Timing is the difference between hitting and missing. Winning and losing. In technology, timing is the difference between products that dent universes and those that languish in return bins. Between features that change lives and those that merely check boxes. Timing requires enormous amounts of audacity and patience. You can't hesitate but you can't rush. Being first is seldom the same as being best, and being late is often the same as being never. 2014 feels like a pivotal year for Apple when it comes to timing, and what's more — that's it's only just beginning.
WWDC 2014 saw Apple senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi knock out the biggest list of new software features since iOS 4. From iOS 8, OS X Yosemite, and the dev tools section, two of them stand out — the new Extensibility framework and the new Swift programming language. For years Apple has been accused of being behind competitors like Android and Windows Phone when it comes to inter-app communications, and the whole "Avoiding Copland" saga has played out over the course of almost a decade.
For inter-app communication, Apple took their time. They built a rock-solid security model, ported XPC, their communications protocol, over from OS X to iOS, separated their windowing service, SpringBoard into SpringBoard (foreground) and BackBoardd (background) and, with iOS 7, completed a massive re-imagining of how mobile interface and interaction should work.
Once all of that was done, Apple built a system that's secure, that respects privacy, that runs off a daemon rather than requiring an entire system to power and maintain it, that persists even if its source app is jettisoned, and that can serve as the foundation not only for moving content between apps but for building a widget system, a third-party keyboard system, an interactive notification system, and more. It wasn't the first inter-app implementation on the market, but it looks to be one of the best.
Likewise Swift. Apple brought Chris Lattner, now head of dev tools, on board with LLVM (lower level virtual machine) and later added Clang. Those technologies freed them from GCC dependency and made them masters of their own compiler destiny. Over the span of years things like blocks and ARC (automatic reference counting) were added to Objective-C and then, when everything was in place, when Lattner and team had gotten to where they needed to be, Apple took the C out of the Objective-C and unveiled Swift.
It wouldn't surprise me in the least if there were similar projects going on and similar foundations being set for future versions of iOS and OS X, for new files systems and multi-pane apps and things we've not yet even thought to begin complaining about.
Big changes like the NeXT acquisition, like the switch to Objective-C and OS X are rare. More common are the small changes over time. Pieces get updated one by one. Then, only years later, are the true scope of the changes appreciated.
I've written similar about hardware before. In 2008 we got a 3G iPhone. In 2010 we got a Retina iPhone. In 2012 we got a 4-inch iPhone with LTE. In 2014 it isn't hard to imagine we'll get yet another evolution of the iPhone... or two. Why now? Why this year? Because we're at the end of the last two-year cycle and Apple's put a lot of things in place to scale both its production and its development chains to reach 4.7 and 5.5 or whatever's the next number(s) are they intend to reach.
Consistent gesture navigation, touch-and-release radial controls, constraint-based layout, dynamic text, storyboarding that can span a range of sizes and orientations, the capacity to manufacture more than one new phone a year, high-quality panels that, at large sizes, can be made at the right price and with the right yields to supply hundreds of millions of devices. All of it, put in place.
We've seen how hard Apple pushes technology, how limited supplies of Retina panels, Touch ID sensors, and other cutting-edge components have been in the past. Try to go too early and that technology simply can't be produced at sufficient quality in sufficient amounts, or results in horrible battery life, pentile pixel arrangements, or other usability hits. Go at just the right time and you have 800,000,000 devices sold by a single manufacturer.
Markets have to be ready as well. For the last few years Apple sold more 4-inch and under phones at over ~$500 in the US than all their big-screen competitors combined. When faced with the choice between an iPhone and a bigger sized not-an-iPhone, more than enough people were choosing the iPhone because of, or in spite of the size, that nothing bigger was yet needed.
Now, if the rumors are true, just like when Apple moved from AT&T exclusivity to multi-carrier, and everyone who wanted an iPhone but couldn't or wouldn't use AT&T could finally get iOS on the carrier of their choice, those who want an iPhone but can't or won't use one 4-inches or smaller will finally be able to get iOS on the screen size of their choice.
That's not to say there aren't the early experiments at Apple as well, the things like Apple TV and Passbook that seed massive markets like television and mobile payments to see where they're going. And also mulligans, like MobileMe and Core Data sync that get replaced with iCloud and CloudKit.
As much as I, as a technology enthusiast, love companies that throw everything at the wall just to see what sticks, I also value those that have patience to counterbalance their audacity, that take their time and pick their shots. I value the ones that wait for the Treos and the BlackBerrys to pass the early adoption stage, the Intents and the Contracts to get hammered on, the Pebbles and the FuelBands to hit the market. I value the ones that wait and see where each product is brilliant and terrible, figure out how and where they can make something better, and then focus on the implementation and the packaging and give me something truly great.
That requires timing. And 2014 feels like the year we get to see a lot of Apple's timing pay off.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.