The company’s annual developer conference, streaming online this year, has been rich with announcements. Here’s the latest news from the WWDC stage.
SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS LOOK forward all year to the crush of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. The big gala, held every June, gives Apple devs a chance to share knowledge, contacts, and stories (plus a few late-night refreshments) with each other in person. Of course, Apple also uses the venue to announce all of the new software features—and new hardware—coming to the company's lineup in the second half of the year.
This year's WWDC, like so many other events, was moved online. Developers may not get to hang out in meatspace this year, but they are able to watch the educational sessions as streaming videos. The Monday morning WWDC keynote is also being streamed, and Apple has been using the occasion to deliver its usual slate of updates. Here are the highlights:
New Macs Will Run on Apple-Made Chips
Rumors that Apple would ditch Intel’s x86 chip architecture for its own ARM-based processors in Mac computers have persisted for years. Today, it finally happened.
In the announcement, which was kicked off by Tim Cook but then tossed to engineers in an “undisclosed location,” Cook highlighted three major milestones in Mac history: the move from PowerPC to Intel chips in 2006, Apple’s transition to MacOS X, and now, this one. ARM-based “Apple Silicon” chips will give Apple’s computers an efficiency bump, and the company will no longer rely on Intel’s update cycles to push its capabilities forward. Apple emphasized that it already has plenty of experience scaling low-power SoCs for iPhone and even the Apple Watch, which suggests that the battery life on Mac laptops may soon get a boost. And this move also brings Apple’s custom-designed neural engines to Macs, which is important for compute tasks that increasingly use machine learning.
But as with the transition from PowerPC to Intel in 2006, there could be some bumps along the way. Apple says that developers will have everything they need to make apps that run on ARM-based Macs in the new version of Xcode, and that Xcode will continue to support apps for both Intel x86 Macs and Apple Silicon Macs. Still, developers who haven’t already built for iOS will have an adjustment period. And while they’re more than suitable for the average consumer, it’s an open question if ARM-based processors can keep up with the demands of Apple’s professional creative class. The move to Apple Silicon will start with new Macs released later this year, and the entire transition should take two years, Apple says.
iOS 14 Will Make Your iPhone More Customizable
The latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system adds a new home screen. The new App Library view includes all downloaded apps automatically organized in folders, starting with Siri suggestions—based on your typical app use—and recently added apps. With this new feature making it easy to find whatever you’re looking for, you can now hide pages from view to get yourself even more streamlined. Widgets are also getting a new look, as well as the ability to be dragged from the widget panel to your home screen. Siri will no longer take over your whole screen when you activate it, instead appearing as a small overlay near the bottom of the screen. Also, a new translate feature claims to give anyone the ability to hold real-time conversations with others who speak different languages. These cloud-powered translations appear to be similar to Google Translate on Android phones. The Picture in Picture feature lets you continue to watch videos while multitasking on your iPhone screen. We've got a full round-up of all the latest in iOS 14 here.
Apple Is Reimagining Car Key Fobs
Car key fobs are the biggest, bulkiest, and ugliest item on your keychain. But within the next few years, we’ll all be able to unlock, start, and share car access with our iPhones. Apple’s car-experience engineering manager, Emily Schubert, demonstrated the iPhone’s newest car-unlocking features on the 2021 BMW 5 series. Just use the phone’s built-in NFC chip to tap to unlock your car, place your phone on the charging pad, and tap a button to start the car. You’ll also be able to quickly share your car keys in iMessage (with restricted options for teen drivers) and turn off your car key in iCloud. These features will be available next month on the BMW, but Apple is also enabling the features in both iOS 13 and 14. It’s also working with other car manufacturers to develop the features in other cars—hopefully not just the most expensive ones on the market.
iPadOS 14 Gets More Like a Computer
Last year, Apple finally gave the nine-year-old iPad its own native operating system, called iPadOS. The move was both practical and symbolic; it gave the iPad more Mac-like features, while also establishing iPad’s position as not-just-a-giant-iPhone. And then this spring, Apple introduced the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro—a ridiculously expensive but welcome backlit keyboard (with trackpad!) that nudged the iPad even further into Real Computer territory. It’s no surprise, then, that the latest version of iPadOS emphasizes this even more. The latest version of iPadOS includes a lot of the same enhancements coming to iOS 14 for iPhone, but Apple seems determined to actually utilize the real estate of the larger tablet. One example of this is a new sidebar, one that will appear in the Photos, Notes, Files, and Music apps. It pops out on the left-hand side of app screens, and is supposed to offer easier navigation and better organization of app files. A Siri shortcut will now appear on the bottom right of certain app screens. And incoming phone calls will no longer interrupt what you’re doing and take up the entire screen. Instead, you'll get a drop-down notification. Same as search on iPad: The Search bar will now appear over whatever you’re currently working on, rather than occupying the entire screen. The iPad’s Pencil is also getting an update, though these seem minor in comparison to other iPad changes. Apple is touting a feature called Scribble, which, as far as we can tell thus far, will translate your handwriting into text, transform your crude shapes into “ideal” ones, and will let you dash off search queries in the Safari search bar rather than having to type them.
