It's hard to remember using an iPhone before the App Store. However, for the first year, the iPhone could only run the handful of apps that Apple created for it. Anything else required using mobile web apps in Safari.1
On March 6, 2008, just nine months after the original iPhone went on sale, Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall announced that Apple would ship an SDK for third-party developers to write applications that could run natively on the iPhone, without the clumsiness inherent in web apps.
After Forstall took some time going through the details of the SDK, Steve Jobs came back on stage to answer a question that had no doubt been circulating the room:
How do you distribute software on a device like the iPhone?
"There's an app for that" may have been coined as a marketing term in 2009, but in 2018 the phrase is indisputable. With over 2 million apps on the App Store, there is seldom a niche unexplored, and few obvious utilities not rapaciously overindulged. The App Store is a worldwide phenomenon, an enormous entity providing instant access to a treasure trove of software for hundreds of millions of people. Things have come a long way in a decade.
Ten years ago today, the App Store launched with 552 apps, available only on the original iPhone, iPod Touch, and the iPhone 3G (which shipped the day after). The developers of those apps overcame a fascinating set of challenges to secure front row seats in one of the greatest software advents in history. Many of these apps were built into sustainable businesses, and continue in active development today. Even those that didn't make it are still testaments to their time, effortlessly invoking nostalgia in users who participated in that era.
The early days of the App Store were a journey into the unknown for Apple, third-party developers, and users alike. The economics of the store were entirely unrealized – nobody knew which app ideas would work or how much they could charge for an app. Apple's processes for approving apps were primitive, their developer documentation was fallow, and they still thought it a good idea to make developers sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to access the SDK (software development kit). For iPhone users, every new app could completely revolutionize their mobile experience, or it could be another icon they never tapped on again.
Despite this uncertainty, developers pushed forward with their ideas, Apple hustled as many apps through approval as it could, and on July 10, 2008, users exploded enthusiastically onto the scene. Within the first year of the App Store, iPhone and iPod Touch owners had already downloaded over 1.5 billion apps. From the beginning it was clear that the App Store would be an unmitigated success.
Apple has a history of shipping 1.0 products that are amazingly great in some ways, and shockingly undeveloped in others. The iPhone, juggernaut of Apple products, was no exception. When it launched, the iPhone was a smartphone like no other, setting a new standard for what pocket computers could do. But in spite of its astounding achievements, one black eye on the product's otherwise-stellar launch is that it offered no access to third-party apps.
The App Store as we know it today didn't exist on the iPhone's day one. On the path of creating a device that would change the world, Steve Jobs and his team neglected one important point: the developer story. Perhaps this was a problem of Apple's own making – if the iPhone hadn't been such an impressive product, there wouldn't have been much demand for native third-party apps. But it was an impressive product, so the demand was substantial, leaving Apple with a big problem on its hands.
Developers, understandably, were excited about the potential of what they could do with the first product that lived up to its name as a true _smart_phone. Yet between the iPhone's unveiling in January 2007 and its release nearly six months later, there was nary a hint of an iPhone SDK (software development kit). Instead, Apple shared what it infamously called a "sweet solution" for third-party apps on iPhone: web apps.
Have you ever watched the construction of a new building while knowing nothing about what the finished product would be? You track its progress a piece at a time, clueless about the end goal until finally there comes a point when, in a single moment, suddenly it all makes sense.
Apple's media ambitions have been like that for me.
In recent years, Apple has taken a variety of actions in the media space that seemed mostly disconnected, but over time they've added up to something that can't be ignored.
2015: Apple Music and Apple News launched.
2016: Apple Music redesigned; TV app debuted.
2017: App Store revamped with dedicated games section; Apple Podcasts redesigned; TV app adds sports and news.
2018: Apple acquires Texture; iBooks redesigned and rebranded Apple Books.
2019: Apple's video streaming service launches?
Apple already has control of the hardware that media is consumed on, with its ever-expanding iPhone business and suite of complementary products. It has invested significant effort into building the apps media is consumed in, as evidenced above. And finally, it's also building the paid services media is consumed through.
