDC keynote with the task of writing an e-mail on one device and continuing it on another, or going to a web page in Safari on a Mac and then picking up the same page on an iPad.

In principle, this could be one of the biggest and most useful innovations to the Apple ecosystem, and certainly received something of a rapturous response from the WWDC audience. But the devil will be in the detail: how extensively is this rolled out across the built-in apps, and what support do developers have to build this functionality into their apps, and how easily? I look forward to seeing more details...!

Apple announces the latest version of Mac OS, "Yosemite"

At Apple's WWDC14 developer conference today, Apple announced its new version of Mac OS, codenamed "Yosemite". As well as increasing the number of hits to the Yosemite National Park wikipedia page, this new version harmonises the look and feel between iOS and MacOS.

I'm guessing that many will have the same reaction that I am having-- and indeed that many of us had when we first saw the new-look iOS-- i.e. something to the effect of "OK, but please can we turn that off?". I guess over time, the world will get used to it just as we did with iOS... :)