What To Watch For At WWDC 2013: More Freedom For Developers

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Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is a little over a week away, and that means we’re already seeing a lot of buzz surrounding what will and won’t appear at the conference. Apple itself has dropped hints, and recent comments from CEO Tim Cook while speaking at AllThingsD’s D11 conference last week indicate developers should be especially excited about what’s on tap for the annual conference – which, after all, is designed specifically to cater to that crowd.

Cook suggested that Apple would be going a lot further than it has before in terms of opening up API access to make iOS more flexible and customizable for developers. That’s a pretty general statement, but he also suggested they wouldn’t go so far as to allow something like Facebook’s Chat Heads to become a system-wide feature. He also seemed to indicate that there would be a much greater ability to offer things that just weren’t possible before.

The Obvious Targets

There are a few key things that Apple could unlock and provide access to for developers which have seemed like low-hanging fruit for a few iterations of iOS now. The list will likely be familiar to developers who’ve dreamed of accessing these features since they were first introduced.

1. Siri

Developers have been looking longingly at Siri since Apple bought the tech — integrating apps within the virtual personal assistant would be massively beneficial to devs, since it could theoretically funnel users to their services and generate a lot of additional revenue, particularly for things like event, travel, restaurant and sightseeing bookings.

Apple has done some loosening of the Siri ecosystem, by allowing select partners to gain entry, like OpenTable, Yelp and more. But it hasn’t flung the gates wide; there’s still no API available to developers to plug into its services and voice recognition powers, beyond the straightforward dictation abilities built into general text entry fields. Which is unfortunate, because Siri would likely be much more powerful with the many more information sources that would come from wider developer availability.

Siri could use developers as much or more as developers could use Siri, but there’s a potential problem with allowing devs to use it freely and become a potential end point for users. Namely, how do you filter and make sure not to overload users with results, and how do you choose between two competing apps that can answer the same query? That’s why Apple has been reluctant to offer Siri to devs, and why we probably won’t see it open things up entirely. But in-app specific use of Siri could still be immensely beneficial to user experience.

2. Notification Center Widgets

Apple introduced widgets with real-time updating information for the Notification Center when it released that feature. These exist for weather and for stocks, two built-in iOS services, but they make a lot of sense for any developer who wants to show a user constantly updating information. Android developers already have access to this kind of thing via homescreen widgets.

I don’t think we’ll see Apple bring live updating information to the home screen, but it does make sense for them to offer that to devs in the Notification Center. It could potentially reduce the total number of steps a user has to go through to receive crucial information, and might even be a way to save battery life. Plus, given unfettered access, developers might be able to take Notification Center widgets in a direction that Apple hadn’t even envisioned for the feature.

3. User-Selectable Defaults

This is another thing that both devs and users have been wanting for a while. It’s perhaps most obvious when it comes to browsers, as there’s no way to use anything other than Safari as the default app for opening websites on your phone. Google has released APIs that allow other apps to make its Chrome mobile browser the default, but that applies only to those apps with that feature enabled, and there’s no way for a user to set it as the preference system-wide.

For power users, it would be ideal if Apple would just allow each person to set a default app for basically any action, the way you can on Android. But for the general public, that’s a degree of choice that has the potential to confuse and frustrate, as you lose any ability to ensure that an app users pick as a default for any action is actually going to provide a good user experience.

I don’t think Apple will open this feature up to developers in any kind of unqualified or unlimited way. But for certain system features, I can see it beginning to lower the barriers. Don’t expect to see the Phone, Email or Browser app get opened up just yet, but we may see a way to enable a certain type of third-party keyboard system-wide, for instance. Having different software handle calendar appointments might be another tentative step. But as with the way Siri currently works with outside devs, I’d imagine we’d see this fairly tightly controlled at first.

More Power, More Responsibility

Apple may not add more flexibility in the areas described above, but I do think we’ll see them relax restrictions and open up more and more previously private APIs. But if it does open up the ecosystem significantly, that will mean it’ll be watching extra close for interpretations of that openness that threaten the good reputation of iOS with consumers. Even so, we should see a net gain for developers, and hopefully that results in a similar net gain for users, too.