Apple is routinely criticised for its closed operating systems — particularly iOS, hence all the jailbreaking — but at its WWDC keynote Monday, Apple began liberating iOS with a new mobile model that borrows the best of open ecosystems with Apple’s notoriously tight security.
Call it a war on jailbreaking, or Android. But Apple is getting serious about customisation in iOS 8: Besides introducing 4,000 new APIs for home electronics, Touch ID, iCloud, cameras, games, and more, the key to the new model is what Apple calls “extensibility,” or app extensions.
“With extensibility, applications from the App Store will be able to extend the system and offer services to other apps,” said Apple’s software SVP Craig Federighi.
Currently, Apple’s security system for iOS centres on sandboxing, in which applications are isolated so they can access their own data, but can’t get at personal information or mess with other installed apps without your permission.
Apple wanted to introduce extensibility “in an iOS way,” so these new app extensions live inside an application’s own sandbox and other applications can reach out and talk to those extensions via iOS’ security mechanisms. Applications can even project UI into the originating app, thus enabling third-party apps to define how content is seen, shared, or acted upon in other apps.
Extensions grant a certain level of customisation to the iOS ecosystem. For example, during the keynote, Federighi was able to easily modify Safari by adding a sharing option for Pinterest and a translation tool courtesy of Bing. Users will also be able to apply photo filters from third-party apps and use document providers like Box or OneDrive (so long as they work with iCloud Drive).
And then there’s widgets. When you open Notification Center in iOS 7, you’ll see a list of widgets from default apps like Calendar, Stocks, and Reminders. Widgets are only somewhat customisable in their current state, but with extensions in iOS 8, any app will be able to offer a unique Notification Center widget and users will be able to easily see which of their downloaded apps offer Notification Center widgets.
During the keynote, Federighi scrolled to the bottom of his Notification Center to see “1 New Widget Available” — for ESPN’s SportsCenter app — and quickly added and organised the widget without ever leaving Notification Center.
On the iPad, Federighi showed how an eBay widget can allow users to submit winning bids directly from Notification Center — no need to visit the application or website. Apple hopes this will encourage more third-party apps to design unique and interactive Notification Center widgets, but also give users a chance to customise their menus to fit their needs.
These additions are just the tip of the iceberg. Before moving onto other topics, Federighi mentioned one last important extension: the ability to install system-wide third-party keyboards.
“If you have a special keyboard you want to use, you can install those on iOS,” Federighi said. “And by default, those run inside of the most restricted sandbox with no network access because we want to make sure we protect your privacy. But if that keyboard requires — or you want to grant it — ability, it can ask for access to the network to provide extended functionality. We put those controls in your hands.”
Keyboards and widgets might just sound like nifty new options, but they actually signify a much more profound play to bring the millions of iOS apps and services closer together.
To let iOS apps interact in a semi-open fashion without compromising user security is a big deal: Apple CEO Tim Cook spent several minutes during Monday’s presentation to highlight Android’s role in the mobile malware market, which has a lot to do with Android’s extreme openness and fragmentation. But with Apple making serious moves to extend iOS while preserving its secure sandbox system, iOS 8 might be Apple’s first non-closed operating system that strikes a balance between choice and curation to keep users happy in the driver’s seat.
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