First of all, will we get all this? Pretty likely not. But, a boy can dream. These are the things I at least hope to see in the near future from Apple and why.
Apple TV, for real
This one’s been debated ad nauseam I’ll admit, but for good reason. The television is the perfect shit storm of complexity, confusion, dead old business models, and has had hardly any innovation in quite some time. Apple, coincidentally, has all the right pieces including hardware, software and content to remake this industry if the vested interests don’t shoot it out out of the sky with the same contempt they’ve shown for their customers with every big format shift previously (VHS, DVD, etc).
One of the biggest problems with remaking this industry is the poor interaction model a remote makes for browsing large amounts of content. Just look at how much quicker it is to get directly to content in something like a web browser as an indicator of how much more efficient things could be. Of course, web TV is no new concept and it’s failed for one key reason time and time again — trying to interact with something across the room and worse yet a level of indirection away from you is an extreme hindrance to adoption. Siri really is going to be the catalyst to change here. Already people have begun not just predicting but building this inevitable future with things like Siri Proxy. The ability to say “Play the latest episode of Futurama” or “Show me new movies” is going to change this space overnight. We’ll hardly remember a time where we used to have 50 buttons on a remote control or had to painstakingly tap up, down, left, right, one by one to get to the 5th item in row of 20 episodes.
Guy English summed it up best in his recent blog post on the subject, go check it out for a glimpse of the future and to see how all the puzzle pieces are fitting together nicely.
This is a big hopeful wish, but it’s mostly because I can’t wait for this to be in the hands of developers. If we’re lucky, Apple might release a beta version of a Siri framework that lets developers start to build their own applications let’s say as part of iOS 6 this summer during their annual developers conference. My pessimistic guess is it won’t be ready by then, but I’m certain Apple sees how impactful this new interaction model will be going forward. Why is this a big deal? Well in a nutshell new interaction models come along rarely. We first started out with the textual command based interface for UNIX and DOS what seems like a millennia ago. Especially when you consider the Macintosh is at this point roughly 30 years old. It took about 25 years before we got the first truly usable touch based interface, putting the disconnected and antiquated mouse and keyboard metaphor to rest.
The interesting thing about ubiquitous and actually functional voice control is it will never fully replace other interaction models, but it will do a great job at augmenting existing ones and enabling some new interactions that were previously quite tedious. The possibilities for developers are going to be quite exciting. Just imagine being able to say things like “When’s the next 27 bus going north” and getting an instant location based search that returns a time in a couple of seconds. Other examples: “Flashlight” or “Show me last night’s SF Giants score” or “Tweet Pooping”. Many simple but tedious tasks will eventually be accomplished this way.
The tough part here I imagine is how does one create an API out of something as fuzzy as natural language commands. I can already envision a pretty simple services model in which applications can register which services they provide, and a query will fall through the most specific to least specific handlers with a disambiguation incase multiple applications can respond to the same query. While we may not see this in 2012, it can’t come soon enough.
UIKit for Mac OS X
If you’ve been paying attention for the past few years, you might have noticed how Mac OS X is becoming more and more like iOS. This trend isn’t going to stop, and if anything it’s only inevitable before Mac OS and iOS become one. The trend has been accelerating thanks to third party developers filling in the gaps where Apple is, understandably, focused on other things. Chameleon and TwUI are just a couple examples of great iOS work-alike UI frameworks to ease this transition for desktop app developers.
While I really commend the folks who’ve built these frameworks (both of whom are friends, hey guys!) this is really something Apple should be doing for us for the sake of comprehensive documentation, example code, future development and official support. I’m hoping 10.8 comes with it an initial version of UIKit for Mac OS X. If for no other reason than NSCell is the work of the devil.
Xcode 5, with less crashes and no new features
Having powerful, efficient development tools with which to build applications on is probably the single greatest strength of a platform. No one company, even Apple, can build everything. Nor should they. You can sort of think about having great development tools as compounding interest for the value of a platform. The more efficient your tools are, the more “interest” your platform is earning in a given amount of time. Take that interest, and put it back into the platform, and it’ll grow faster and faster. You see this through Apple developing it’s own software with it’s own tools, and through third party developers quickly adopting new OS advancements shortly after a new release. All of this is made possible by and starts with great development tools.
