Thoughts on Apple's WWDC Announcements

So WWDC is once again upon us and a whole slew of announcements from Apple. I don't propose to go over every single point, but just to pick out a few highlights that interested me.

Mountain Lion

Obviously, a lot of Mountain Lion stuff was about bringing features or concepts again back to the Mac from iOS. Broadly speaking, I like this idea. The only part that particularly caught my eye for the classroom is AirPlay Mirroring for Macs. I know I've been banging on and on about AppleTV for a long time now, but Mountain Lion completes the AV story for Apple-based classrooms.

Farewell, cables and adapters. I won't miss you one bit. Think about it this way: if you save yourself the replacement cost of three lost adapters, you've paid for an AppleTV.

iOS 6

I thought the iOS 6 announcement contained a few interesting features for schools. At the same time, I don't think I've seen an iOS release yet that has been so nakedly aggressive towards Apple's competitors. If you move through the announcements, someone was in the firing line of just about every one:

  • Maps: Google Maps
  • Siri: Google search
  • Facebook: Google+
  • Passbook: Google Wallet

Are you starting to notice a pattern? I'm not a Google hater. In many ways, I rather wish that we could turn the clock back to 2007 and that 'merger without merging' that Eric Schmidt talked about with the integration of Google Maps on the original iPhone. Still, we are where we are and the current intense competition is certainly spurring some welcome innovations.

Siri on the iPad is an interesting one. Despite the hype, not many kids are carrying iPhone 4S hardware yet. Many kids are and will be carrying iPads with Siri enabled. Siri isn't great today but it is already useful. What does it look like in 5 years? In ten? How does the classroom work when you can ask Siri instead of a teacher? I have no idea, but that day is coming and I'm trying to figure out the answer before it arrives.

I need to look in more detail at the security arrangements but Shared Photo Streams may be incredibly useful in classroom situations. When teachers need to move images to students and back, this will beat the heck out of emailing photos. You go on a trip and want everyone to pool their photos for an exercise at the end? Bingo.

I'm extremely interested in Passbook, Apple's centralised ticket, loyalty card and boarding pass app. I keep chewing over how we could leverage something like this into a way for pupils to register themselves in school by scanning their "school pass" on their device. I haven't installed the beta yet but, unfortunately, it looks like Passbook isn't on the iPad - only the iPhone and iPod touch. I get why - it's a new technology and the pocket-sized devices are the 80% use case. In my opinion, though, that's a missed opportunity for some more creative uses.

I also thought that Passbook vs. Google Wallet was another interesting example of two different strategies. In Google's world, you need a phone with an NFC chip built in. There are only about five phones with the requisite hardware available: the Nexus, two LG phones and the Sprint Galaxy SIII. That's not a lot of units in the field. By contrast, Apple's strategy is to turn any pocket-sized device that can run iOS 5 into a payment token. That's a lot of devices already in the field that will become payment hubs overnight when iOS 6 ships. I don't feel qualified to say which approach is better from a security or commercial point of view but I thought it was reminiscent of the argument for building the software keyboard on the original iPhone: you can go back and add a feature when you think of it, instead of waiting for new hardware.

Finally, let's talk accessibility. Education got a few mentions in the keynote and making the curriculum accessible to children with additional needs is something that should concern us all. The Guided Access feature, which locks out certain areas of the screen, is going to be very useful for people working with children with any kind of attention issues or motor control problems. At the same time, the ability to lock out the home button will find several uses in kiosks, museums and other specific-use situations.

I do slightly worry, though, that some teachers will abuse the lockout feature to turn iPads into glorified single-purpose textbook devices. I hope not - but I have seen some crazy hacks on iPads in schools to add just this level of "control". Urgh.

The iPad 1

My main disappointment is that iOS 6 will not arrive on the iPad 1. I had factored this possibility into my thinking when we signed a 3-year lease on our current hardware. We are tied into our lease until summer 2013, when we will refresh all of our devices. What does that really mean?

Well, iOS 6 is due in the autumn - which probably means late September or early October. That's not a good time to do a big OS upgrade across the school. When iOS 5 came out around that time, I went ahead and did the update on our devices. That was a mistake. It took WAY too much time out of my diary at that point in the school year. This time around, I'd at least wait for Christmas to do the update. So we're probably looking at 6 or 8 months of working with iOS devices running the previous generation of software, depending on how you count it.

I do have one big concern, though: mismatch between teachers' software and pupils' versions of iWork. We see this happening when new versions of Pages and Keynote come out: teachers update their devices promptly and create documents. Those documents are sent to pupils who have the older version of Pages and they won't open.

Usually, you can solve this with a quick update on the device concerned. Now, though, we may find ourselves in the situation where the teachers have moved to iOS 6 and iWork version 1.7 and the kids are stuck on iOS 5 and the current iWork 1.6 apps - with no document compatibility. The solution, I guess, is to hold the teachers' versions back but eventually someone will hit "Update All" and there will be no way to roll back. I hope the iWork apps have matured to the point where cross-version file compatibility can be maintained, at least for a while.

These are the perils of being an early adopter, and I knew they were coming.