Apple Drives Vision of Seamless Multi-Device Computing

on June 3, 2014

Having attended a large number of Apple events over the years—from new product introductions to WWDC keynotes—I’ve learned to expect impressive demos of new features and new products. In the long run, we often find out that some of those impressive demos turn out to be just as good, if not better, in real-world usage, while others end up, well, not quite so useful. Yesterday’s event at Moscone West in San Francisco was certainly no different.

Apple once again put on a great show, generating oohs and aahs from its developer faithful, as it showed everything from new UI enhancements and even a new system font in MacOS X Yosemite, to an iOS 8 Health app, smarter keyboards and a virtual firehose spray of news on open developer APIs (application programming interfaces), a new programming language, potential links to smart home devices and wearables, graphics engine enhancements, and much more.

In some cases, the company was playing catch-up with the competition, while in others, it was laying out a new vision of where they are driving their ecosystem and devices. For many of the developer-focused capabilities, in particular, it will probably take a while before we can really appreciate and properly evaluate their importance.

One capability that won’t take much time to evaluate, however, was the Continuity features they showed that will enable iOS8 and MacOSX Yosemite-based devices to work together in a completely seamless fashion. In my view, these were the most important capabilities Apple unveiled yesterday by far. Finally, we can start to see a world where the devices play a secondary role to the people and what it is they want to get done.[pullquote]Finally, we can start to see a world where the devices play a secondary role to the people and what it is they want to get done.”[/pullquote]

Apple showed a wide range of device-to-device handoffs (including a feature called “Handoff” that I’ll get to in a second), from taking a phone call from your iPhone on a Mac or iPad, to starting an e-mail on one Apple device and finishing it on the other, to instantly turning your iPhone into a WiFi hotspot when it’s in range of your other devices. By themselves, they may not appear as impressive as, say, opening up the TouchID API for use by 3rd-party apps for things like mobile ecommerce, but they are very useful capabilities for regular users that provide the kind of “magic” touch that Apple does so well.

Speaking of “Handoff,” it allows certain apps, including things like Pages, Numbers, Safari, Messages, Mail, Contacts and more to seamlessly pass a document or web page or information from a MacOS X Yosemite-based device to an iOS8-based device and even continuing editing where you had left off on the previous device. It’s exactly the kind of vision that many people have been waiting for in this multi-device era and I think it’s an important portent of things to come.

Speaking of which, yet another multi-device friendly service Apple unveiled was iCloud Drive, which some have commented is like an Apple version of DropBox or Box. iCloud Drive offers numerous improvements over Apple’s previous cloud storage offering, including a Finder-like file and folder view into cloud storage, but Apple will charge users for more than 5 GB of storage. Importantly, Apple also announced they will be supporting Windows devices with iCloud Drive, but there was no mention of an Android client.

And this leads me to my potential concern around Apple’s new announcements. Essentially, Apple is creating a great reason to stick with Apple devices across all their main categories, from PCs (or Macs, in this case) to tablets and phones. While no one can fault them for this approach—they are in the business of selling devices after all—the fact is that most Apple users don’t have all Apple devices. Most people have a mixture of OS platforms—some Microsoft, some Google and some Apple. Of course, I’m sure that part of Apple’s strategy is to increase the all-Apple households (which their new Family Sharing feature should help with as well), but their vision could be made much more effective if they could somehow bring other non-Apple OS devices into the group.

To do this, Apple would have to take a more comprehensive view around multi-device services and figure out business models that enable them to benefit from people owning other devices. Given that Apple is leveraging iCloud to enable many of these seamless multi-device experiences, I would think they could create iCloud client apps for other platforms and then build a set of for-pay services that enable the kinds of experiences they demoed at WWDC but across platforms. Of course, it would be fine to make the experience better if it was on all Apple devices, but if the company could at least enable multi-device, multi-platform scenarios, I believe they would create an incredibly compelling story that would position them very well for a long time to come.

I have no doubt that the kind of simple, logical, device-to-device interactions that Apple previewed at WWDC will be the computing models of the future. But, I’m still not sure what role Apple will ultimately play.