And the company is doing these things at a scale that is unprecedented. Once not long ago, Apple's primary media platform was iTunes. Now, hundreds of millions of users consume media every day through Apple's suite of spiritual successors to iTunes:
Apple TV (the app)
And the App Store
Apple has one unified goal, I believe, driving all its media efforts: it aspires to utilize hardware, software, and services to provide the entirety of a user's media experience. If you consume media, Apple wants to provide the full stack of that consumption, from media delivery to media discovery. My aim in this story is to share an overview of how that goal is being fulfilled today.
I've witnessed a slow but encouraging evolution take place over the past six years that has transformed WWDC for the better. When I first flew to San Francisco in 2013, WWDC was a self-contained event. Other than the Thursday night bash, the conference happened entirely within the fortress-like hulk of Moscone West. Developers and others in town for the week gathered outside the convention center in restaurants, bars, and hotel lobbies, but there were few organized activities if you didn't have a ticket. That's changed.
In my Future of Workflow article from last year (published soon after the news of Apple's acquisition), I outlined some of the probable outcomes for the app. The more optimistic one – the "best timeline", so to speak – envisioned an updated Workflow app as a native iOS automation layer, deeply integrated with the system and its built-in frameworks. After studying Apple's announcements at WWDC and talking to developers at the conference, and based on other details I've been personally hearing about Shortcuts while at WWDC, it appears that the brightest scenario is indeed coming true in a matter of months.
On the surface, Shortcuts the app looks like the full-blown Workflow replacement heavy users of the app have been wishfully imagining for the past year. But there is more going on with Shortcuts than the app alone. Shortcuts the feature, in fact, reveals a fascinating twofold strategy: on one hand, Apple hopes to accelerate third-party Siri integrations by leveraging existing APIs as well as enabling the creation of custom SiriKit Intents; on the other, the company is advancing a new vision of automation through the lens of Siri and proactive assistance from which everyone – not just power users – can reap the benefits.
While it's still too early to comment on the long-term impact of Shortcuts, I can at least attempt to understand the potential of this new technology. In this article, I'll try to explain the differences between Siri shortcuts and the Shortcuts app, as well as answering some common questions about how much Shortcuts borrows from the original Workflow app. Let's dig in.
When you've followed Apple for several years, there are certain kinds of announcements you come to expect from the company: iterative refinements that make existing products better, and even those exciting surprise features you never would have thought of yourself, or new hardware that seems like something straight out of the future. There are other kinds of announcements, however, that you're confident will never come to fruition. Perhaps because they simply seem like something Apple wouldn't do, or that the company doesn't seem to really care about.
Every now and then, to our surprise and delight, those unexpected things come about after all. Looking back on last week's news from WWDC, there are several big and small announcements Apple made that hit me as totally unexpected.
Apple's HomePod received its first substantial update since launch yesterday, at last bringing the delayed AirPlay 2 and stereo pairing features to the public. It also came with a nice surprise in the form of Calendar support, the only new Siri domain added to the device thus far.
Like all Apple products, macOS is an accessible platform. Blind and low vision users can navigate their Mac using VoiceOver, while someone who has physical motor delays can use Switch Control to edit videos in Final Cut. And under the Accessibility pane in System Preferences, there is a multitude of other features one can use, ranging from Zoom to Invert Colors to closed-captioning and more. Whatever your need, the breadth and depth of Apple’s accessibility software spans many domains. This is why Apple is lauded as the industry leader in accessibility: the tools run deep and they’re well-designed.
Still, accessibility on macOS doesn’t quite reach feature parity with iOS. Amidst rumors that Apple is working on a cross-platform set of APIs to bridge the company’s two primary operating systems, now is an opportune time to consider what each platform does and what they offer one another.
In the context of accessibility, the way Apple brings consistency between iOS and macOS is by sharing features and technologies among the two. As such, there are some iOS-first features macOS sorely needs, while the Mac offers things iOS would benefit from as well. Such enhancements would not only improve the user experience across devices, but also would make iOS and Mac software richer, fuller products overall. And most importantly, more accessible.