2014-07-30

Co.Labs

How OS X Became Apple's Sexiest Product

What happens when developers fall back in love with desktop apps?



Since 2008, OS X has felt like the middle child: perennially ignored and particularly unimpressive. Many Apple fans assumed the company would do away with its desktop OS altogether. But in a pretty incredible reversal of priorities, the forthcoming OS X 10.10 Yosemite is full of the most radical changes since OS 9 became OS X. Here’s what Mac app-makers are excited about.

ICloud Finally "Just Works"

The promise of the cloud as the one-stop, easy-access source for all our files has been bandied about for years now, but no one company has been able to pull it off perfectly—especially Apple. Since iCloud was introduced it's been the number one source of complaints from both developers and users. The document-sharing-and-syncing service worked well for simple (e.g., non-packaged) files, but anything more complex always presented headaches for everyone involved. Users complained that their documents were sequestered and hard to navigate since there was no universal file system they could access on all devices, and developers bore the brunt of the blame when Apple’s iCloud sync issues didn’t work or even corrupted data.

But with the introduction of the CloudKit API in OS X Yosemite, Apple seems to have finally gotten cloud storage right. The new API eliminates the need for OS X (and iOS) devs to write server-side application logic. It also provides developers with authentication, private and public databases, and structured and asset storage services with massive data allowances at no cost. This new back end enables seamless syncing of the new iCloud Drive front end, which users will be able to access in Yosemite.

"Apple have improved iCloud with every release, but this release is pretty special," says Dan Counsell, founder of Realmac Software, makers of RapidWeaver, among other popular apps. "iCloud Drive is going to be a huge deal and something that is being overlooked by a lot of people right now."

The importance of CloudKit to developers and iCloud Drive to users is something Scrivener’s Keith Blount agrees with.

"For simple apps, iCloud support has always been incredibly simple to implement," says Blount. "In the past, it has been much more difficult when it comes to implementing it for apps that don’t have ‘typical’ data structures."

iCloud Drive means that users will now be able to store any sort of document in iCloud just as they can in Dropbox, regardless of the intricacies of the file format.

"That’s great for both users and developers," says Blount. "We’re currently working on our iOS version, and until the announcement of Yosemite, it looked as though the only way our users would be able to sync data between our desktop and iOS versions would be via the Dropbox APIs, because of the previous iCloud limitations. With a combination of iCloud Drive and CloudKit, however, I’m optimistic that we’ll now be able to provide users with a syncing solution that is available on their Mac out of the box, without requiring a third-party service."

Just how big of a deal is Apple’s finally-fixed iCloud in OS X?

"I honestly believe that iCloud Drive has a massive chance to usurp Dropbox as the go-to cloud drive solution," says Counsell. "Dropbox will have a hard time competing with something that’s built right into the system. Apple can offer really tight integration on both iOS and OS X that Dropbox will never be able to replicate. In my opinion Dropbox should have taken the offer from Apple when they had the chance."

OS X’s Vibrant Refresh Is A Much-Needed Shot In The Arm

It’s hard to believe, but OS X first shipped to the public over 13 years ago and in that time not much has changed from a design perspective. OS X 10.9 Mavericks is just as glossy and slick today as OS X 10.0 was in 2001.

But with OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Apple’s desktop OS is getting a much-needed iOS 7-inspired facelift which has reenergized many of the developers I spoke with and made them look at their app design in new and fresh ways.

"Everything feels much cleaner: Windows seem more spacious, UI elements have more room to breath and are given more space," says Till Schadde, CEO of equinux, makers of popular apps such as Mail Designer 2 and VPN Tracker 8. "Overall everything is less boxed in—much like we saw in iOS 7. Icons now have fewer details and gradients, which gives them more structure and clarity. We experimented with the new icon style in Mail Designer 2 and it looks great in the dock next to Apple’s Yosemite-style icons."

But more space and refined UI elements aren’t the only thing in OS X Yosemite developers are taking inspiration from. Another key change in the OS is additions to various frameworks that support Vibrancy.

