macOS Sierra preview: Siri is just the beginning

iCloud is close to fully baked

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Later this fall, Apple will release its latest desktop operating system to the world, but it won't be called OS X. Instead, it's now "macOS" and this one is codenamed "Sierra." Introducing it on stage at WWDC, Apple exec Craig Federighi said the name was "obvious," probably because it has some consonance with the headline feature: Siri.

Yes, having Siri on your Mac is nice and perhaps even a Big Deal — but to me, it's much less important than some other features that Apple is introducing with macOS Sierra (technically, version 10.12). For several years now, Apple has made the Mac feel nicer for iPhone users with Continuity features that made the devices work better together. With Sierra, it's turned a corner: using a Mac is going to be substantially better for iPhone users than Android users.

And the reason, against everything we've come to believe about Apple’s strengths and weaknesses, is cloud services. With Sierra, iCloud has gone from something that you forget you have (and if you remember, you're usually shaking your fist at it) to a thing that you'll probably want to (perhaps begrudgingly) start paying for.

Siri ends up just being icing on the cake.

But let's start with the icing. After Microsoft showed that having a personal assistant on your laptop is actually pretty nice, Apple is following suit. If you've ever used Siri on an iPhone, you're going to feel right at home when you use it on the Mac — both in good ways and bad.

It's good because when Siri works, it still feels a little bit like magic. You can ask for email, then ask for a specific email. You can fire off a text message the moment it enters your head by speaking it aloud. You can control some elements of your computer like invoking the screen saver or toggling Wi-Fi. You can set reminders, make dinner reservations. You can, in short, do Siri stuff.

But even now, nearly five years after Siri was first released, feeling right at home with Siri is knowing that your intelligent assistant isn't always that intelligent. Siri keeps context, until it doesn't. So when it magically finds that email you are looking for and you ask Siri to "Open it," Siri is at a loss for what to do. Siri works better in a quiet room than a crowded coffee shop.

This is a Beta of Sierra, so I'm willing to forgive some foibles. A lot of them, actually, because it can be damn convenient to just bark questions rather than type them out.

But the truth is, when I'm at my computer, I would usually rather just type my questions out. And you can't do that with Siri on the Mac — it only accepts voice input. Score one for consistency between how Siri works on iOS, watchOS, and macOS, I guess, but deduct 10 for having to talk to your computer out loud in places where you might not want to.

And while you're deducting, try to deduce why Siri and Spotlight — the Mac's text-based search technology — are separate things. They perform many overlapping functions: you can get the weather or sports scores or search files on your computer with either system. But Siri usually can go further: its search results are more interactive. You can drag Siri's results as little images to your desktop, or add them as interactive widgets to your notification area. You can ask follow-up questions, too.

The separation (and confusion) between the two different search systems is evident right there in the user interface. You can launch Siri with a keyboard shortcut (fn-space), same as Spotlight (CMD-space). Siri also sits in your dock and in the menu bar, right next to the Spotlight icon. You cannot, however, just say "Hey Siri" to activate it.

Perhaps the two search systems will be combined someday. The separation is a gripe, but it doesn't take away from what Siri can do — just from an overall sense of cohesion. On Windows 10, Cortana feels like it's integrated into the whole OS in an organic way. On macOS, Siri feels just a little tacked-on.

Anyway, as a desktop-based intelligent assistant, Siri can do a lot. It's a useful feature and I'm sure I'll use it for a smattering of things, just like I do with Siri on the iPhone.

So that’s Siri. But to me, the most important thing in Sierra isn’t Siri, it’s the combination of iCloud and Continuity features that make the Mac feel like it's just as much a part of the cloud ecosystem as its iOS cousins.

Let's hit the simple stuff first — and I should say up front that I haven’t been able to test any of this, as it all requires that you have iOS 10 Beta and / or watchOS 3 installed.

You can use Apple Pay inside Safari — and you give it the authorization to pay by using the fingerprint sensor on your iPhone or by double-clicking the side button on your Apple Watch. Clever.

Even more clever: you can use your Apple Watch to unlock the Mac instead of constantly typing in your password. Apple is smart about it, too: it checks how long it takes a little tiny bit of data to shoot from your Mac to the Watch and back again. If it takes too long, it knows that your Watch is farther than three meters away and it won't unlock.

You will be able copy and paste between iOS and the Mac, which is a big deal. If you cut or copy anything on either device, it becomes available to paste on any other device. There are probably a half-dozen times a day I want to move some tiny piece of text or an image between my Mac and my phone, and with Sierra I won't have to fiddle with AirDrop or whatever to make that happen.

Okay, I'll finally just tell you the two features I've been building up to here: "iCloud Desktop and Documents" and "Optimize Storage." Both are things designed to automatically upload the contents of your Mac into Apple's iCloud storage and both are incredibly important for everyday users because they make it simple, invisible, and seamless to store your files in the cloud and access them from other devices.

iCloud Desktop and Documents basically takes the contents of, well, your Desktop and Documents folders and automatically uploads them into iCloud Drive. They get mirrored over to your other Macs automatically and also show up in an app on your iPhone or iPad — when you turn on the feature on your Mac, your iPhone prompts you to put the app on your home screen. Once upon a time, Apple frowned at the idea that you might want access to such quotidian things as files on your iPhone, but with this update they can all just be there.

Optimized Storage is equally interesting. I should note that turning it on requires a scavenger hunt through multiple menus, windows, and buttons. But once you get through all that, you're greeted with the ability to have your Mac automatically upload old files, photos, and emails into iCloud Drive and remove them from your hard drive. They still look like they're where you left them, but they're whooshed up into Apple's servers, ready to be downloaded again only when you click on them.

