Even a new feature in the iPhone’s Photos app that arranges your photos into a slideshow with an emotional soundtrack will require a subscription to Apple Music. Accessing new fitness class offerings in Apple Fitness+, and using them on a big screen, will require a Fitness+ subscription, an Apple Watch, and an Apple TV.
With macOS Monterey, which will soon run on Mac computers and laptops, a new feature called Universal Control lets users wirelessly sync up their Macs and iPads and use a keyboard or mouse across both pieces of hardware. AirPlay will also come to Macs, so iPhone users can cast their phone content to a Mac screen. And macOS Monterey includes a lot of the same software updates that iOS 15 is getting, including an upgraded FaceTime experience and the SharePlay feature. Almost all roads lead back to another Apple product.
Not all of Apple’s newly announced software features were limited to Apple stuff. SharePlay will have an API, or application programming interface, a set of software tools that lets other app makers build those media-sharing experiences into their offerings. A few big content-streaming app makers have already signed up to allow their videos to be SharePlayed, including Hulu, Disney+, ESPN+, Twitch, and TikTok. FaceTime is coming to the web, which means Android phone users and people with Windows PCs will be able to hop onto the same FaceTime calls they’ve been shut out of for years. Siri, Apple’s typically exclusive voice assistant, will be able to appear to speak from inside third-party hardware approved by Apple. Nevermind that Siri is still sort of ineffectual; at least it will now work with an Ecobee smart thermostat!
Apple’s differentiation will be in the details, though. Just because you can use Apple’s software across different apps or devices doesn’t mean it will be optimized on those devices the same way it is on an iPad or an iPhone. FaceTime on the web won’t have Apple’s newest SharePlay feature, for example. Also, FaceTime callers on Android phones won’t be able to apply effects to their video. And even Siri’s appearance on that Ecobee thermostat comes with a major catch: You’ll have to buy a $99 HomePod mini, Apple’s answer to Amazon Echo, in order for Siri to work with non-Apple hardware.
All About Apple
Some technologists—and consumers—will argue that these fully integrated experiences are what make Apple products work better than other options out there. In some cases, the argument is sound.
There are security benefits, for one. This kind of tight integration partly enables products like iCloud+, which, when it rolls out later this year, will include security enhancements to Apple’s email client, unlimited storage for video footage shot with HomeKit-enabled security cameras, and a VPN-like feature that masks your internet browsing in Safari.
Ben Thompson, the analyst who writes the popular Stratechery newsletter and is a sharp critic of Apple’s App Store issues, points out in his newsletter that even he sometimes enjoys “the advantages that come from Apple’s deep level of integration, both in terms of individual devices and also across their ecosystem.”
A specific example Thompson gives is his use of AirDrop as part of his workflow, and he says a new feature called Quick Note, which creates an ecosystem-wide experience for note-taking on Apple products, has him tempted to switch to Apple Notes. “Yes, innovation springs from openness and a philosophy of letting a thousand flowers bloom, but it can also come from control and the ability to integrate across non-obvious interfaces,” Thompson writes.
Techsponential’s Greenhart also has a somewhat optimistic view of Apple’s prioritization of its own software systems and apps. He points out that Apple’s focus on its tightly integrated software is usually followed by some easing of the access restrictions for developers that Apple places on the sensors and APIs that run on Apple hardware, which in turn leads to better apps for consumers. “I’m expecting that at some point, the things that are shown to enhance the iOS ecosystem, developers will get to play within that ecosystem as well,” he says.
You might even call it a rosy view of Apple’s approach—a fitting description for a walled garden.
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