That’s it – the WWDC keynote is over for another year.
Once again, it was an entirely online-only event, this time opening with what can only be described as an overwhelming amount of Memoji.
While you can never have too much cowbell, you can absolutely have too much Memoji, and Apple still hasn’t latched onto the fact that no one outside of their spaceship campus cares about these little bodiless beings.
They were everywhere, from the pre-event looping video to the rather spooky scene of Tim Cook entering the Steve Jobs theatre to a room full of whooping and hollering Memojis.
It was all a bit weird. But, Apple is often a bit weird with this stuff. It’s the trendy dad of tech companies; barging in on its teenage kids’ Netflix and pizza sleepover to throw in a few ill-timed pop culture jokes. All it’s missing is a yellow jumper draped over its shoulders and a pair of New Balance trainers.
This is – and has always been – personified by Craig Federighi, VP of Trendy Dads, who spent most of this keynote inexplicably throwing iPads into the air and pointless emerging from presentation screens.
At least there weren’t any whales this time.
Anyway, let’s address the inconspicuous elephant in the room.
So, where was the hardware?
The people at whom WWDC is directed (i.e. those who really understand its purpose and who probably develop software for a living) will be clenching their fists at the sight of the word ‘hardware’ above the fold on this blog post. It’s a development conference, they’ll say. You should never expect hardware!
Boy, are they right. And boy was I wrong. That’ll teach me to fall off the rumour wagon.
If you’re a member of my weekly newsletter (there’s a free link at the bottom of this article, if you’re not), you’ll no doubt have signed off from the WWDC keynote with a wry smile. Because last week’s email was delivered with the subject line ‘My WWDC hardware predictions’.
I went on to list a bunch of devices I thought we’d probably see at “the most hardware-packed WWDC for years”. As it turns out, the only pieces of hardware on display were existing versions of the iMac, MacBook and AirPods. There was no 14-inch MacBook Pro and not a single whiff of a ‘pro’ Mac mini.
That’ll teach us. It’s classic Apple. They were never going to feature hardware in this WWDC, were they?
Regardless, I’m glad I advised people to wait until today before buying a new MacBook because they can now grab the machine they want without fear of it being immediately made obsolete. I don’t think we’re going to see anything remotely MacBook-like until later this year.
What follows are my off-the-cuff thoughts on the key announcements. Expect more detailed insight once it has settled a little.
If I have one criticism of the WWDC keynote this year, it was the continual references that were made to remote communication and instances “when you can’t be face-to-face”. No matter what happens with the pandemic from this point onwards, I’m not keen on the suggestion that its influence on modern society could be with us for long enough to influence Apple’s development roadmap.
A slightly more positive way to look at this is to assume that the updates to each of Apple’s operating systems this year are simply a reflection of the way in which we now communicate and work, pandemic or no pandemic. That’s marginally more comforting, but it still worries me that Apple appears to be overtly supporting and encouraging a future with reduced human contact.
iOS 15 is a prime example of this. The 2021 release will focus largely on staying connected (digitally), re-living past photo memories, entirely removing the need for your traditional wallet and helping you stay focused while working at home.
The star of the show, however, was FaceTime, which is basically turning into Zoom. Portrait mode (it blurs your background), grid view and voice isolation were all borrowed from the ubiquitous video conferencing platform. But the ability to share links to FaceTime calls that can be accessed on both Android devices and PCs is seriously big news. How often will people reach for Zoom if they can use a privacy-centric version that’s so easily accessible on their iPhone?
It goes further. Later this year, we’ll be able to use FaceTime to watch films together, listen to music in perfect sync and share our screens. It’s all handled via something called SharePlay which, as we later discovered, is going to play a key role in remote experiences across the entire Apple product lineup.
They also chucked spatial audio into FaceTime for good measure – clearly, this is a technology that’s going to enrich the experience of practically every Apple service and device going forward. In this guise, it places each participant’s voice within the sound stage based on their relative position on the screen. I can’t wait to hear it.
Oh, and the Weather app is getting some new graphics.
This was the big one – the update every M1 iPad owner was waiting for. Would we finally move beyond tiny updates to the UI and file management capabilities and into the realm of a genuine Mac companion/replacement?
Er, no. Well, not quite (I’ll get onto that later). Instead, we got widgets.
Listeners of my podcast will again have cracked a wry smile at that.
As you’d expect, the new widget functionality is exactly the same as the iPhone’s. An obvious update, but not what I’d call a headline feature addition.
There were some tweaks to multitasking, thanks to a much more user-friendly window alignment and switching menu and associated keyboard shortcuts. They’ve added a ‘shelf’, too, which conveniently gathers the constituent areas of an app in a dock-of-sorts at the bottom of the screen.
