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Apple unfurls more millennial-friendly texting tools including ’emoji prediction’

The Guardian // 15th June 2016
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Apple unfurls more millennial-friendly texting tools including ’emoji prediction'” was written by Danny Yadron in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Monday 13th June 2016 21.34 UTC

Apple, known for its steady stream of slick consumer electronic devices, used its annual developer conference in San Francisco to roll out a collection of millennial-friendly texting tools to enhance emojis, improve image sharing and add animations to messages.

Among a two-hour stream of product announcements at the annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) event, Apple engineers demonstrated the latest update of Apple’s smartphone software iOS, which will let iPhone users add larger emojis, see photos and videos appear in a stream of text messages, add animated effects and “emojify” messages by converting typed words into emojis.

Opening the event with a moment of silence for the victims of the weekend’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook – who has become a leader on gay rights issues since talking about his own sexuality in 2014 – called the attacks a “senseless, unconscionable act of terrorism and hate aimed at dividing and destroying”.

Cook then set about laying out his vision for a future in which Apple’s software forms the central hub of its customers’ lives, helping track their fitness, send love notes, navigate the road and trade pictures of cute dogs.

Tim Cook lays out his vision for Apple’s future.
Tim Cook lays out his vision for Apple’s future. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

More playful messages

Apple is clearly responding to the voice of the consumer; Messages is the most popular app on iOS, and the new features are designed to offer more playful options that replicate some successful third-party messaging apps.

“We’re providing emoji predictions as you type,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering. “When you tap on the emoji button, we’ll highlight all the emoji-fiable words.”

Federighi also went slightly off script, joking that “the children of tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language”. Clicking on the camera icon in Messages will immediately show the camera live, and the demonstration showed some shots that appeared slightly more perfect than real life. It was a rare moment of candor in an otherwise characteristically veneered Apple presentation. “Someone in marketing thought that was what you’d see if you saw through the camera … such an incongruous set of images.”

Digital assistant

The iPhone maker is also betting heavily on winning a multi-front battle with Google, Facebook and Amazon to create a market-defining digital assistant that helps people make tiny decisions or suggests relevant information throughout the day, such as which emoji to use, which family member to tag in a photo, or the best time in your diary to get to the gym.

Apple plans to add machine-learning smarts to its messaging app, better predicting the content of texts between any two people communicating with iPhones.

At the same time, it announced it would open the technical innards of its Siri virtual assistant to outside developers who can make other intelligent apps.Consumers could just ask Siri how long it would take for a Lyft or Uber to show up, rather than opening an app.

Siri also will begin working on Apple’s desktop and laptop computers. In one demonstration, Federighi showed how he could ask Siri to gather up all emails from a certain co-worker about a certain topic.

Apple’s desire to get more people to use Siri comes as other Silicon Valley giants release their own digital butlers. Amazon.com has Alexa, which will query the internet and adjust the lights in a room for users; Facebook has M; and Google announced its own Google Assistant in May.

Privacy features

Apple did, however, break with the larger technology industry over at least one issue: privacy. As Silicon Valley tries to offer more products that analyze vast amounts of consumer data to better predict how people will make decisions, it often requires users to forgo certain modern privacy tools, such as strong encryption. That’s because the companies usually can only analyze consumer behavior by monitoring their messages, scanning their photos and tracking their movements. These computations are done by running all of this data through corporate servers.

Apple says its messages app will continue to offer end-to-end encryption by default.
Apple says its Messages app will continue to offer end-to-end encryption by default. Photograph: Tony Avelar/AP

In May, Google announced that Allo, its new messaging app, would only offer digital assistant features if users don’t turn on an optional strong encryption feature. Facebook will also make its new encryption technology on its Messenger app optional for similar reasons, people familiar with the project said.

Apple, by contrast, said such machine-learning computations will be done on users’ devices, rather than company servers. Because of this, the company says its Messages app will continue to offer end-to-end encryption by default.

Other updates

Apple is also renaming its operating system, the latest version of which is called macOS Sierra. Updates include a shared clipboard, so that content and links can be shared between connected iPhones, iPads and Macs, a feature that will free up disk space by backing up less-used content on iCloud, and its payment service Apple Pay, which can now be used on desktop sites.

Apple’s latest watch software, WatchOS 3, speeds up changes between apps, adds text input by typing individual letters on screen and allows users to unlock their desktops with the presence of their watch, saving the effort of typing a password.

macOS, iOS 10 and WatchOS are all expected to be released in a public beta trial in July and on general release in the autumn.

WWDC comes as Apple faces a challenging future. In April, Apple reported its first sales decline in 13 years. The company, while still massively successful, appears to be reaching a saturation point with its popular products, such as the iPhone and iPad. Its latest piece of hardware, Apple Watch, has faced consistently mixed reviews.

Apple’s annual developer conference isn’t normally the site of sweeping product announcements. The audience is full of coders and Apple tends to focus on minor tweaks that may only elicit applause from an enthralled audience deep in the weeds of app design.

When Federighi announced the shared clipboard, there was an audible gasp. At another point, Bozoma Saint John, head of consumer marketing for Apple Music, boldly tried to show off a new “lyrics” feature by getting the audience to rap along to Sugarhill Gang’s classic Rapper’s Delight.

She quickly gave up after declaring the audience was not, as the song instructs, “rapping to the beat”.

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