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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.