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Apple’s announcements both underwhelming and impressive

by Larry Magid

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I was both underwhelmed and impressed with the new versions of OS X for the Mac and iOS 8 for iPhone and iPad that were unveiled last week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I was underwhelmed in a good way.

As expected, there were no new hardware announcements — no smartwatch, no Apple TV set, no larger iPhone — not even an update to the Mac. It was all about software, as well as synergy between Apple’s computers and mobile devices. And it wasn’t all just for us tech consumers. Much of what was introduced involved tools for the benefit of the thousands of Apple developers in the audience who will hopefully use them to create new killer apps for Apple products.

Let’s face it, iPhones and iPads are basically rectangular boxes made of glass, plastic and metal that couldn’t do anything if it weren’t for the software that brings them to life. Even most Macs, which are elegantly designed, wouldn’t be all that different from some high-end Windows machines if it weren’t for OS X. Although I must admit that the new Mac Pro, which costs $9,600 fully configured, plus $999 more for Apple’s Thunderbolt monitor, stands way apart from the crowd.

This fall, Apple will probably introduce a new iPhone and the tech press will fawn over it and report details on every curve and crevice, as if the shape, texture, color or location of every port on a phone were the most important things in the world. They’re not. What’s important is how people can use the device to enhance their lives. And that’s what last week’s announcements were all about.

Apple didn’t just announce new versions of OS X and iOS 8, but also demonstrated how Macs, iPhones and iPads can work together in what the company calls “continuity.”

The continuity feature enables people to start a project on a Mac, for example, and pick up where they left off on an iPad or an iPhone. Or it could be the other way around. You could start writing an email on your iPad and finish it from your Mac. Mac users can even make or receive iPhone calls from their computer. Apple also beefed up its iCloud Drive cloud storage service so that all the photos on your Mac or iOS device are uploaded to the “cloud” and synchronized to all your other Apple devices.

AirDrop, a feature that already lets you transfer files, photos and video from Mac to Mac or iOS to iOS device, will soon work between Macs and iOS, so it will possible to wirelessly transfer a file between a Mac and an iPhone or iPad.

It seems pretty clear that Apple wants its customers to own three devices — a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone — although a few years ago, the late Steve Jobs declared we had entered a “post-PC” era in which most consumers won’t even need PCs (or Macs), but would instead use tablets. I never fully agreed with that prediction and am pleased to see that Apple is still supporting and upgrading its Macintosh PCs. Tablets have their place, but so do personal computers.

The skeptic in me thinks some of this integration between Apple devices is a bit silly considering that there are other easy ways to transfer data between devices running different operating systems.

They’re not identical to AirDrop, but Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and other cloud-based storage services also move files between Macs and Windows, with support for different brands of tablets and smartphones. When I save a file on my Windows PC, it’s automatically uploaded to SugarSync and then automatically downloaded to my Mac. I don’t need software from Apple to keep all my machines in sync and I don’t have to stay within the Apple ecosystem to seamlessly access all my data from all my devices. Google Drive not only stores and syncs files, but offers Web-based applications that are always in sync even when shared by multiple users.

On a given day, it’s not uncommon for me to switch between my Android phone, my Apple iPad tablet, my Windows PC and my Apple MacBook Air without having to miss a beat or worry about data transfer. But I admit, I’m a bit of a techie and make my living keeping up with technology. Not everyone wants to take the time to figure out different ways of doing things and, for many folks, the Apple strategy will be appealing.

An iWorld, populated by Apple devices, is an easier place to live than the hodgepodge world of equipment from various manufacturers across various platforms. It may not be the least-expensive world or most innovative world to live in, but it’s a relatively pleasant place, run by a company that’s something of a benevolent dictator. The citizens of iWorld don’t get a lot of choices when it comes to what services they get from those in charge, but they willingly pay their taxes in the form of higher-priced devices as they wait patiently for new and better gadgets.

With last week’s announcements, Apple is making iWorld an even better place for those who live there, with the hope that more people will immigrate and few will emigrate. It’s a happy world, but it’s not for everyone.