MacOS and Safari Get an Overhaul
MacOS’s next version is called Big Sur, continuing Apple’s scheme of naming its desktop operating system after places in California. The new look is the first thing you’ll notice. Everything from the dock to Apple’s Mac apps look a little cleaner, more interactive, and spacious. In some ways, it’s a lot closer to iOS or iPadOS than ever before—for example, Apple is bringing the Control Center to the Mac, letting you access settings like brightness and sound directly from the top right of the screen. The Notification Center has been refreshed too, and the new widgets from iOS 14 can be added here.
Apple’s also continuing its gradual process of porting some of its iOS apps to MacOS, namely with the Messages and Maps app. This is a part of Apple’s Catalyst project, which is a way to help developers create MacOS versions of their iOS apps, reducing the amount of resources needed to create and maintain these apps. Until now, the Messages app on MacOS has been offering the bare minimum, allowing you to send and receive messages. Now, you’ll get the same features as Messages on your iPhone—that includes Memoji, sticker packs, reactions, message effects, pinned conversations, a redesigned photo picker, and improved group conversations. For Apple Maps, you’re treated to the new design that launched last year on iOS. Your favorite places are now a click away, you can create your own guides when you’re planning a trip, and you can use Apple’s Look Around feature to see what things look like on a street level, just like Street View on Google Maps. Apple spent a good chunk of time in Monday’s presentation on improvements to Safari too. First, the company claims its browser is more than 50 percent faster than Google Chrome. It touted better privacy features as well: There’s a new privacy report button in the toolbar that lets you see how a site is monitoring your activity. Safari also regularly checks your passwords to see if they have been compromised.
Perhaps the biggest Safari news is that extensions are coming to the browser. They’re downloaded through the Mac App Store, and Apple says developers can easily port their existing extensions from other browsers. Access is a lot more restrictive though. You have the ability to choose what sites can be accessed by extensions, and whether the extension can access them for a day or for all time. Rounding out the feature list are translation capabilities for web pages and the ability to customize the start page with your own wallpapers and widgets. Tabs have also been redesigned to be a little more visible—particularly helpful if you have tons of tabs.
Seamless Device Switching Coming to AirPods
Senior firmware engineer Mary-Ann Ionascu announced some very cool new additions coming to AirPods via a future software update—no upgrade required. The most useful feature, especially for those of us with multiple iOS or Apple devices, is automatic switching. If you’re wearing your AirPods, you’ll soon be able to change your listening between devices seamlessly, without ever having to re-pair your pods. They even reroute audio to your phone if you’re getting a phone call, so it will still ring as normal.
Another exciting feature coming to AirPods is the addition of spatial audio. The software update will allow Apple’s devices to use their internal accelerometers to create a faux-3D soundscape. We've seen tech like this from brands like Audeze, JBL, and others, but it's largely been geared towards gamers and hi-fi enthusiasts. The addition of spatial audio could create a whole new love of surround sound to the ears of more average listeners. The headphones will be able to simulate 5.1, 7.1, and even Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound.
Sleep and Hand washing Features for WatchOS 7
By increments, Apple is slowly turning the Apple Watch into the most comprehensive wearable available. When it ships later this year, WatchOS 7 will finally have something competitors have had for years: sleep features. The Apple Watch will soon get features including a wind-down routine to start locking down your phone before bed, sleep monitoring of “micro-movements” as you breathe, a variety of wake-up alarms, and a Sleep Mode which dims the screen at night. The Watch will also get a hand washing detector and countdown to make sure you’re sudsing off all the germs. (No word on if it will shame non-hand-washers into going back into the bathroom, though.) Other new features include new dance workouts and a plethora of new watch faces, including a tachymeter, large font faces, and new third-party and personalized watch faces. Finally, the Watch will also get a new battery notification when you wake up, because the battery life is still terrible.