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?


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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.