How iOS 8 is going to reinvent what it means to be an app

Craig Federighi unveiling Extensibility at WWDC on Monday. (Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

Craig Federighi unveiling Extensibility at WWDC (Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

Six years after Apple pioneered what it means to be a mobile app, the company has reinvented the concept in iOS 8.

Thanks to what the company calls Extensibility, iOS 8 can let apps talk to one another and work together like never before. Once developers figure out how to implement their newfound flexibility, apps won’t just be apps anymore. They will become tools and services. Not just silos that can’t communicate, but pipes feeding into each other.

“Extensibility is tremendously interesting, and it’s fair to say developers have hoped for something like this practically since day one,” said David Chariter of AgileBits, makers of 1Password. Developers like AgileBits see iOS 8 as a sign that mobile apps will become not only smarter, but more powerful in their ability to aid users.

Demoed onstage at WWDC earlier this week, Extensibility is Apple’s long-awaited answer to the need for inter-app communication on iOS. Apps have traditionally been walled off from tieing into each other and Apple’s system features. The company has posited this approach as a security feature, since third-party apps are sandboxed from reaching into parts of the OS they don’t belong.

Now Apple has changed its tone, and iOS is more open than ever before. Developers don’t have carte blanche to make their apps do whatever they want, but apps can work together and with Apple’s own apps in ways that were previously impossible. Extensions of apps can tie into aspects of iOS like Notication Center and the keyboard, while some will even be able to work in tandem with OS X Yosemite.

(Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

Bidding on eBay inside Notification Center (Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

“Because 1Password can store your logins for every app and service you use, as well as any other sensitive information you want to keep safe, our enthusiasm for the possibilities is running really high,” said Chariter. “We are already looking into how these new features could enable 1Password in everything from the Share sheet, to Notification Center, and some other stuff I probably can’t say.”

Android fans have touted the platform’s openness for years, but Apple has jumped ahead of the curve with Extensibility in iOS 8. “Apple’s implementation of inter-app communication doesn’t just match Android’s — it surpasses it,” according to our sister site Cult of Android. “Users can not only share to other installed apps, but they can borrow useful actions and features from them, too.”

In the case of 1Password, it’s easy to see how the app might be able to autofill login data in apps like Safari without needing to copy and paste between apps. The ease with which actions like this can be completed on the Mac (1Password has a browser extension for autofilling logins) will start making its way to iOS in the months to come.

“This is absolutely about iOS maturing in a very, very good way”

“This is absolutely about iOS maturing in a very, very good way,” said Chariter. “There are hundreds of thousands of iOS apps, many build to help you work faster with or collect information from other apps, but they haven’t really had an official way to do that. Now they do.”

(Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

Filters on filters (Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

During the WWDC keynote Monday, Apple’s Craig Federighi demoed how you could use VSCO Cam’s filter presets inside the iOS 8 Camera app thanks to Extensibility. Another example shown was using the Bing app to translate a chunk of text in Safari into another language right on the webpage. Apps will need to be downloaded from the App Store for their extensions to be accessible. So, for example, you wouldn’t be able to use VSCO’s filters without the app installed.

In iOS 8 you will “start to see apps as service providers,” said Rachit Shukla, the CEO of a company called Two Toasters that makes apps for brands like Airbnb and Lexus. Storage-centric companies like Dropbox and Box will beneift greatly from Extensibility, according to Shukla. Instead of needing to open the Dropbox app to upload a photo from your Camera Roll, you could just send the photo to Dropbox inside Apple’s Photos app.

(Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

More options to save (Photo: Roberto Baldwin/ The Next Web)

“Apps as service providers”

Workflows that have previously been painful in iOS will start to feel a lot like they do on the desktop. You won’t need to save a document in three different places to get it through two different editors and into your favorite cloud storage app.

“With Extensibility in iOS 8, we’re excited to bring our users more options and the ability to seamlessly access all of their Box files right from within their favorite apps, eliminating the need to create additional copies,” said Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie in a statement.

(photo: Phillips Hue)

(photo: Phillips Hue)

There are also big implications for e-commerce. Imagine being able to pay using your bank app credentials in Airbnb. Since Apple now lets developers use Touch ID to authenticate their apps, the friction of processing transactions could be reduced greatly.

Extensibility will manifest itself in different ways as developers update their apps during the next few months. Apple finally allows third-party keyboards, and companines like Flesky are already testing their keyboard layouts on the iOS 8 beta. Philips has also previewed a widget in Notification Center that will allow customers to control their Hue lights.

