Apple has been in sharp focus lately, as some of the inner workings of the infamously secretive and hugely powerful company were revealed in the Epic Games v. Apple trial last month. Apple often gets credit for creating the mobile app economy as we know it with its App Store, which has swelled into a multibillion-dollar business for the iPhone maker. But that also means that every software change the company makes can have a big impact for both app developers and consumers.
Well, get ready for more Apple software news—this time from its annual developers conference. WWDC kicks off on Monday, June 7, at 10 am Pacific, 1 pm Eastern, with a keynote from Apple chief executive Tim Cook. A series of demos from other top software executives and key app developers will follow, since once again, this is a software conference (and Apple will do its best to show what great relationships it has with app developers).
Alas, just like last year’s WWDC, the event is virtual. This means it is both more accessible for those who typically can’t afford the ticket or make it there in person, and also will likely lack the energy, serendipitous encounters, and feeling of community of an IRL event. Apple is trying to address the latter with a new offering this year called Digital Lounges, though text-based Q&A sessions probably won’t be as fun as mainlining coffee with your coding buds.
We’ll be covering the WWDC keynote here at WIRED, but if you’d like to watch the livestream, you can tune in on Apple’s website or its YouTube channel. Beyond the keynote, the conference will continue throughout the week, with over 200 online sessions geared toward app makers.
iOS and iPad OS
WWDC is the venue Apple uses to reveal the next operating system for the iPhone. iOS 15 will likely be the most important software update to come out of the conference, for obvious reasons: The iPhone is still Apple’s marquee product, with more than a billion active phones in use around the globe, and iOS updates determine how “new” people’s old iPhones will feel come fall. Plus, the iPhone is no longer just a phone; it’s a portal to Apple’s growing services business.
Some of the more significant UI updates expected to come to the iPhone, as reported previously by Bloomberg, are changes to the phone’s lock screen and notifications system. iPhone users will be able to set certain preferences based on their current status—whether they’re driving or sleeping, for example—and, according to the report, auto-reply options will be expanded as a result. Messages, the glue that keeps people stuck to their iPhones (and one of the prime examples of Apple leveraging its power in software to discourage people from switching to Android), is also expected to get some updates.
Cook and Apple software chief Craig Federighi will almost certainly emphasize privacy as well. The company’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) initiative, first announced last year, just went into effect with the rollout of iOS 14.5—and has since been the subject of controversy, since app makers of all sizes (hello, Facebook) have said Apple’s limitations on ad-tracking would hugely hurt their businesses. One of the changes to potentially come with iOS 15 would be some kind of privacy-focused menu that lets people view which ads are silently tracking them, in addition to the current, semi-regular pop-up notifications about which apps are tracking them in the background.
Some of these changes could also be reflected in the newest version of iPadOS, which, despite Apple’s insistence that it creates an experience unique to the tablet, continues to feel like a forked version of iOS. According to the same Bloomberg report, iPadOS may get a widgets revamp. Right now, widgets are relegated to the left side of the home screen, but soon you’ll be able to move them anywhere on the home screen, which I suppose is Apple’s idea of customization and control. And since the iPad–especially the Pro model—has become a whiz-bang board for technological advancement, it’s possible we could see more AR features touted on the iPad too, ones that take advantage of both the tablet’s new chip and its lidar scanner.
As always, the new software we see on Monday won’t roll out to the broader public until later this year, though software developers and eager beta testers can expect to get access to it sooner.
The newest version of macOS will be numeral 12. Its name is still a mystery, though Apple is likely to keep consistent with its current naming convention, which means it will be named after some stunning California locale. By all accounts, this year will be a “refinement” year for macOS, not a major overhaul for the desktop operating system.
Still, there are two key elements of any modern macOS update to keep an eye out for. The first is any sort of merging or enabling of compatibility between iPadOS and macOS. In macOS Catalina, Apple rolled out Mac Catalyst, which was a way for app makers to more easily port their mobile apps over to the Mac desktop. In recent years Apple has also made some of its mobile apps Mac-compatible—think Podcasts, News, Stocks. Of course, the iPad and Mac are still distinctly different physical devices because of the touchscreen (or lack thereof on Macs). But now, with Apple’s M1 chip powering both new Macs and new iPads, the hardware chasm between the two is closing.
And, then there’s the M1—that’s the other keyword or phrase to listen for. This year’s macOS update might not be a massive revamp, but you can bet that Apple will want to showcase how app makers can continue to optimize their apps for this custom silicon, especially since some apps still require an emulator to run properly on an M1 Mac.