"Vibrancy is Apple’s name for the various translucent aspects of Yosemite’s interface," says Scrivener’s Blount. "Way back with the release of Tiger, Apple introduced floating HUD panels into OS X—those black translucent panels that are often used for tools—and from there, it became quite common to have controls set against a dark background in programs where it was important that the UI didn’t distract from content, such as the editing tools in iPhoto. Yet despite this becoming more common in OS X UI design for the past several years, until now, Apple has never provided a unified set of tools for building a UI against a dark background. Any developer wanting to do so has had to create his or her own set of lighter UI elements to place on top of that background, which leads to a less unified appearance across different applications."

But that’s all changed now with Vibrancy, says Blount. "Apple has introduced a lot of of cool background stuff that can update the appearance of various UI elements so that they adapt to look good against any background. This means a lot less code, and it means that UI elements are likely to adapt much more easily to future changes in the look of the OS."

Yet while Vibrancy and other Yosemite frameworks can mean less coding for some—particularly those whose apps are written in Cocoa or those that don't have a lot of custom UI elements—non-Cocoa apps and apps with heavy UI customization could have their work cut out for them. And that work is something you shouldn’t put off, according to Ralf Pfleghar, director of development at equinux.

"If developers haven't started yet, they need to get moving," Pfleghar says. "It is much more important to your UI for Yosemite than it was for previous OS X versions. Apps that don't adapt to the new UI regime are going to look really old. I'd compare it to old Aqua-style apps, or even OS 9 apps in terms of how old they feel."

Pfleghar also notes that the UI changes in Yosemite can also present an opportunity for underdog apps to shine.

"Yosemite levels the playing field just like iOS 7 did," he says. "With iOS 7, a few 'established' developers missed the boat and new apps took their place by offering a more compelling UI for the new OS. The same could happen again with Yosemite."

iOS and OS X Now Live Together Harmoniously—Which Could Bring More Users To Desktop Apps

A big new feature in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite is called Handoff. It allows users to begin a task on one device—like an iPhone—and pick it up immediately on another device—like a Mac. At WWDC Apple only demoed the feature working with its apps, such as Mail, but any developer can take advantage of it.

"We're really excited about Handoff," says equinux’s Schadde. "Hopefully it'll put an end to the days of emailing results from your phone to your Mac." Schadde says Handoff is great for developers because it does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to devices finding each other and pushing document states between devices, "but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter if the features makes developers' lives easier as long as it makes customers' lives easier."

And ultimately that ease of use of working on document states instantly across devices could spur a large majority of a developer’s iOS app users to shell out money for the iOS app’s desktop counterpart. As one major OS X developer I spoke with, who asked not to be named because his company’s plans haven’t been made public yet, said, "Handoff is the holy grail of cross-promotion, if you will, for many OS X developers. It’s something we’re all terribly excited about because not only does it allow us to serve our users better, but we believe it will make our desktop apps much more enticing to our much larger iOS user base."

The Future Of OS X Looks Strong In Our Post-PC World

Despite all the hype about being in a Post-PC world—and all the fear from developers that OS X was going to be left to languish—I haven’t seen Mac developers this excited in a long time.

"It is definitely the best OS X yet," says Pixelmator’s cofounder and UI designer, Saulius Dailide, when I ask him how he feels about the state of OS X after having played with the Yosemite beta for the last few months. "And it is easy to tell why. First, it looks and feels like an OS of today and even like the OS of the future. New icons, translucency, streamlined toolbars, and so on."

"Second, it comes with exactly those types of features that we would like to have—like more iOS friendship via Phone and SMS features, Handoff, new Spotlight, iCloud Drive—all these in a single OS update are just the exact thing one would expect from Apple," he says. "Fortunately, this time, I am so excited about the OS X update that I could not think about any features or improvements that could make the OS better. Yosemite is fantastic and I am very happy Apple brought back so many things from the iOS world."

But perhaps Scrivener’s Keith Blount sums it up best. "Yosemite is an exciting release for Mac users and developers alike. The UI feels fresh while remaining familiar, but mostly, after several years of promising to get ‘back to the Mac,’ it finally feels as though Apple has. The Mac has felt more and more like a second-class citizen to iOS, but Yosemite shows that OS X is still close to the heart of Apple, and that it has a lot left to give."




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