Tuesday 23 January 2018

Better messaging, smarter Siri and a connected home: what Apple's got in store for you

Apple ceo Tim Cook at the company’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco
Apple ceo Tim Cook at the company’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

As headline-grabbing events go, the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference wasn't the most earth-shattering in recent memory. But it was packed with lots of useful and potentially powerful feature upgrades that could have a profound impact in years to come. Having been hands-on at the San Francisco event, our Technology Editor rates the five key announcements

1 Messages

It may sound peripheral, but messaging is now a really, really important part of a phone's appeal. For some, it heavily influences the choice of tech used, just as messaging activity itself dominates a normal day's phone communication. And while we all talk about Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger as the major texting apps in our lives, Apple's iMessage (Messages) is right up there. It may now even be Apple's most valued iPhone feature.

The upgrades to Messages within iOS 10 (available in the autumn) announced at WWDC suggest that Apple is well aware of this and wants to deepen Messages as a platform in itself that keeps you using an iPhone.

One of the most important upgrades is that Messages will now let you include 'rich links' to photos, videos and songs. This means you don't have to click through a link to see the photo or video someone wants to bring to your attention. Instead, the content will instantly be converted within the message box.

This is a step forward in terms of making Messages a platform in its own right, as it means you're much less likely to leave the app during a conversation.

Other changes are more cosmetic but will still likely prove popular. Messages can now be written 'softly' (smaller text) or 'loudly' (larger text). They can also be written in 'invisible ink', which only reveals the message when the screen is swiped.

Apple is also ramping up on emoji in messages. While older analysts may roll their eyes at this, it is likely to be a hit with younger generations who matter far more in the booming messaging market. If you want to include an emoji in an iMessage, you no longer have to hunt for one manually as the iPhone will suggest some based on the text you're inputting.

In a similar vein, you can draw or sketch in Messages now, too. And Apple is also opening up some parts of Messages to third-party developers to integrate with their own offerings.

Beefing up Messages is a strong way of locking iPhone users down even further into sticking with Apple. Millions use iMessage (and Facetime) as their default communications system. These feature upgrades help Apple to argue that its users will genuinely be missing out if they switch to an Android smartphone and Whatsapp. This may be the reason that Apple didn't take the leap to extend iMessage into Android, as was rumoured before WWDC. While doing this would have expanded its reach deep into non-iPhone territory, it may also have given its own users one less reason not to move to an Android phone.

2 Siri voice control

If you look at advances from Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple, it's pretty clear that the tech world sees a Star Trek-style future where we speak out loud to computers, cars and home appliances instead of looking at a screen or tapping on a button.

Apple's main announcement at WWDC was that Siri is coming to Apple Mac desktop and laptop computers. That means you can now use voice commands to search on your computer in the same way you can on your iPhone, iPad or Watch.

Apple is giving Siri a lot more intelligence, enabling it to suggest things to you based on location or text. It's not just Apple that will be rolling out Siri within its services - it will let other companies use the technology to add voice control elements to whatever they offer, too.

Ordinary phone and computer users are taking their time about switching over to voice controls as the primary way of interacting with computers. However, the success that Amazon has had with its Echo voice control box suggests that this might be changing. The overall direction is clear. Soon, instead of manually adjusting settings on cookers or turning on kettles, we will tell them what to do individually or to a centralised home system that controls appliances.

3 Apple Pay

Although Ireland was not one of the countries announced in the next wave of Apple Pay territories, it looks like to come here in the next year and possibly by the end of 2016. This will make a big difference to those who own an Apple Watch or want an iPhone alternative to contactless payment cards.

At WWDC, Apple extended the payment system by making Apple Pay work in the Safari browser with some websites. This means that you can pay for an item online (in the browser) and, instead of filling out long forms, validate the payment with a Touch ID press on your iPhone. It should speed things up, thereby addressing one of the critical issues with online commerce: conversion. It takes far too long to buy things with many online services, meaning we often drop out of the process before the process is completed.

Apple's move means that it is stepping up its competition with other online payment systems.

"We view this as the first concrete step into direct competition with PayPal," said the noted Apple analyst, Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray.

Apple Pay, he said, is "a superior point-of-sale mobile payment solution and, with the dawn of availability in online channels, a legitimate threat to PayPal's staying power".

4 A new 'Home' app

If you walk into any Harvey Norman, DID Electrical or Currys store, you'll see that the tellies, washing machines and cookers are all starting to include 'smart' connectivity. They join home heating (Nest), security (Belkin) and home audio (Sonos) in a gradual switch over to making our everyday home surroundings answerable to centralised command from our phones.

In this vein, Apple is launching a new app for the iPhone called 'Home'. This will basically let you control all of your home's 'smart' appliances and systems through one app rather than a hodge-podge or individual apps scattered around different phone screens. It will also be subject to voice control through Siri and will let a user pre-program different appliances or home systems through the app.

While we've been waxing lyrical about 'smart homes' and the 'internet of things' for years, it's happening now.

5 Other developments

There are too many other features launched at WWDC to cover in depth. But here are a few extra ones that caught my eye.

(i) Transcription of voice messages: Many people just don't bother listening to voice messages any more. Apple will soon introduce the tech that gets your voice message and transcribes it into a text message for you.

(ii) You can now delete homescreen apps on the iPhone: Up to now, you couldn't delete Apple's pre-installed apps. With iOS 10 (available this autumn), you can.

(iii) Using your locked iPhone screen for more: In iOS 10, you can reply to messages and do lots of other things without unlocking your screen.

(iv) Photos upgrades: Apple is applying some new advanced computer vision to let you automatically compile photo albums and short videos. It will do this partially through new facial recognition techniques.

(v) Apple Music gets a refresh: Apple Music now looks a lot cleaner and gives better, richer information on songs and artists, including lyrics.

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