At this year's World Wide Developer Conference, Apple execs demonstrated a variety of new features for the company's desktop and mobile lineup. While more than a few stood out as game-changers -- such as allowing iOS 8 apps to access data from one another and the rollout of the new Swift programming language -- I believe the most important change for users is the tightened bond between OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.
While traditional computers have allowed people to create and manage data at sometimes incredible scales, the rise of mobile devices and their always-connected Internet access is what has revolutionized the way we connect to the world around us. Mobile devices like tablets and phones serve more to augment the traditional computing experience then replace it, which makes communication between devices ever more important. As the number of devices we use rises, so does the importance of making sure your data can be found, accessed and manipulated on every one. Although Apple has worked to solve this problem with iCloud -- a set of services that invisibly syncs data to Apple's servers, and then back to your other devices registered to the same Apple ID -- the company is now taking things a step further.
Using the umbrella term "Continuity" to explain what it's up to, Apple showcased a variety of new technologies that take device communication to a more sophisticated level. In short, OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 will be more aware of each other and more easily able to share features and data than ever before. Continuity promises to change the way we use our computers and devices in a way that feels completely natural.
Think of it as the arrival of ubiquitous computing.
Mac OS X Yosemite's look and feel
First, Apple is changing the way OS X looks. The user interface for Yosemite, due out this fall -- and free -- has taken on more of the simplified design cues adopted in iOS 7. OS X uses a brighter theme with a specific focus on content by removing toolbar cruft, using flatter design elements and by adding translucency to subtly emphasize layering within apps and OS X itself. Like iOS 7, OS X app and folder icons sport a brighter 2D look, and the use of visual layering throughout gives the entire interface a subtle 3D feel without distracting from content or calling too much attention to itself. Also, like iOS 7, some app and system interface elements, like window sidebars, toolbars and the Dock are influenced by your background, their colors appearing diffused across a frosted glass layer.
OS X Yosemite has also picked up some iOS Notification Center features. In Yosemite, there is a divide between the Today view and the Notifications view; each can be toggled with a click. The Today view displays graphical data like weather, stock prices, reminders and information from other widgets. It's also been opened up to third-party developers, who will be able to extend Notification functionality with their own apps.
In OS X Yosemite, Safari gets a simplified toolbar and a new palette of icons more reminiscent of iOS 7. (Image: Apple)
Changes that are beyond skin deep
But a look that's more like iOS is just the beginning of the changes you'll see in Yosemite. Apple has figured out ways to get Macs, iPads and iPhones (signed in under the same Apple ID) to communicate with each other without any user configuration.
First of all, AirDrop -- a feature that allows you to wirelessly share files, photos and other tidbits -- finally works between iOS and OS X devices. Before now, it only worked between iOS devices or desktop-to-desktop. Now, instead of, say, emailing a video to yourself, or using a third-party cloud storage service like DropBox, it's possible to transfer the file directly from a Mac to your iPhone or iPad, or vice versa. It's instant and it's easy, and long overdue.
OS X Yosemite has picked up some iOS Notification Center features that give users more at-a-glance info. (Image: Apple)
When it comes to other types of data, Apple's iCloud services played a silent role in making sure documents within supported apps were consistent across all of your devices. With Yosemite and iOS 8, iCloud steps out of the background with iCloud Drive. Yosemite sports an iCloud shortcut right in the Finder sidebar. Clicking there will give you access to your documents, which are stored in a folder listed by apps. The best part? This iCloud folder is as customizable as a normal Finder window. Add documents, tags and new folders to your heart's content and every Mac and iOS 8 device will be able to see those changes -- and all of that data -- automatically.
Note: This is not just limited to iPads, iPhones, and Macs. Also supported: Windows.
But that's just the start.
Your Mac desktop as phone
Ever find yourself in a situation where your iPhone is charging in the bedroom, and it rings while you're in your home office? With Yosemite and iOS 8, the iPhone alerts the Mac -- or your iPad -- of the phone call, and even displays Caller ID information. Instead of racing to the other room to answer the phone, you can pick up the call right from whichever device is closest: Mac, iPad or another iOS device. The call will then be rerouted from the phone to the device.
The same thing applies to messages: Any iMessage you receive on your phone will be sent to other devices to keep data consistent. This feature already worked for iMessages between Apple devices, but Yosemite now syncs SMS messages, as well. You can even reply to an SMS message right from the Messages app.
More fluid mobility
If you've been using Pages in concert with iCloud for creating documents, then you understand the convenience of being able to pick up what you were doing on any device, iOS or OS X, and complete it on another. Apple brings this integration to an incredibly useful new level with a feature it calls Handoff. Every app with support for this feature can be picked up on any device.
On your iPad or iPhone's lock screen, you'll find a tiny avatar of whatever program you were last using on your Mac; on the Mac, your last-used app will display to the left of the Mac happy face icon in the Dock. If you're surfing the Web on the desktop and decide to step outside, all you have to do to continue your surfing session is grab an iPad, flick that avatar to the top of the screen and you're back to the same piece you were reading -- now on the iPad. If you start writing an email on the iPad, when you return to your Mac, you'll find that there is a Mail avatar left-most in the Dock, and if you click on that, it'll bring you directly to the message you were writing -- even if you stopped midsentence.
This is possible because Apple devices use low-power Bluetooth; it's this technology that allows these devices to keep tabs on one another and on what you're doing.
Handoff is current supported by many Apple apps, including Mail, Safari, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, Calendar, Contacts, Reminders, and Messages. But third-party developers can take advantage of this, too, by incorporating the feature into their apps.
With Yosemite and iOS 8, you can answer a call to your iPhone -- and get caller ID information -- right from the desktop. (Image: Apple)
The features that make up Continuity will be incredibly useful, especially for anyone juggling multiple devices. While the idea of using Bluetooth for device integration isn't new, Apple has combined the features in a creative and natural way. It makes for a slick, frictionless computing environment where your devices take a back seat to whatever you're doing.
I've always maintained that Apple devices are great on their own, even better when used in concert with each other. With Yosemite and iOS 8, Apple engineers are taking the potential for interconnectivity to a whole new level. It's a marriage of convenience for users and a level of integration that would be much more difficult to achieve if Apple didn't make both the hardware and software.
But because Apple is in control of the whole experience -- hardware, software and services -- its customers can enjoy a full array of products that actually improve when other devices are added to the mix, securely and without complication. For many Apple users, the level of integration afforded by Continuity will be worth the updates alone.
Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).
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