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Developers Applaud Apple's New Era of Openness

The iPhone maker's overtures are meant to ensure it is as relevant in the future as it is now.

Shutterstock / davooda

This week’s Apple developers conference did little to appease those waiting for the Cupertino tech giant to make good on one executive’s promise of a product lineup that is the best in 25 years. But the slew of nerdy announcements has already brought cheers within the community of programmers.

Although “open” isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when developers think of Apple, it is about to take several significant steps with iOS 8 to make the software that powers the iPhone and iPad tablet much more open to the people whose apps will either make or break Apple’s next generation of mobile devices.

“I know this sounds really geeky, but … we were high-fiving each other, we were so excited about it,” said Georg Petschnigg, chief executive and co-founder of FiftyThree, the developer of Paper, regarding the new era of openness that Apple’s announcements suggested.

Apple’s latest overtures were seen by developers as an attempt to make up lost ground on the developer-friendliness front.

Google and Apple are in an intense battle for developer interest, with each one bringing some advantages. Historically, Apple has had both a large market share and an even bigger share of those willing to spend money on apps. Android, by contrast, has been growing fast and has made it easier for new apps to get tested and approved.

With iOS 8, which is in beta now and will be released this fall, Apple is opening up Touch ID, the fingerprint-reading technology that debuted on the iPhone 5s. Until now, Touch ID could only be used to unlock a phone or buy content from Apple. With iOS 8, Apple will allow developers to use Touch ID to authenticate their own apps (though they won’t get access to the fingerprint data itself).

“That’s going to be huge,” said Phil Libin, chief executive of Evernote, the document and note-taking service. “Managing passwords and credentials is a horrible thing. A properly implemented fingerprint [technology] can make things more convenient.”

Apple also announced new options for developers that allow individual apps to talk to one another and exchange data. In the past, each app was basically in its own sandbox with little means of communicating with other apps.

“That’s a really big deal,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy. “That is fundamentally opening up iOS to application developers.”

Even before developers get their hands on the development kits, some have already vowed to exploit the new features.

Flipboard CEO Mike McCue said he plans to take advantage of the new extensions option that lets apps talk to one another.

“Being able to flip anything that’s on iOS into a Flipboard magazine is huge for us,” McCue said.

Another big thing McCue said developers love is that Apple is turning its TestFlight acquisition into a long-requested official means for beta testing applications.

App makers are delighted to take advantage of a built-in content-sharing option that had been limited in iOS 7 to just Twitter and Facebook. With iOS 8, Apple will also support retrieving documents from and saving them to other cloud services beyond Apple’s iCloud, something that has pleased Box CEO Aaron Levie.

Moreover, at long last, Apple is opening up the system to allow the loading of third-party keyboard software, such as Swype and SwiftKey. This will give iPhone and iPad users, currently limited to hunting and pecking on an onscreen keyboard, the ability to more easily drag a finger on the screen to form words and sentences.

But even as it opens up more to developers, the bigger picture — this being Apple — is that it is erecting an even higher wall around consumers and developers, as Re/code’s Walt Mossberg suggested.

The company introduced two well-received tools for programmers. One called Metal lets game developers get better performance, while Swift is an all-new programming language. While programmers like the gains they could get, devoting time to Metal and Swift means time spent on iOS-exclusive work, rather than on the kinds of tools that let apps be created that can run on both iOS and Android.

“If you built something in Swift, it’s going to be very hard, if not next to impossible, to move any of that code over to Android,” said Moorhead.

For the big developers, Evernote’s Libin noted, it won’t matter much. They already create custom versions of their applications to run on each of the mobile platforms.

The latest overture is about which of these platforms will come first.

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