If any mainstream consumers took the time to watch Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this week, they likely found themselves regularly yawning. This is not to say that the newly-announced operating system features aren’t necessary or don’t have the potential for added productivity and security. There just wasn’t any real headline-leading drama.
Rumors of new Apple Silicon? Not a mention, other than Tim Cook indicating that a new audio feature will require an M1 processor. New MacBook Pros? Not at this event, as it was hardware-free. Will MacOS and iOS/iPadOS eventually merge? This event didn’t even provide a courtesy acknowledgment of this last question, essentially making it out to be a non-topic.
Nevertheless, here’s my take on the top items that came out of WWDC 21.
Apple’s health strategy focuses on tracking, trending, and sharing
At the event, Apple doubled down on the idea that individuals can only get in shape and stay healthy by observing and monitoring more data. The Health app, along with the Apple Watch, already collect copious amounts of data on your physical activity and health. The new iOS 15 will take this historical data and make sense out of it, observing changes in activity and vitals over extended periods. Key data points in this trend analysis capability include sleep patterns, blood glucose levels, and resting heart rate. Doctors often lack this long-term trend data when monitoring patients, particularly those who might not demonstrate immediate health problems. All of this, of course, has privacy implications and requires user permission, but the potential for proactive medical diagnosis is enormous. All of this makes sense, given that Apple heavily positions the Health app and Apple Watch towards older users. This trend analysis capability also turns the watch into a convenient and accurate way to remotely monitor the health of at-risk family members, children, or friends.
FaceTime cracks Apple’s walled garden…just a bit
Significant airtime at the event focused on one of iOS/iPadOS’ most popular features: FaceTime. Perhaps spurred on by Zoom’s incredible pandemic-fueled popularity surge, Apple announced several new “catch up” features.
For example, FaceTime can now conduct large group calls in little boxes. Users can also now blur out their backgrounds (something that’s been available in Zoom and other video conference platforms for over a year). Recognizing the rising popularity of video conferencing for work-from-home users, Apple also added new microphone modes to remove ambient background noise and amplify voice levels.
The most significant Zoom-inspired change is that FaceTime now has a scheduling capability. Users can create calendar links for events in the future, a vast improvement over the immediacy of FaceTime’s traditional approach. What’s more, users can access these FaceTime-based calendar links via Web browsers on Android and Windows devices. It should be pointed out that Steve Jobs talked about FaceTime becoming an open standard years ago. This is an overdue step in that direction.
Privacy is still king at Apple
For the past several years, privacy has been a bedrock element of Apple’s marketing strategy for all of its devices, particularly at the operating system level. Apple further affirmed this direction at WWDC 21.
At last year’s WWDC, Apple introduced the concept of app privacy “nutrition labels”—short summaries of app’s data practices in the App Stores. With iOS 14, Apple altered how apps, Apple and third-party, handle user data, obliging them to request the consumer’s permission to track them for marketing purposes. This announcement created some commotion with the likes of Facebook (and others), who claimed the measures restricted their ability to monetize their free services with targeted advertising. With Apple once again taking direct aim at the billion dollar “adtech” industry, these updates strengthen the company’s ability to act as a guardian between consumers and the digital industry at large.
Apple announced several new embedded features that will launch later this year in its iCloud+ subscription service. The new Private Relay capability has all the earmarks of a VPN, and is aimed at enabling highly confidential and secure browsing on Safari. Private Relay encrypts traffic as it leaves the user’s device, obscuring it through two internet relays so that other parties (including Apple) can’t see their browsing data.
Another new capability, Hide My Email, will be embedded into iCloud, Safari and Apple Mail. The feature allows users to set up multiple temporary email addresses to prevent third parties from gaining a user’s actual email address for marketing purposes.
Lastly, iCloud+ will now provide integrated support for an unlimited number of HomeKit-based secure video cameras. As an added bonus, the recordings stored in iCloud+ won’t count against the user’s iCloud storage plan subscription.
HomeKit updates strengthen Apple’s commitment to the connected home
For years, Apple’s smart home approach has been less than spectacular manner. Ease of use and device compatibility challenges have ceded much of the marketplace momentum to Amazon and Google.
But this has been changing over the past year. A variety of improvements to HomeKit were announced at WWDC 21, led by Apple’s unambiguous support of the industry interoperability standard known as Matter. Apple’s endorsement of Matter should have a significant impact on unifying the smart home market. We learned at the event that Apple will integrate Matter support into the Home app in iOS 15, allowing users to control Matter and HomeKit devices in a single place. HomeKit will also gain a capability in iOS 15 called Home Keys, which allows users to unlock their door by tapping their phone or watch. Apple also announced that its UWB-enabled iPhones would open car doors on specific auto models beginning later this year.
Other connected home-related features are coming to the Apple Watch. For example, watchOS 8 will allow users to simply tap an intercom button and broadcast messages to HomeKit-supported speakers (including the HomePod Mini) throughout the home. This powerful feature should undoubtedly enhance the value proposition of Apple’s ecosystem.
Some closing thoughts
WWDC 21 did have a few other notable announcements that deserve some special attention. I especially like that a “device separation” capability is being added to Apple’s Find My Device service, which proactively alerts you if your Apple AirPods disappear from your immediate proximity. Apple also added new “multitasking” features to iPadOS, further enhancing the iPad’s utility as a productivity device. Finally, the new “universal control” capability in macOS Monterey and iOS/iPad OS 15 will allow users to control iPads and Macs as if they’re a single device, allowing users to move content from an iPad to a Mac (and vice versa). This is not a groundbreaking feature—Logitech has had a similar capability with its MX family of mice. Still, it will likely garner a lot of attention.
On the technology Richter scale, I’d assign a score of 4.0 (on a scale of 10) for this year’s WWDC. It wasn’t a total snooze, but it definitely left me thirsting for bigger things to come from Apple later this year.