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With iOS 8, Apple opens its garden, but keeps thorns sharper than ever

The iPhone maker is finally letting developers access more of its mobile OS. That's great news -- unless you're in a department Apple wants to dominate.

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Apple's Craig Federighi, head of software engineering, debuts iOS 8 onstage at WWDC 2014. Tim Stevens/CNET

With iOS 8, Apple has finally begun straying from its closed-garden philosophy -- if only with a small opening in the fence that's cut to fit only certain types of apps and functionalities.

Starting this fall, developers will be able to release third-party keyboards for iDevices and to integrate TouchID fingerprint scanning into any iOS app, and widgets will be able to populate the hampered and scarcely utilized Notification Center to overhaul its handiness by allowing interactive notifications. And that's just the beginning, says Apple. There's a slew of features baked into the app-building toolkit for iOS 8 that Apple hopes will empower a wave of services to talk to each other and leverage iOS in all new ways.

"With more than 800 million iOS devices sold worldwide, the opportunity for developers is huge," Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, said in a statement following Monday's keynote address during Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference. "This is the biggest iOS release since the launch of the App Store. The iOS 8 SDK delivers more than 4,000 new APIs including amazing new frameworks, greater extensibility and a revolutionary new programming language."

The strategy on display is a two-fold assault. Apple wants to be as friendly and accommodating as it can be to its developer community of more than 9 million coders and established companies with which it has a symbiotic relationship. But the iPhone maker is also being overtly clear concerning the app areas in which it wants to squash competitors big and small -- namely messaging and personal media, which also includes cross-device sharing and storage for files.

Because targeting those key sectors is how Apple beefs up the value proposition of sticking with its platform and selling a complementary Mac and iPad for every iPhone. You're far less likely to switch to Android if more of your life is tied up not in Google or Dropbox or Facebook, but in iCloud and iMessage.

"Apple is not going to make themselves a multiplatform company," said Van Baker, an Apple analyst with the research firm Gartner. "These enhancements, the whole continuity thing, this is them saying, 'The Apple platform is the best platform across OS X and the Mac and iOS devices. If you want all these wonderful benefits, you need to buy into our platform.'"

So on one hand, it's clear that Apple is taking a step in the right direction, acknowledging that opening up its mobile OS can be beneficial. On the other, Apple is drawing a line in the sand over which parts of its garden it wants to cultivate alone in its battle to admonish Android users and the staggering mobile OS market share Google commands.

"It was clear that [Apple CEO] Tim Cook was much more aggressive relative to Android than I've ever seen him before," Baker said. "I think that's a sign that they're going to take them on aggressively and that they believe they've got some competitive differentiators."

Apple: Stay away from our messages

Anyone who's ever endured a robust group message in Apple's native text client, Messages, knows a universal pain: the constant buzzing of your phone, a never-ending avalanche of notifications that occasionally become so overwhelming that you give up on participating at all.

There's a "Do Not Disturb" feature, but it doesn't function unless your screen is off. You constantly have to swipe away new texts if a conversation is plowing forward while you're checking Facebook or trying to read a website. Turning off group messaging in the iPhone's settings panel doesn't solve the problem because your phone number is still tied to the texts your friends keep sending. Frankly put, it's a nightmare that has sent iMessage fans running for the hills -- or at least to competing standalone services like WhatsApp or GroupMe.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

That's why Apple, with the messaging overhaul baked into iOS 8, has staked out a bold position on texting that it hopes can trump third-party offerings. Apple wants Messages to be the paramount text experience and one you use freely across Mac, iPad, and iPhone. So it's giving users a slew of power features to not only mute conversations and leave group messages, but to also share audio, video, and location data more freely and intuitively than ever before. It also built in a direct response to the explosively popular Snapchat: texts in Messages can now be made ephemeral with a designated time limit until they poof into nonexistence.

