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WWDC 2016 wrap: A complete list of developer takeaways

Erik Sherman Journalist, Independent

The 2016 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) wrapped up last week. Several of the announcements that were made and behind-the-scenes changes that were discovered last week will have a serious impact on the future of Apple's platforms and the third-party developers who build applications for them. For those of you who didn't follow the news coming out of WWDC as closely as we did, here's a look at some of the important news, developments, and reactions.

Apple opens iOS services to developers

Included in the introductions for the new versions of iOS, tvOS, watchOS, and macOS (formerly OS X) were announcements at WWDC about many services that Apple is making available through either APIs or extensions. That includes the following for iOS 10:

  • SiriKit enables iOS 10 apps to work with Siri.
  • Developers have access to iMessage, a Messages framework that lets apps provide access to Messages. That could mean apps that let you make payments, share content, or modify content all through iMessage (adding stickers seems to be the main example at the moment).
  • New types of access to Apple Maps are now available to developers.
  • Proactive suggestions help iOS suggest your app at appropriate times.
  • The introduction of the User Notifications framework lets developers schedule notifications based on context such as time or location. You can also "customize the appearance of local and remote notifications when they appear on the user’s device."
  • Apps can recognize speech and transcribe it into text with the APIs in the Speech framework.
  • Enhancements to app search include in-app searching, the ability to continue a search, and crowdsourced deep-link popularity with user privacy.
  • Apple Pay now allows payments from websites and through Siri and Maps.

Also keep in mind that Apple will require HTTPS connections for iOS apps by the end of this year. But as the industry in general is moving toward HTTP/2 and encrypted connections, this was going to happen anyway.

Winding Apple Watch forward

Right now Apple Watch is tied to the iPhone for the bulk of app capabilities. The two major improvements that will affect developers are a better UI layout and markedly faster speed. Both of these improvements might lead to more people finding the device useful as well.

Developers now have access to a number of frameworks that were previously only available on other Apple platforms. They include CloudKit for remote storage, SceneKit with its fast rendering engine, the SpriteKit graphics rendering engine, and animation infrastructure such as GameKit and AVFoundation. However, even with improvements over time, battery life is still an issue. 

Non-mobile platforms

If you're developing for the Mac or Apple TV, there were some important developments. For example, macOS Sierra lets people use Apple Pay on websites by allowing authentication through the iPhone's fingerprint reader or with a pass code.

Picture-in-picture floats a little PIP video window so people can perform tasks and watch something at the same time. (Although this doesn't sound like the best productivity feature in the world.)

Finally for macOS, a new API lets third-party apps integrate with Contacts and you can sell and distribute Safari extensions through the Mac App Store.

For tvOS 10, users can switch between dark and light interface styles; using the UIKit lets apps automatically adapt their behavior. The Video Subscriber Account framework helps apps authenticate content with a cable or satellite TV provider. And tvOS now has HomeKit, Photos, ReplayKit, UserNotifications, and more.

Changes across multiple platforms

Apple introduced a number of features that reach beyond one platform. For example, there is a collection of neural network inference functions that work across all of Apple's device operating systems. They won't do the training, but once you have data derived from training, they can do the inference.

Another big change is the new file system for both iOS and macOS. They're moving from HFS+ to their new homegrown system, APFS. This is still in the early stages of development and won't be introduced until at least some time next year. For many developers, the underlying specifics of file systems may not matter so much. But if you're working at a low level, now is the time to start understanding how it will operate.

New versions of Swift and Xcode: Coming soon

Swift has seen significant changes in the upcoming Version 3.0. Memory management is easier, the framework stack—which is built on Foundation and Cocoa—has been updated, and you can mix and match Swift code with Objective C and have access to Cocoa frameworks. Development snapshots, which are not official releases, are available for Xcode and Ubuntu 15.10 and 14.04.

Xcode has also received some significant improvements, including smaller installation size, faster performance, and less memory usage. You can get a preview of Xcode 8 with Swift 3 with your Apple developer ID.

Apple development: Cross-platform apps a key concern

The big question is what all of these changes mean for the continued viability of the Apple ecosystem. The best explanation was one from Wendell Adams of AB Mobile Apps. Apple is making the jobs of developers easier by putting more tools into their hands, and that has implications for the company and future strategies. "Apple, after building this, can create any product in the world and have content for it" because existing apps will be able to move to new platforms easily, Adams said. "It could be a scooter with a screen on it. It'll have more capabilities [and content]. Apple can on day one launch a platform with ten times more content than on the original iPhone."

But there's always a price to pay. Developers may find themselves more locked into the Apple way of doing things. That approach could create more complications for developers who want or need to work cross-platform. The more they rely on pre-existing capabilities—and the more that Apple insists developers use its approaches only—the more difficult it may be to support multiple platforms.

What are your thoughts on the changes announced at WWDC? Are you underwhelmed — or excited?

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