How Apple wants all of you

By Lily Hay Newman

Numerous features Apple announced at the WWDC are aimed squarely at Google services. Photo / AP
Numerous features Apple announced at the WWDC are aimed squarely at Google services. Photo / AP

Remember the PC wars? Desktops running Windows dominated the market, but Apple's Macintoshes stubbornly captured small but valuable market share. As a consumer you had to choose sides. Now Apple is involved in a similar battle with Google, but the narrative here is more titans clashing than David and Goliath.

Apple's announcements at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this week showed that the company is not just working to match Google's features, but to go beyond them. You're going to have to choose sides again very soon.

Numerous features Apple announced are aimed squarely at Google services. First there's Spotlight. What used to be a way to search local files on your Mac is now much more in Apple's OS X Yosemite and iOS 8. In Yosemite, Spotlight appears front and center in the middle of the desktop. It searches all your local content as always, and when you search for an application it will also show the files you've recently opened with that application.

But Spotlight in Yosemite goes a step further. If you search for a movie title, for example, it shows nearby theatres and show times, plus related content streaming from iTunes.

And it has Apple Maps integration if you search for a place. Spotlight is basically mimicking features from Google Now info cards, Gmail search and Google search info cards and presenting them in a different way.

Spotlight is also integrated into the updated Safari browser. You can put a URL into the address bar, or search Google. But the address bar will now also give "Spotlight suggestions." As you begin typing a prominent public figure's name, for example, a brief version of their bio shows up in the Spotlight results. Clicking it takes you to their full Wikipedia page.

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These Spotlight features are largely contingent on your participation in the total Apple ecosystem. First of all - just to get really basic - you need to have a Mac to run Yosemite. And then you need Yosemite, not an older version of OS X, to get these new Spotlight features.

Then you need to use Mail as your email client, iCal as your calendar application, etc. for local data to come up in Spotlight from these applications. And then you need to use Safari to get in-browser Spotlight integration. You have to go all in to reap the benefits - Apple is trying to suck you in for good so you're not tempted buy Google products now or in the future.

Speaking of Safari, Apple's latest browser update clearly has Google's Chrome in its sights. Apple knows that people associate Chrome with heavy, multitab browsing, speed and privacy - so the WWDC keynote was aimed at changing this perception and providing new features to tempt Chrome devotees.

For example, even though private browsing windows were popularised by Chrome's "Incognito Mode," Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, pointed out that Safari was the first browser to offer private browsing windows (in 2005's OS X Tiger).

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For people doing big projects and/or trying to do a million things at once - which is to say all of us - Apple has improved Safari's tabbed browsing experience. There's a new "Tab View" that shows a bird's eye view of all your tabs, with tabs from the same website stacked on top of each other. (It's reminiscent of OS X's Exposé view.) And you can now scroll back and forth through your tabs in a fluid way that doesn't feel jerky or disorienting.

There's a whole world of products out there, but Google and Apple are behind a lot of the ones we pick and choose between every day. You might use Gmail for email, Safari for Web browsing, Google Drive for collaborative office programs and iPhoto for photo processing and organisation.

But neither company is happy about that fragmentation. They want everyone to use all of their products. And the only way to bind customers and reduce their ability to choose is to create features that only work for users who are committed to one ecosystem. They may all seem like minor, incremental changes, but whoever offers better perks over time will win.

Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.

- Slate

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