The three most important things you missed in the Apple keynote

The signals sent below the watermark.

Apple's press conference on Monday evening was always going to be about one thing and one thing only: the new Jony Ive-led interface for iOS 7. It's a bold departure for the company, the first major visual change to the entire operating system since it was debuted in 2007, and it's garnered mixed reactions.

On the one hand, it's been praised for inserting sense of physicality back into the design. As John Gruber writes:

In iOS 6, you open a folder on the home screen, and linen is something you see underneath. You pull down Notification Center, and linen is something see over. It’s both over and under…

The design of iOS 7 is based on rules… It is three dimensional not just visually but logically. It uses translucency not to show off, but to provide you with a sense of place. When you pull the new Control Center panel up from the bottom of the screen, its translucency lets you know that you haven’t gone somewhere new, you’re just looking at something over where you were.

On the other, some of the more concrete design decisions aren't quite so strong. The new home screen icons, for instance are… an acquired taste, hopefully. Particular criticism has been offered for the Newsstand, Safari and Game Center ones, which seem to illustrate little design philosophy beyond "lots of bright colours":

 

But while the visual redesign might be the most exciting thing revealed in the keynote speech, it isn't the most illuminating. We knew it was coming, and it's neither good nor bad enough to have a long-term effect on the company. So what things ought we pay attention to instead?

Bing

Apple's pushing out a major update to Siri, its voice-automation system, which lets you do "eyes free" control – perfect for in-car use. But while Siri is powerful once you know its limits, asking it a question its not prepared for pushes you back to a basic Google search. So "set my alarm for 8:00am" works fine, but "what is the tastiest brand of mayonnaise" just opens up Safari.

In iOS 7, your mayonnaise questions will continue to be answered with a web search – but now, they'll still be answered inline. And that's happening thanks to a partnership with Bing, Microsoft's search engine.

The Apple-Google relationship has been cooling rapidly for years, and even though the iOS 6 update was overshadowed by the misstep of switching the built in Maps app away from Google's data to Apple's proprietary information, the strings are still being cut. The last major link to sever is in Safari itself, where a Google search remains the default on all new iPhones (although you can choose to use Bing or Yahoo! instead). Once that changes – and you can bet it will at some point – the open warfare can begin.

Mac Pro

It may be hard to remember, given its reinvention as a consumer electronics company, but Apple used to only make PCs. I know, right? But still, the company's got a die-hard core of users who do serious work on the machines, and have done for over 20 years. And serious work requires a serious machine – which is why it's problematic that the company hasn't updated its most serious one for two years.

The Mac Pro is the powerhouse of Apple's computer lineup, a massive box which sits under the desk and is plugged into an external keyboard, monitor and mouse. Aimed at users who need more than an iMac can provide, it needs to be on the bleeding edge of technology. But after a speed boost in 2011, there's been radio silence from the company. That's not only concerning for the developers, visual artists, and so on, forced to contemplate trying to cram their needs in an iMac or MacBook Pro; it also hinted at a company unsure as to whether its future lay in computing at all.

So the announcement of a new Mac Pro will be relieving to the users who have been holding out for one for years. But it also says where Apple sees the future of computing when it comes to the power user. The new Mac Pro is tiny, just one eighth of the size of the old, and has no internal disk drives and no internal expansion slots. Instead, it has a heck of a lot of ports on the back. The plan is clear: everything you need beyond the stock configuration will be plugged in and sitting next to the Mac Pro itself, whether that's a Blu-Ray drive, an HDD, or even an external processor (of the sort used to boost intensive rendering).

That might not be a future which pros are comfortable with, but it's the one Apple wants – and they've never been afraid of being the first to abandon the old.

There's a second nugget hidden in the Mac Pro's launch, though: it's to be built in the US. That fulfils a number of goals for the company, from a handy PR boost (much needed as the company is accused of un-American tax-dodging) to instilling a sense of prestige on the product itself (whether it's true or not, "made in the USA" tends to be synonymous with high-quality).

Maps on Mavericks

The B-movie of the night was the reveal of the next version of Apple's computer operating system, OS X. Having all but run out of big cats for the codenames (although Serval never got its chance to shine), they've gone for a California theme, naming it "Mavericks" after the NoCal surf spot.

For users, the most interesting stuff comes in the form of a new version of Finder, a notification centre which works, better support for multiple displays, and a brand new syncing keychain. They all look like they will make life easier, but are evolutionary changes.

Instead, the important feature is the Maps app. The company has built a new front-end to its own mapping data – the same data which got it into so much trouble last year, but now much-improved – and is shipping it as a built-in app for the desktop.

While the rest of the world moves towards web-apps, Apple is moving in the opposite direction, taking functions which nearly everyone thinks of as web-only and squeezing them into apps. That's how it's worked on iOS, and now it's taking that attitude back to the Mac. For a company which is so notoriously awful at web services, it isn't a bad move – but it is still going decidedly against the grain. If the Maps app is good enough to make up for the change, then they might get lucky; if not, expect it to languish in applications folders for years.

Photograph: Apple

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”