They’ve added some new translation functionality (I’m afraid I missed that bit as I was too busy poking fun at Craig’s latest dad joke on my Discord server), and Notes is receiving some useful new functionally including the ability to tag entries, mention people, view editing history and pull up ‘QuickNotes’ from pretty much anywhere within iPadOS.
Then, we were treated to a preview of Swift Playgrounds, which, from this autumn, will enable you to build iPad and iPhone apps on an iPhone. I’m not a developer, but this is seriously boundary-pushing stuff and does hint at a rather more interesting future for the iPad when it comes to traditionally Mac-based work.
Thankfully, they weren’t done with the iPad at this stage. More on that in a moment.
Privacy and iCloud+
My opinions on ad tracking and privacy have ruffled a few feathers, but I maintain my stance on targeted advertising when it benefits both the consumer and the businesses placing the ads.
One thing I won’t stand for, just like 99% of the population, is the misuse of data and the dreadful forms of cybercrime that negatively impact so many people’s lives and livelihoods.
It was therefore very nice indeed to see a sizeable chunk of the keynote devoted to privacy updates. These include privacy protection in Mail (goodbye, hidden tracking pixels), the exclusion of your IP address from public view while using Safari, an app privacy report and the ability for Siri to do an impressive amount of stuff on-device without an internet connection.
They also announced iCloud+, which will be bundled with existing iCloud plans at no additional cost and which includes VPN-smashing abilities for private web browsing, recovery contacts for your Apple ID and the ability to hide your email with a random address to which your real address is connected.
This is big. It’s also one of those “well, that’s an obvious change to iCloud” things that Apple is so good at doing, but which us mere mortals would probably never think of. The inclusion of VPN functionality alone will all but remove the need for many of the third-party options out there – particularly when you take into account the fact that it comes at no additional cost if you’re an iCloud subscriber. I genuinely feel for the indie devs who will inevitably be impacted by this. But I’ll use it, obviously.
macOS will receive the same COVID-influenced remote working, focus-enabling (this looks pretty cool to be fair) and SharePlay feature set as the rest of the line-up. But there were two standouts in macOS Monterey which deserve special mention.
The first was Shortcuts. I’m not an avid Shortcuts user, but I’m regularly reminded by members of my Discord server that I’m missing out, big time. And there’s something about the impending appearance of it on the Mac which is actually rather exciting. Shortcuts will essentially replace Automator and offer a massive range of time-saving and productivity-boosting tweaks across the operating system. I promise I’ll try it out.
But the absolute star of the show was Universal Control – a new feature within Apple’s brilliant Continuity framework that enables the same mouse and keyboard to be used between Macs and iPads.
We were treated to a demo of a mouse pointer being shared between a Mac and an iPad (with no Sidecar in sight). It was seriously impressive. At one point, the mouse pointer effortlessly glided across an iMac, onto an iPad, before ending up on a MacBook.
The big news is that this new ability also enables you to share content between those devices. This takes the universal clipboard to a whole new level and will be a massive time saver for creators like myself. It also opens up some compelling use cases for a device that is now my go-to photo editing tool.
This must be the first example of Apple unleashing the M1 iPad’s latent power, right? Well, not quite, because when you dig deeper, it becomes clear that Universal Control works across an impressive range of older devices (MacBooks dating back to 2016 and iMacs as far back as 2015). Curiously, you don’t need the M1 iPad Pro for the new content and input device sharing to take place.
Combine that fact with the continual light dusting of iPadOS, and the question remains: what is the M1 iPad for?
During the watchOS 8 announcements, we learned that Apple keeps a – no doubt anonymous – eye on how its customers use the Apple Watch. Apparently, the Breathe app was used more regularly during 2020 (no surprises there), and the photos watch face is the most popular.
As a result, the updates your Apple Watch can expect later this year centre largely on mindfulness aids, sleep app improvements and a rather pretty new photos watch face.
Clearly, it was the Apple Watch’s turn to receive the least amount of developer attention this year. That’s no bad thing, mind – the updates they’ve added are timely, considered and the only example of where the influence of COVID on people’s lives and mental health is being duly addressed by the best health wearable on the market.
Conspicuous by its minor appearance during the keynote was tvOS. But it did feature briefly during the Home segment, which focused largely on the HomePod mini’s ability to act as a more wholesome HomeKit device by bringing together intercom functionality, remote Siri integration with the Apple TV and the ability for Apple’s digital assistant to appear on third-party devices.
It seems that tvOS is only receiving a marginal update later this year to include the aforementioned SharePlay abilities that enable remote, shared viewing of video content and music.
Anyone who was hoping for a bit more from their new Apple TV 4K may therefore have been left wanting.
More thoughts incoming!
Over the next few days, I’ll dig deeper into each new OS release, so be sure to keep an eye on everything I do (both on here and the YouTube channel).
I also decided to conduct a quick straw poll of my audience on YouTube, following the keynote. This is the result so far:
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on WWDC21 – so, get involved in the comments!