Whatever your take on the sustainability of iMessage -- an iOS-exclusive messaging solution may be a losing battle in the long run -- Apple sent a clear signal: We want to own messaging on our platform. Federighi said as much onstage, outlining that Messages was the most used iOS app. Services like WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, the social network's own Facebook Messenger, and the growing number of messaging upstarts -- from Snapchat and Kik to WeChat and Line --are carving up the globe in a war against SMS. With Messages, Apple is increasingly pulling up walls to avoid that fight altogether.

The fight for files

Communication is just one area in which Apple is saying, "Stay away." Another prominent sector is photography, one of the App Store's most thoroughly built-out departments. Apple has long had its visual app lunch eaten by Instagram, Hipstamatic, VSCOcam, Loom, and countless others that have spun out key photo editing or capturing features into standalone apps. With iOS 8, Apple strengthens its position in that fight.

For one, Photos will have cross-device editing, making it more sensible to stay within Apple's native gallery app than jump in and out of other editing tools that won't work on desktop. There are also numerous upgrades, like editing tools that incorporate more functionality you might expect from high-end software like Adobe's Photoshop, and new features -- like time lapse video -- that replace standalone apps as Apple did rather effectively with panoramas.

But more importantly, Apple is using Photos to go straight for the jugular of cloud storage company Dropbox, which announced its Carousel photo app barely two months ago. Carousel built on the flawed promise of services like Google+ and Flickr auto-upload and Apple's Photo Stream that never quite got it right. By creating a seamless system to back up every photo you take with your mobile device -- and storing a high-res version in the cloud on your Dropbox account -- Carousel lets you wipe the files from your device to save space. Low-res thumbnails are kept on hand to scroll through whilst on the go.

Now Photos for iOS will do the exact same, syncing all your photos with iCloud. Apple even undercut Dropbox on storage pricing, which remains the biggest impediment to storing all your photos in an online repository. iCloud Drive, Apple's new streamlined subscription storage service, is free up to 5GB, but now 20 GB of storage goes for 99 cents per month while 200 GB is $3.99 per month. There will eventually be a 1TB tier as well.

iCloud Drive Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Dropbox, on the other hand, is 2GB for free -- though Carousel nets you a few gigabytes extra -- and $9.99 a month for 100GB and an additional $9.99 for every 100GB after that. It's clear that with iCloud and Photos, Apple has found a way to wage a price and feature war on storage and image collection simultaneously.

iCloud Drive is also a weapon in Apple's struggle against Google Drive. While Microsoft has steadily charted its paid path with Office apps, Apple and Google have long since fought a bitter battle over cheap -- or free in Google's case -- cloud-based apps for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Apple has iWork and iCloud, and Google has Drive.

In iOS 8, iCloud Drive is now a Finder-like file system on all iDevices that finally lets users access everything they have stored online and make instantaneous changes across iWork apps, making it more competitive with Drive. And in a surprising move, Apple is looping in other companies' services, in effect opening up its typically closed cloud software to cut into the spread of Google's.

"It was interesting that they did open up the back end of iCloud to others. You can use [Microsoft's] OneDrive, you can use Box," explained Baker. That's important for two reasons. One, Apple sees that it can appease enterprise companies -- even when it's directly competing with them in some aspects -- that are increasingly facing a world of "bring your own device," in which Apple phones and computers are becoming more common in the workplace and thus need support for more than iWork.

Secondly, and more pivotal to the long-run adoption of Apple's growing app and services family, is that it gets users more comfortable both with subscribing to iCloud and with actually using its companion apps and the many cross-device syncing that comes with it. Again, it's an appeal to the iOS and OSX ecosystem promise that forms the backbone of Apple's open- and closed-garden hedging.

If Apple can win its war with messaging, file sharing and storage, and perhaps even productivity, that will prove that it can start using iCloud and the seamless web its built between devices to pull people back to its many other, more forgotten proprietary app offerings. Maps, Mail, Calendar, Contacts -- not to mention all the social and power user features built into Safari that sync with everything else -- have long been pushed to the periphery.

Now, as Apple opens up, it may find ways to lock back down what it's long since lost to the competition.