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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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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