Tablet shipments are projected to outpace tradtional PC sales by 2015. The devices we carry in our pockets are quickly becoming as powerful as the computers on our desks. Marcos Sanchez, VP of global corporate communications at App Annie, believes many smartphone users are “ready and willing to use more fully featured apps” that “provide a larger set of capabilities as the smartphone becomes an extension of ourselves.”

With iOS 8, Apple has made sure that its mobile devices will continue to lead the post-PC revolution. Apps are going to start growing up, and that’s a very good thing for the future of iOS.

  • Porknaut

    I believe even Windows Phone 7 did this. Obviously they had abysmal market share, so no one ever really paid attention.

    • Rene Stein

      System 7 did some of these things with AppleScript and Apple Events. A phone is just a computer, so if we are going to cite previous sources, lets actually start to try to figure out where this started. The pipe command in Unix maybe?

    • Charlie

      It had this functionality. It did’t “do this.”

  • AlainFleitas

    Just a thought.. i’m curious if maybe apple is giving us hints of future hardware updates with all these new features such as extensibility.. it really makes me think about that iPad Pro vaporware and the possibilities of running pro apps on it such as Logic Pro and Final Cut as well as more sophisticated and advanced apps that would be easier and better on more screen realty. i also think extensibiility can be a great feature with the iWatch as well as continuity demoed can be a hint of some probable features that might make their way to these possible new devices.

    • San Diego Dave

      This definitely has major iWatch potential. In order for iWatch to be an indispensable “everything” device when it comes to health, all those 3rd party health tracking apps will need to be able to communicate with each other to form that holistic picture that Apple is touting with Health.

  • DefaultUser

    So, it will be more like Android in that aspect too.

    • BarryDwight

      But avoids all the pitfalls. Like usual. Apple takes its time and does it right. Android is great, but its foundations are shoddy. To each their own.

    • GForce

      It will be more than what android does. The apps in android link basic functions to one another, but the ios apps will act more as legos with security. I wouldn’t trust android apps to communicate upon one another due to security issues. Imagine malware that interlinks all your apps and steals all your information. I see where this is going… plus the watch will have the ability to pull information from all iphone and ipad apps without any sort of complicated setup. I always thought the watch would have to run independent apps, but this is a smart move. This would also tie into the automations and even apple tv.

      • storm14k

        Sounds like you have no clue how Android works. 1. It does exactly the “Lego” functionality you describe and has done so since day 1. 2. The apps are and always have been sandboxed. The calling app only has access to what the receiving app allows through a system called Intents. For instance if an app wants to take a picture it says to the system “I want to take a pic” and all apps capable of handling this task respond and allow you to choose or set a default. The calling app then loses control as the next app takes over and performs the function which in this case would be bringing up a camera interface and letting you take a picture. Once done the camera app passes back info on that picture alone so that the calling app can use it. The calling app never has access to anything else.

        Apple has done nothing here but flat out copy the system and I’m fine with that. That’s how tech advances. Maybe one day they’ll do something better with it. What annoys me is all these iFans that turn into Android experts and swear this is something new and better than what Android has been doing all along. If you don’t know Android then be quiet.

      • Charlie

        Intents is similar. It’s not the same. It’s a different execution.

      • storm14k

        The only real difference in execution is that they are in different languages. Both allow apps to use any piece however small of another app as if it was native to the first app. This has been in Android since day 1. No way around calling it what it is and again there’s nothing wrong with Apple adopting it. Its the fanboy foolishness that’s the problem.

      • Charlie

        I’m an iOS developer, but sure, chief, whatever you say.

      • storm14k

        I’m a software engineer, have done both Android and iOS work and I can look up right now over a half cube wall and talk to the Android and iOS development team of a fortune 500 company. You think we haven’t talked about this buddy? We were talking about it the day it was announced.

    • Marcus Winchester

      Better to copy and do it right than to be first and make a mess of it

      • storm14k

        Except it was done right the first time. All Apple did was copy. Welcome to 2008.

      • Charlie

        If it had been done right, Android security would not be an issue.

      • storm14k

        There is no Android security issue outside the minds of fanboys. Oh you mean the malware that you have to install from China after first telling your phone to allow installs from outside sources that still can’t access the data in your other apps?

  • steven taylor

    so tonight I’m gonna party like its Android two zero zero nine…

About the author

Alex HeathAlex Heath is a senior writer at Cult of Mac and co-host of the CultCast. He has been quoted by the likes of the BBC, KRON 4 News, and books like "ICONIC: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation." If you want to pitch a story, share a tip, or just get in touch, additional contact information is available on his personal site. Twitter always works too.

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