By Craig Grannell

Why Apple's OS X Yosemite means business

Any suggestion Apple was prioritising iOS and resting on its laurels regarding OS X were blown out of the water at WWDC 2014’s keynote.

The company unveiled OS X Yosemite, boasting a slew of new features, a revamped but still familiar design language, and plenty of opportunities for professionals who work with and create for Macs.

As ever, the aesthetic choices are likely to prove divisive, bar the much-requested ‘dark’ UI mode that’s a boon for video editors and visual creatives; elsewhere, Apple’s fixation with translucency is questionable from a legibility standpoint, and its obsession in maximising content viewports by shoving buttons in toolbars could make it fiddly to move windows.

Otherwise, efficiency was the watchword.

Do things faster

A clear pattern emerged as demos unveiled new features within OS X that would help people work smarter and faster, enabling more time to be spent concentrating on important things. Apple’s tag-line of “do everyday things in extraordinary ways” seemed entirely appropriate.

Notification Center showcases this shift in thinking, transforming a rather throwaway stream of app notifications to a centralised at-a-glance overview of your day’s events, reminders and weather, along with a succinct summary of what’s happening tomorrow.

Widgets can be added from the App Store to customise this pane, enabling you to perform basic tasks rather than opening up a browser or app.

Spotlight re-jig

Spotlight has been entirely revamped, borrowing heavily from OS X productivity app Alfred. Again, the emphasis is on presenting information more clearly, smartly, and in-context. Rather than a huge list of files relating to a search string barrelling down from the menu bar, Spotlight now opens in the centre of the screen, and results are more intelligently curated.

When typing an app name, you’ll see recent files and previews; when searching for more general information, you’ll receive Wikipedia content, maps, and conversion results.

Even the less visible OS X changes have the potential to transform mundane tasks and make the Mac experience more streamlined for professional users.

iCloud Drive provides a more flexible means of accessing documents in Apple’s cloud, enabling you to work across applications and organise files as you please; and MailDrop and MarkUp, respectively, bring the means to route massive attachments via Mail and annotation to emails, natively and intuitively.

Get connected

Perhaps the biggest productivity news regarding OS X Yosemite, however, is how it aims to provide a seamless experience across platforms. This is at odds with Apple’s rivals, whose visions typically revolve around making a single device do everything; Apple instead recognises the value in varied form factors, but OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 will provide the means for devices to more harmoniously work together.

Pre-WWDC, many people were expecting a slightly greater degree of cooperation between Apple’s platforms, most notably AirDrop working between devices; what no-one foresaw was the degree to which Apple wanted its hardware to work together. Devices will now recognise when they’re near each other, providing unparalleled coherence and continuity.

Examples Apple demonstrated included making and receiving iPhone calls on the Mac, full integration of SMS within Messages, Instant Hotspot for rapidly connecting a Mac to a networked iOS device, and the audacious Handoff.

The last of those enables you to automatically pass work you’re doing between devices, taking advantage of their relevant hardware and input methods, or purely because of mobility and environment. PCalc developer James Thomson told TechRadar this was the feature that really caught his eye during the keynote:

“That idea of moving tasks from iOS to Mac and back again was something I was already thinking about adding to my app, and having an OS mechanism to do it should make things much simpler.”

You’ve been Sherlocked

Inevitably, some of these new features come at a cost, and accusations have flown around that Apple has again ‘Sherlocked’ existing apps and services.

The phrase derives from Apple’s now-discontinued Sherlock search tool, which made its debut in Mac OS 8.5, supplanting third-party equivalent Watson. With its new features, OS X Yosemite tears chunks out of a range of players, from the aforementioned Alfred to services such as WeTransfer, Google Drive and Dropbox.

But changes to the OS also provide business opportunities: new features add scope for app upgrades to take advantage of them, and even widgets could become a profitable sideline for developers, if the revamped Notification Center takes off.

Still, as Thomson remarks, developers will have their work cut out for them, given Apple’s simultaneous announcement regarding new programming language Swift:

“I’ve been programming in C/C++ for over 20 years, and in Objective-C for over six. The thought of having to start over and learn a new language isn’t something I’ve begun to process.”

He adds that although Objective-C won’t vanish overnight, “everything is going to be Swift going forward,” which is a “really big change from a developer standpoint,” although one he reckons will benefit the platform through Apple thinking about the long-term.

Hit and miss

Thomson says developers may have been left stunned by Swift, but the reaction online nonetheless seems broadly positive. Still, there were omissions, both in terms of user features and also from a developer standpoint.

Elephant-in-the-room iTunes somehow survived, despite its iOS equivalent only being a store, and separate apps existing for music, video, podcasts and iOS app purchase. A rumoured two-up window view in full-screen or elsewhere remains absent, meaning no Windows 8-style window-snapping and full-screen remaining too limiting for some.

And developer Kevin Meaney says one of the biggest developer grumbles persists: “The process for code-signing and applying entitlements in preparation for app release is buggy and poorly designed, and so it’s easy to make mistakes.

“Because of poor error messages, it’s tricky to work out what’s gone wrong, and so devs end up with duplicate code-signing certificates, and are confused which certificate to use in any particular situation. Apple needs to take the approach it’s following with application development and apply that to code-signing.”

The future of OS X

But beyond such specifics, it’s clear the general path Apple is taking with OS X is one in which developers can thrive, creating apps that work in tandem with new features that will benefit professional users.

“When the Mac turned 30, Apple went to great lengths to stress that the Mac wasn’t standing still, and the WWDC announcements certainly prove that,” says Realmac Software product manager Nik Fletcher.

“The move to a sandboxed environment in OS X worried advanced users that tight-knit app integration would be stifled.” But he reckons Apple’s now proving otherwise.

“Apple’s announcement of App Extensions should prove popular, and elevates third-party apps to the level of first-party apps. Best of all, this is also true for iOS, making it even easier for developers who build for the Mac and iOS to provide great experiences across all Apple devices.”

Continuity indeed.