SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple has long exercised tight control over iOS, the operating system that runs the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod touch. But now it's loosening its grip.
At the company's annual developer conference here, the Cupertino titan unveiled new versions of its mobile and desktop operating systems. While each had a suite of new and compelling features, perhaps the most striking thing was the degree to which Apple is opening up its long-locked-down mobile operating system to consumers and outside developers.
The changes will make iOS more like Google's Android operating system, giving iPhone and iPad users unprecedented abilities to customize their devices.
Among the new features:
Apple is also making its iCloud service more transparent. In the new version of OS X, users will be able to see documents and files they've stored in iCloud from within a new folder on their computer, much like the way Dropbox works. In iOS, users will more easily be able to choose which app to use with particular files.
"It's a more open approach," noted Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, a market research firm. It offers "more choice to consumers ... and allows more openness to developers."
Apple's more open approach is a welcome change. For too long Apple has set what felt like arbitrary limits on what users could do with their iPhones and iPads. Want to use a Swype-like keyboard that allows you to type by dragging your finger from one letter to another across the screen? Too bad, that wasn't an option. Want to share a photo on Google+ or send it to Shutterfly? Sorry, you had to open up their apps to that; you couldn't do it directly from the photo gallery.
Similarly, one big complaint about TouchID when Apple introduced it with the iPhone 5S last year was that it was far too limited. You just couldn't do enough with it. That's almost certainly going to change now.
Apple's strict control over iOS contrasted sharply with that of Google's Android software, which has long embraced such openness. Each approach has its own merits. Apple's control tended to make iOS more secure and easier to use. But it gave users far fewer opportunities to personalize their devices than they could with Android.
But Apple didn't have to look to Google for an example of openness. The Mac has long been far more open to developers and consumer customization than iOS devices. Just as many iOS features are making their way to the Mac, it's great to see some of the Mac's openness coming to iOS.
To be sure, there are limits to Apple's new openness policy. The company isn't allowing users to replace any of the default apps in iOS, so you can't replace Apple's Maps with Google Maps. Similarly, Apple isn't opening up Siri to outside developers. So you still won't be able to use Siri to set your DVR or to search IMDb.
But the new open features Apple announced Monday are a big step in the right direction. Here's hoping Apple continues down that path.
To an unprecedented degree, the iPhone maker is embracing user customizations and developer tweaks in iOS. Among the new features:
Custom keyboards: When typing mail messages or updating their Facebook status, users will be able to use a keyboard of their choice, instead of the one Apple provides.
Widgets: Users will be able to install widgets -- small programs -- in the iOS notification window. Users could see sports scores or the value of their portfolio.
Share and share alike: Users will be able to share pictures, websites and more from within the photo gallery, the Web browser and other areas with apps of their choice, rather than the ones Apple selects.
Working together: Apps will now be able to interact with and access services from each other more easily. So, users can use a feature from one app while remaining in a different program.
A nice Touch: Right now, users can only use the TouchID fingerprint sensor to unlock their phones and log into iTunes. In the next version of iOS, they'll be able to use it to log into a wide variety of apps, such as that for their bank or for their favorite shopping app.
Mercury News reporting