But this sort of breaks down when the tools are less than stellar. As an iOS developer, I’ll be the first to describe the many virtues of Apple’s incredibly rich APIs and many of their tools, but the stability of one of their most important, Xcode, has come to an all time low in my history of working on the platform (including back when I wrote just Mac software, and the iPhone was a glimmer in Steve’s eye). I can hardly work a full day without Xcode crashing dozens of times. Even my good friends who rant about Photoshop don’t have issues like that. Fortunately Xcode saves often and quickly, so it’s more a minor inconvenience. It doesn’t however, inspire confidence.
iPhone with NFC
This one’s as loaded as they come. I can almost always wager that the more Apple talks about not doing something, you’d better be damned sure they’re thinking of doing it. The thing to keep in mind with NFC is has a lot more uses for developers and consumers than just payments. Considering that NFC truly shines for mobile use and the great things it could do for cross-device communication as well as identification, it’s no wonder we as developers should be chomping at the bit for this technology to become ubiquitous. Imagine being able to tag your front door and unlock it, or tap two phones together and quickly get a prompt to exchange information between them. Google’s done some great forward looking here and given us physical world signs that you can tag your phone against to pick up coupons or deals. The data this gives sellers and the incentives it gives buyers are wonderful, despite the obvious privacy ramifications.
The one thing I haven’t yet mentioned is payments. While my company Square is at the forefront of a lot of great purely software based ways of transacting, I still think the concept of offline identification can and possibly always will have a place. Phone have a poor signal because you’re on AT&T in San Francisco? The NFC chip on your phone will still let you pay for something. In another country, and don’t have a data plan? The NFC chip on your phone will still let you pay for something. At an automated parking garage with 3 exits and the checkout terminals don’t yet use Square tabs and Card Case? The NFC chip will still work. Going through the BART station and have a line of 10 people trying to get through quickly? NFC will be faster than phones, lock screens with pass codes, launching apps, and software. In actuality, credit cards serve a lot of great purposes. What they serve first and foremost though, is offline identification. What NFC lets us do is store that identification information in a more convenient, and secure way than an unencrypted, never changing printed number stored on what is effectually a strip of cassette tap — a decidedly antiquated technology.
It seems rare, though, for Apple to release new piece of hardware without something built into the device to immediately take advantage of it. Consumers don’t much see value in potential features developers could use. It’s for this reason I think they’re working on a big play to take advantage of NFC for payments. If they’re clever, they’ll build NFC into iPad 3 since they make great point of sales machines, and silently leave it turned off until they’re ready to ship the full connected experience on something like iPhone 5.
MacBook Air Pro
When the latest generation of MacBook Airs came out, I rejoiced. It seemed like they finally made a machine that was powerful enough and portable enough that as a developer, I could replace my big bulky MacBook Pro with. After living on one for awhile though, I can tell you it’s just entirely inadequate for professional use. Of course, one can hardly blame Apple since they definitely didn’t put the Professional moniker on it. But with words like Core i7, 256 GB SSD, Thunderbolt, high resolution 13” screen, backlit keyboard it’s starting to get there. I took the plunge and gave it a shot, but it just can’t keep up with a developers workload. For the average user, this laptop is great. Almost even more than enough. I play StarCraft II as well as World of Warcraft on it on occasion, and it hasn’t really felt sluggish. However, as soon as I start writing code and have to bounce between iChat, Safari, Preview, Pixelmator, Xcode, and more the 4 GB of RAM really starts to show its weakness.
With the wild success of the MacBook Air, it’s clear to me the next step is for Apple to drop the optical drive and magnetic disks, and switch entirely to SSD, MicroSD for memory, and USB memory sticks for the occasional file transfers. My guess is what’s been holding us back here has been the price of large SSD drives, which are a much bigger issue for the professional line than the consumer line of laptops. 64 GB of disk space just wouldn’t be enough for the Pro line of laptops and the costs have traditionally been too high. I think that’s about to change in the next few months.