Paul Gilster: Look beyond music to find Apple’s most interesting upgrades

Apple Music, the new streaming service the company recently announced at its World Wide Developers Conference, is getting plenty of attention, and I notice that it was held for the traditional “one more thing” moment at the end of Tim Cook’s keynote. But while we expect over-the-top language at these events, saying that Apple Music will “change the way you experience music forever” hits an embarrassing level of hype. Other announcements were more interesting.

I’m fascinated, for example, with what’s happening on the tablet front. We saw the first year-over-year decline in tablet shipments in the fourth quarter of 2014, and International Data Corporation has scaled back its 2015 forecast to a 2.1 percent increase. Now is the time for Apple to make good on its oft-spoken promise that tablets can become “post-PC” devices, and I notice that iOS 9, to be rolled out this fall, takes a big step in that direction.

Split View is a big step forward in multitasking for tablet computers, and while it’s now exclusive to the iPad Air 2, we can assume it will run on the 12-inch “iPad Pro” that rumor tells us to expect for later this year. The larger screen with the addition of Split View multitasking makes such a device a serious contender for the post-PC mantle, at least for those who need apps to run side by side just like they do on desktop and notebook machines.

Interface improvements

Also a feature of the just announced OS X El Capitan, the next version of the OS X operating system, Split View makes managing active windows easier, while improvements to search and note-taking complement the multitasking developments. Can Apple arrest the slowing growth of the tablet in a world increasingly dominated by smartphones with larger screens? Making interface improvements up and down the product line shows the company intends to try.

I’m also intrigued with Apple’s News app, which lets you collect stories from a variety of publications. You can keep up with specific sources or collect information by topic, with the app suggesting new material as it learns your interests. I’ve been using an app called Zite for a long time now to track industry trends and have found that over time, it becomes uncannily good at figuring out what I need to see (Zite has been bought by Flipboard, which is doubtless integrating it into its news recommendation engine). News goes after the same market.

Small things count

I didn’t see any Earth-shaking announcements in this year’s WWDC, but tune-ups continue, such as the expansion of HomeKit, Apple’s platform for the “smart home,” to interface with home security and other systems while connecting via iCloud. The Apple Watch is also in the news, receiving watchOS 2, which supports HomeKit as well as Apple’s HealthKit. Siri, Apple’s “personal assistant,” gets a new layer of context-sensitive capabilities including suggestions for things you might want to read and automatic addition of email events into your calendar.

The announcement that may have the biggest long-term impact, though, is Apple’s decision to make its Swift programming language open source, and thus available to developers working outside the Apple universe. Apps for Android and iOS could both flow from Swift, an open invitation for creativity in app development that takes an already popular programming language to the next level. Making the language open source will only boost its deployment.

If Apple Music seems to have garnered the lion’s share of media coverage, it’s the incremental fixes and upgrades to existing services that may prove the most useful to Apple’s bottom line, particularly the iOS 9 changes that feed into expected iPad announcements later this year. A wide range of software will benefit from the performance improvements Apple has announced in the upcoming OS X El Capitan, while iOS 9 enhances battery life as well as security. The small things count given the range of alternatives now on the market

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at