Taken together, they make the Mac act like a full participant in a cloud ecosystem with Apple's other devices. It's a lot like OneDrive on Windows 10, actually, but it just does it with the folders you already use. The only downside in my mind is that iCloud still isn't quite as good at file sharing as other cloud storage options. It takes the job that the savvy among us already do with Dropbox or Google Drive and builds it right into the core of the OS, without asking the user to do any work.

Well, you will need to do some work, specifically keep an eye on your iCloud storage capacity. In the course of this preview I've already upgraded my storage up to 200GB, and I’ll probably upgrade again to a terabyte once the official version comes out. No doubt that's part of Apple's nefarious plan to draw more cash out of its existing user base.

But I'm teasing, of course: it would only feel nefarious if Apple's storage pricing was wildly out of line with industry averages. It really isn't. In the US, a terabyte of storage on iCloud costs $9.99 per month, same as Dropbox and Google Drive. Microsoft charges less, however: $6.99, which includes a subscription to Office 365 and access to the Office suite of apps, including Word and Outlook.

Even so, if you add up all of your photos, videos, files, iPhone backups, and the random ephemera you keep on your desktop (seriously though, clean that up), you will find that the cheaper iCloud Drive options probably won't be enough. And for some, the thought of paying for online storage may grate. But look at it this way: Apple's servers are much less likely to fail or get lost than your laptop, so you should really think about paying somebody to store some of your files online.

Apple's iCloud has apps for iOS and Mac, but also for Windows (there’s no Android app yet), plus there’s also access available on icloud.com on the web. Historically, Apple doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation when it come to cloud services, but those days are mostly behind it. And it's hard to deny the convenience of having it all built directly into your OS.

Alongside Siri and iCloud, there are some updates to Apple’s core apps — though perhaps not quite as many as I would like. Here are some of the most important changes Apple is making.

The Photos app has received the biggest update, and the feature most users will care about are automatic location and facial recognition albums. Since the build I’m testing is still in a developer Beta, I found these features a little slow and buggy — but with more time (and perhaps more training on my part), I think they’ll be fine. It also includes a new editing option called "Brilliance" and a fancy section called "Memories" that puts together digital photo albums a la Google Photos.

Apple has made much of the fact that it’s able to provide these smart features without compromising your personal identity in the cloud in any way — unlike Google Photos, Apple is performing a lot of the computation necessary to recognize faces and create Memories locally (and I have the processor spikes to prove it, at least in this Beta). It’s way too early to judge whether Apple is right either about its privacy claims or to compare its accuracy against the competition, but provisionally I’ll say that it seems not too bad at the latter. And I can’t let go of one personal gripe: Photos does not, much to my chagrin, maintain a preferred aspect ratio when editing multiple photos.

Apple has also added the ability to add Safari-like tabs to any application a developer chooses. Apple added them to Pages and Maps, for two examples. It’s built right into the core of how windows are created on the Mac (there’s even a System Preference for it), and developers won’t have to do much work to make it happen — though they will have to put a lot of thought into whether to use CMD-T or some other keyboard shortcut for them. In a lot of apps, I went looking for tabs only to bring up the font chooser. Anyway, if you like tabs, you'll like Sierra, and I’m sure some standards around keyboard shortcuts will eventually emerge.

In Sierra, you’ll be able to receive all the neat new iMessage bits that Apple is adding to iPhones in iOS 10 (but not send them). But emoji are embiggened and there’s a new "tapback" feature that works here, too, for quick "message received" thumbs-up responses.

There's a revamped Apple Music section inside iTunes that's really very nice, with big fonts and automated playlists. But it's nevertheless inside iTunes, which remains a ponderous and confusing amalgam of too many functions and features. Apple also added Picture-in-Picture mode for certain videos in iTunes or Safari, though on this Beta I was hard-pressed to find the button any video players — Apple says that it "works with iTunes and compatible Safari web video." and that "a developer API is available for websites." So I hope that we'll see those buttons propagate through the web soon.

This list of updates isn’t exhaustive, but then again neither is this OS update. Some apps, like Mail, still feel like they could use some work. Sorry, Gmail users: stick with the web app or any number of third-party apps for now.

Bottom line: macOS Sierra is good, and great if you’re an iPhone user. It’s well worth the cost of upgrading: which is, of course, free (with a side of you might start paying more for iCloud storage). I'd like Siri to be a little smarter and a lot more integrated with Spotlight. I'd like to see some more improvement in core apps like Mail and Contacts and Calendar.

That's the way of OS updates: they're iterative, and never hit all the things you'd like to see improved. But with Sierra, there's enough here that will make everyday users — and especially everyday iPhone and iPad users — better able to move between what they're doing on their computer and on their mobile devices. It will allow you to use your different devices in similar ways (like talking to them or moving files) without making either one of them slavishly copy the others' interfaces.

I like that the Mac is more open than iOS, it lets me set better third-party apps as the default and lets me install all sorts of little utilities to improve my personal experience. But I've also gotten used to a lot of things on my iPhone, things like knowing that all my stuff is automatically backed up to the cloud, so if I lose it, I can just buy another one and have it feel exactly the same in a matter of an hour or two.

And yes, I've gotten used to talking to Siri on my phone occasionally, and as I said up top, it's the icing on the cake. Everybody always talks about the icing, but I've always preferred just the sugared bread inside. Just so: the iCloud features in Sierra are my favorite part.

macOS Sierra will be released officially in the fall. A public Beta is coming this July.

Video by Vjeran Pavic and James Temple

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