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Why Handoff was the most important feature announced at WWDC

Mac OS X got a new look and new features, and iOS 8 received tweaks and new dev tools, but one minor feature showed how Apple can still give us something we didn't know we needed.

This story is part of WWDC 2022, CNET's complete coverage from and about Apple's annual developers conference.


Of all the new features for Mac OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 announced Monday at Apple's WWDC, Handoff is the feature that excites me the most. It's not that it does something completely new, but that it takes an essential feature of the mobile age -- letting two devices talk to each other -- and packages it in a new way. And just as important, it shows how Apple is setting the direction of both its desktop and mobile operating systems.

With Handoff, Apple has created another feature we didn't know we needed -- a concept I wrote about recently when I wondered was there anything exciting left for iOS. To be clear, I haven't used Handoff yet and don't know how effective it will be in the real world. But the very promise is enough for me.

How is it different?

As it is now, moving your work from one Apple device to another via iCloud isn't unique. First, you must save a document on one device and then dig through your cloud drive to find it somewhere else.

It's a similar story with Microsoft's OneDrive: save your document to the cloud, open your OneDrive (or associated Microsoft app) on another machine, find the file, and open it. Google Drive requires about the same workflow, though sometimes transferring files can be even clunkier. For example, the only way to send a Google Maps file from your Mac to your iPhone is to send a link via SMS, click the link, then open the map.

What Apple has done with Handoff is eliminate steps in these processes by making Apple devices aware of each other. When within Bluetooth range (about 20-25 feet) your Apple devices can detect what you're working on and give you a prompt on another device to pick up where you left off. You don't need to search through folders, open up your cloud drive, or send yourself a text -- the device detects what you're doing automatically and you simply switch devices. Third-party apps may deliver similar solutions, but Handoff integrates the feature directly into the OS.

It's a small change, but the impact on usability is big. And, honestly, it's one I never wished for in that specific context.

Why it matters

Yet, Handoff is significant in another way. You'd be forgiven if you thought that Apple is trying to unify Mac OS and iOS, but that's not what's happening. Rather, Apple is integrating its mobile and desktop OSes while keeping them apart. It's continuing to tailor its iOS to mobile devices and Mac OS X to desktops and laptops, but letting them communicate with each other without the separate operating systems getting in the way. Handoff serves as the bridge between them.

For an example from the WWDC keynote, even if your iPhone is on the other side of the house, as long as it shares the same Wi-Fi as your Mac, you'll be able to receive calls directly on your Mac. You can make calls too, even if it's just clicking a number on a restaurant's website. Sure, you could get the number from a website and dial it from your phone, but Handoff eliminates steps and makes the process that much easier.

It's the same with apps. You can be working on a chart in Numbers on your Mac, then pick up your iPad, swipe up on the notification in the lower left, and continue working on the chart right from where you left off.

We haven't yet seen all the ways Apple will use these new features, but its easy to envision other applications. Maybe you could be playing a game on your iPad -- Blizzard's Hearthstone, for example -- then set your iPad down and start playing immediately on your Mac when you get home without missing a beat. You also could be listening to a podcast during your commute, then seamlessly switch to your Mac-operated sound system at home to continue listening.

Along with Handoff, the new iCloud Drive should make it easier to pass files between devices. CNET

Not 'magical,' but definitely useful

While it's great new feature, Handoff isn't some magical technology Apple has invented, it's just reworking things we already have. As Apple has done many times before, Handoff is simply a clever repackaging of features and hardware in a way that makes sense. iOS and Mac devices already had Bluetooth, and there was already a cloud storage system to back up documents using iCloud. All Apple did was come up with a new way to notify another device, connect the work via iCloud, then display the prompt that opens the shared file.

No, the tech that makes Handoff possible isn't new, but it's another example of how Apple is creating a need out of something we hadn't thought of before. When iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite come out later this year, I suspect that Handoff will be the new feature that people use the most. It makes working between two devices more efficient and it delivers an effective bridge between the desktop and mobile environments.

Yet, Apple still has work to do. The problem with using Bluetooth means your devices need to be in close proximity to make these connections, so a truly killer feature would be to make your devices communicate regardless of their location. Still, Apple is off to a good start and I'm excited to see more uses for Handoff as we get closer to the launch of both operating systems.