Apple

Apple's hardware might get all the attention, but its ecosystem is the true key to iOS success

Apple should sell its 1 billionth iOS device this year, largely on the backs of thousands of app developers. But it wasn't always this way.

Philips Hue and iOS
Image: Philips

When the iPhone was released in 2007, Apple laid the groundwork for an industry that would see 75 billion app downloads within seven years across 1.2 million different apps (an average of 62,500 downloads per app). It seems obvious, in retrospect, that apps would be the future of iOS as a platform — but when the iPhone was launched, there was no App Store. There were no apps other than those that Apple shipped with the phone.

Writing in Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson said that though high-level Apple executives (like longtime board member Art Levinson and marketing head Phil Schiller) pushed Jobs to allow apps on the iPhone, "he felt his team did not have the bandwidth to figure out all of the complexities that would be involved in policing third-party app developers. He wanted focus."

For a while, Jobs and Apple pushed "web apps" as a solution for developers to display content on the iPhone. It was a poor substitute for a dedicated platform, however, and within nine months of the iPhone's launch, the company had relented.

Jobs decided to allow third-party developers to write apps, but only within the confines of Apple's iOS ecosystem — the walled garden, as it were. "It gave us the benefits of openness while retaining end-to-end control," said Levinson.

With last week's WWDC and the beta releases of iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, Apple is refocusing on developers with new APIs, SDKs, and an entirely new programming language.

After a week of presentations and interaction with Apple's engineers at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, developers are beginning to tear apart Apple's new developer kit.

Philips has prototyped a controller for its Hue line of smart LED lightbulbs that can be accessed through the iOS 8 notification center, part of a new App Extension program. This controller would allow much quicker control of bulbs than accessing the Hue app itself, and Philips was announced as a launch partner for the new HomeKit API that promises integration of different smart home devices (like garage door openers and thermostats) into one unified control structure. Imagine telling Siri to "lock up the house" and have lights dim, garage doors close, and thermostats set to away mode.

The new extensibility features are some of the most promising for users. MacStories editor Federico Viticci has penned a lengthy look at the various extensibility protocols, saying that "we're going to see plenty of cool new stuff" from developers when iOS 8 launches this fall.

And that's what it's all about, really.

Yes, hardware is sexy and definitely gets all the attention — many analysts and other industry pundits were disappointed when Apple failed to launch new hardware products at WWDC (though, by all accounts, this fall will be extremely busy on the hardware front). Similar to how a car isn't much use without roads, it's the app ecosystem that makes iPhones and iPads the incredibly useful devices that they are.

Last year, with iOS 7, Apple hit the reset button on user interfaces and app design. With iOS 8, the company is amping up to help developers take their apps to the next level, setting up the next 75 billion app downloads. Something tells me it won't take 7 years this time.

What are your thoughts about the future of Apple's iOS? Do you think that apps are ultimately more important than hardware? Why or why not? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

About Jordan Golson

Jordan Golson is an Apple Columnist for TechRepublic. He also writes about technology and automobiles for WIRED and MacRumors. He has worked for Apple Retail twice and has been writing about technology since 2007.

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