iOS 7, Mavericks, and more: Developers react to WWDC announcements

Significant operating system overhauls can be a mixed blessing for developers

Apple's 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote was packed with announcements of serious import to developers in Apple's ecosystem--chief among them, the debuts of the wholly-redesigned iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks.

Significant operating system overhauls can be a mixed blessing for developers: There are all sorts of new APIs (application programming interfaces) to master, and all kinds of new functionality to exploit--but that also means there's an onslaught of new work to be done to update their apps. Macworld spoke with a variety of Mac and iOS developers to gauge their reactions to the WWDC announcements.

On iOS 7's new look

"As far as the OS updates go, iOS is a huge game-changer," Rogue Amoeba CEO Paul Kafasis said. His company makes a variety of audio software, including a pair of iOS apps--one of which is currently available in the App Store and another that's in the works. Kafasis believes that iOS 7's new look instantly makes many existing apps look "out of date." His prediction: "Almost everyone will need to update their apps" so that they blend in with the rest of the operating system's visuals.

Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser agreed: "The hardest thing about iOS 7 is that it's so different that we'll really have to be building two user interfaces for a while," he said. (Panic's iOS apps include Status Board and Diet Coda.) "But it's totally worth it. That's the price of progress, and I'm happy to pay it."

Not everyone agrees with Sasser's take, though. For many apps, "nearly everything seems like it will just work" without developers needing to tweak much, said Guy English, a co-founder at Aged & Distilled (makers of Napkin). Without updates, developers won't be able to exploit iOS 7's new visual flair and features, but their existing apps should largely continue to work just fine. It's as if iOS 7 includes a compatibility layer for iOS 6: Older apps without updates will continue to exhibit an older look. Developers will thus need to decide whether they're comfortable with their apps continuing to rock an older iOS look, or if they'll want to take advantage of all the new design accoutrement.

Maintaining compatibility

Sasser's notion of "building two user interfaces" references a common challenge facing developers: How many previous iterations of OS X and iOS should their apps support? If developers go whole-hog on iOS 7 or OS X Mavericks, that may mean leaving users of older versions (and older devices) out in the app-updateless cold.

"Two operating system versions--the current release and the previous one--is always a nice standard," said Paul Haddad, the lead developer at Tapbots. With his company's Tweetbot for Mac, Haddad said, "we only support 10.7 and 10.8 today," adding that "10.7 is minuscule" across his installed user base. He acknowledges that his adoption numbers are skewed by the fact that Tweetbot is sold only through the Mac App Store, which requires 10.7.

The other Paul, Rogue Amoebas's Kafasis, doesn't have that luxury. He pointed out that while Apple claimed that 93 percent of the iOS installed base was running the latest version, iOS 6, the only stat Apple offered on the Mac side was that after six months, 35 percent of OS X users were running Mountain Lion. "They didn't say what that installed number for Mountain Lion is now," Kafasis said, "which may mean it's not much higher." His company sees about 20 percent of its users still running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and another 20 percent on 10.7 Lion; the rest have moved on to 10.8 Mountain Lion. "We support the older platforms as long as we can," Kafasis said, "but when it becomes overly difficult and seems to be holding back future development, we have to let go."

Multitasking, multitasking, multitasking

"iOS 7's new multitasking options are a big deal," said Aged & Distilled's English. Third-party apps will, for the first time, be able to pull down new data in the background; iOS will automatically analyze user patterns to determine which apps should be offered the option to do so, and when.

Tapbots's Haddad echoed English's sentiment: "The background stuff is something we've wanted for a long time...It opens up a lot of new possibilities for apps that we haven't seen before." He explained that this goes beyond merely allowing an app like Tweetbot to have pre-fetched your Twitter timeline before you launch it. "Some users want the option to get notified every time a specific account tweets," Haddad said. "That requires a ton of server-side work to maintain, but the new multitasking options could make it possible to handle entirely on the iOS device," benefitting users and the developer alike.

Grab bag

Developers are also intrigued by numerous tiny features that got only the briefest mentions on slides during the WWDC keynote. Panic's Sasser is thinking about games: "Sprite Kit"--a technology that should make it much easier to create game graphics and animations--"has me excited," he said. "I always wanted to do fun physic-y things, but I didn't want to build or rely on a whole game engine."

Guy English says that "game-controller support in iOS leads to me to think that perhaps the Apple TV has a future as a low-end gaming console."

And Kafasis is delighted simply as a customer, too: "I've previously used jailbroken devices for fast access to settings," he said. So Control Center, a panel that swipes up from the bottom of the screen in iOS 7 with toggles for Airplane Mode, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Do Not Disturb, brightness, and more, has him thrilled.

Mac professionals

Finally, in our decidedly unscientific sample, developer reaction to the new Mac Pro is mixed. "I'm excited about the Pros," said Sasser. "I can already picture Panic's office with Mac Pro's on everyone's desk, and I can't wait."

Said Haddad, on the other hand: "The Mac Pro looks optimized for size. But who cares? I'd rather have more RAM slots, expansion space, standard SSD drives, more CPUs. Space isn't the problem."

On the whole, however, the developers we spoke to seemed palpably fired up after Monday's announcements. "There's a lot of exciting stuff. It was one of the best keynotes I've ever seen," said Sasser.