There have also been persistent rumors that new Mac laptops could be announced at WWDC next week, which would be a real plot twist at such a software-focused event. If these were to be announced, these would likely be beefed-up MacBook Pro models—machines that appease the serious multimedia professionals looking for even more power.
“I think Apple really needs to get back to their roots with the MacBook Pros,” says Anshel Sag, a senior analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “There are rumors about the Touch Bar going away, and there’s still the opportunity to improve security on the MacBook. But I think they could go the iPad route and build an ‘X’ version of the M1 chip, or an M2 chip, into the MacBook Pro and make it a beefier model.”
Personally, I would be surprised if Apple announces new machines so soon after releasing its inaugural M1 MacBook laptops, which arrived in November 2020. But if the rumors prove correct, it only goes to show how serious Apple is about its custom silicon—and how rapidly it is developing these new chips in parallel with current versions.
Here’s the first remarkable thing about Apple’s wrist computers: By some accounts, the Apple Watch is the best-selling watch in the world. Not just among smartwatches, though that is true also, but all watches. Here’s the second remarkable thing, which is not necessarily a good thing: There’s not a whole lot of smartwatch competition out there. Huawei is Apple’s closest competitor in the smartwatch market, but the Chinese device maker has been hamstrung by US software sanctions. Samsung’s share of the market has shrunk slightly over the past year. Google is expected to launch a Pixel watch sometime this year, and its acquisition of Fitbit might help boost Google’s wearable offerings, but we’re still waiting to see both of those possibilities come to fruition.
So, like many of these software updates, a small tweak is revealed, a new placement of a complication or some beta version of a health app, and you think—Pffft, big deal! Except when you fundamentally own millions of wrists, even tiny software updates can have a big impact.
These software updates will come with watchOS 8, the newest version of Apple Watch software. Early reports point to improved sleep-tracking features (something Apple Watch has lagged behind on), as well as potential food-tracking features, which I’m glad was not rolled out in spring/summer of 2020. And since Apple’s Peloton competitor, Fitness+, is still relatively new and requires an Apple Watch, expect to see new features added to the whole Fitness+ experience too. I’m still waiting to see Apple’s Kevin Lynch, the Watch’s lead developer, do push-ups on stage.
Apple already pre-announced some interesting accessibility features for Apple Watch, which shows how seriously it has taken feedback that Apple Watch needs to be more user-friendly for people with limited mobility. It also might signal that Apple doesn’t want the accessibility announcement to get buried in a rapid-fire release of features on Monday—rapid enough to get your heart rate going, I’m sure.
Fitness+ is just one of many Apple “services” these days, a fast-growing part of Apple’s business and a serious-sounding word for subscriptions. If you follow Apple, you know the narrative by now: As iPhone sales have slowed in recent years, Apple has tried to squeeze more revenue out of each customer by hooking them into paid services. This includes everything from iCloud to Apple Music to Apple TV+ to Fitness+.
Since Apple just unveiled the next generation of Apple TV in April, it’s possible Apple could use the virtual WWDC stage to tout its growing entertainment platform and introduce more integrations between devices and services (akin to the way Apple Watch works with Fitness+, which also works on Apple TV). MacRumors points out that the term “homeOS” has been included in recent Apple job postings for engineering talent, suggesting that the company may be looking to expand its offerings for home entertainment and smart home control. Then again, it may just be a consumer-facing rebrand of HomeKit, the underlying framework that currently exists for different smart home products to work with iPhones.
These days, any expansion of an Apple app platform or change to its subscription services is likely to raise eyebrows. For three weeks in May, the company faced intense scrutiny during the Epic Games v. Apple trial, during which the former was “desperate to show that Apple’s core is rotten and that its business practices are too,” as WIRED’s Cecilia D’Anastasio put it.
Apple, in recent years, has made some concessions when it comes to the 30 percent “Apple tax”—the percentage it charges developers who want to sell their apps through the App Store—including reducing the cut Apple takes if a developer is able to maintain a long-term subscription business. But app makers both big and small, ranging from giants like Spotify and Match Group to independent app makers, have been increasingly vocal about what they see as Apple’s monopolistic practices and abuse of power in how it runs the App Store.
Fundamentally, these arguments and the recent trial have raised questions about how to value marketplaces for software distribution in this age of modern tech, the broader impacts of ecosystem “lock in”, and whether Apple’s concern about keeping the App Store as safe and secure as possible is another form of capitalism masquerading as altruism. Will Apple address these heady topics at WWDC? Almost certainly not. But, like a notification badge hanging out in the corner of an app, they’ll be impossible to ignore.
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