This week, Apple did its first all-online Worldwide Developers Conference despite its cancellation due to the COVID-19 crisis. As expected, Apple released a plethora of new news for developers and Apple users that change and improve the Apple ecosystem.
One of the bigger reveals from Apple is its move to implementing its own silicon into its Mac lineup and transitioning to ARM from Intel’s x86. I have already written on Apple’s new Mac processors here, as it wasn’t much of a surprise for me. I will focus more on the other announcements Apple made at this year’s WWDC online event.
I would like to point out that Apple did an incredible job of making WWDC a virtual event. It was engaging to the audience and overall, well made. At some points, I could even here the Apple fanboys clapping over the announcement of dark mode.
iOS14’s “new” features
Before I jump into iOS14 and its new features, I would like to preface it with this: Apple’s closed ecosystem is what makes it so unique. When Apple includes new features in its separate operating systems, iOS, watchOS, macOS, most recently iPadOS, it includes features that take into account these separate operating systems all playing together in one ecosystem. iOS, like Android, is also a very mature smartphone operating system. It should be no surprise that we see features being copied. However, I still think Apple’s ecosystem is so good that it differentiates these copied features to be very different from Android, in a good way.
With that being said, many of the new iOS features announced at WWDC have been in Android for a long time(queue all the Apple innovation memes). Apple announced iOS14 will include an app library at the end of the home screen that is automatically organized and searchable, and it allows for users to hide unwanted and cluttered pages. iOS14 can now pull widgets from the Today View and be placed on pages. Widgets can be resized, and there is a new widget called Smart Stack that changes depending on the time of day. As incredible as those new features sound, if you’re an Android user, you are probably thinking back to 2010, wondering what Apple is thinking.
However, I think Apple’s version of widgets and the app library are compellingly different than Androids. I believe the uniqueness of Apple’s ecosystem, more specifically, that Apple runs a tighter ship when it comes to app development, makes widgets more personalized. For example, Apple’s Smart Stack widget would be hard to do on Android. Who on Android’s side of things makes a widget that is multiple widgets? It would be counterintuitive for widget developers to make one and off the path of Android developers to make a specific Android widget, and I’m not talking about a Google widget. In the same way, iOS14’s app library is specific to iOS14. Its role in iOS14 is to de-clutter a user’s pages, which is separate from Android’s primary role as a place where all your apps go by default.
I think there is a similar pattern for most of the iOS14 updates and features. iOS14 now has Picture to Picture, which lets videos be played in a smaller window alongside other apps, similar to YouTube’s small window mode on Android. I like how you can hide the video on the side of the screen for better multitasking. Siri is also redesigned with more answers to questions and the ability to send audio messages. Siri doesn’t fill up the whole screen when called and is more similar to how Google is called on Android.
iOS14 has a new app called Translate, which is oddly familiar to Google translate. It works offline, uses the neural engine, and has support for 11 languages right out of the gate. iMessage, one of Apple’s best solutions, has a few cool updates that I’m excited to try. Conversation and group messages can now be pinned to the top of iMessage, and there are new Memojis, including one with an amusing facemask. Groups has seen the most improvement with inline replies to specific messages, the ability to mention others in a group message and to have a group photo. The new Maps that was revealed at last year’s WWDC is available to more countries like Mexico and Canada and has more eco-friendly routes for electric cars and cyclers.
One of the cooler new iOS14 features, also coming to iOS13, is the ability to use your phone as your keys using NFC. With some new cars, like the 2021 BMW 5 Series that was shown off, you can hold your phone up near the car and unlock and start your car. I think this is an exciting and innovative use of NFC and a feature that will be hard to mimic for Android. Apple also has a new feature in the App Store called App Clip that allows a user to use a part of an app without installing the whole app. Apple says it takes around 10mb of storage and allows the user to login using their Apple account without having to worry about downloading the app. Apple Clip is similar to Google Instant on Android.
Apple adds welcomed features to the Apple Pencil, Airpods, and watchOS
Although iPadOS is separate from iOS, it has taken on the same updates and features that iOS14 has like widgets on pages and the new Siri that is out of the way. The coolest new features I saw for iPadOS has to do with the Apple Pencil. Apple added Scribble to iPadOS, which turns any handwritten text on any text field into typed text. It uses machine learning to recognize handwriting and treats it as though it were texts. It recognizes different languages and recognizes when something is written is an address or a phone number. I think Scribble is very similar to what we saw Samsung release with the Note10 last year, with the unique additive of being used in any text field.
Airpods also received an update with new Spatial Audio and the ability to switch between devices more seamlessly. For example, if you are using your iPad to watch a video and a call comes from your iPhone, Airpods will switch to your phone for the call. I think the Airpods are already the best in class wireless earbuds, and Spatial Audio with support for Dolby Atmos is going to raise the bar even higher.
Apple’s watchOS also has some subtle yet powerful improvements. Users can now share watch faces, and customized watch faces across apps and contacts. It can give cycling directions and adds Dance to the list of workouts. The Apple watches can also detect when a user is washing our hands and helps users wash their hands by counting down the recommended time Apple thinks you should wash your hands. The biggest improvement is Apple’s new sleep tracking. Users can now track sleep using machine learning as well as a Wind Down mode that helps in getting to bed on time. Previously, sleep tracking was done through third-party apps, but I like how Apple is including it in the Apple ecosystem and using machine learning to do so.
Privacy for apps and in the home
Apple has also partnered with Amazon and Google to adopt Smart HomeKit to better integrate accessories like lights and cameras into the Apple ecosystem. Apple can use machine learning to better detect faces and activity zones on cameras in your home system, and it can be integrated with tvOS. Lights and other devices will have suggested automation depending on the type of day and other data.
tvOS also has some incremental changes, including support for Xbox controllers, the ability to switch between users, and Airplay to Apple TV. I think opening up Apple TV to using Xbox controllers will be great for app development and usability of the Apple TV. It opens it up to be more than just a streaming platform, although it would be nice to have support for DualShock 4 controllers like the iPad. The implementation of Airplay is in the same boat. I think Airplay for Apple TV should have been on Apple TV from the day it was released. I think it has the potential to compete against Google Chromecast, and competition is always good for consumers.
Redesigned macOS looks like a non-touch iPadOS
Big Sur is the biggest update to macOS since macOS 10, almost 20 years ago. The biggest change comes from Apple’s change to its own silicon and Arm from Intel’s x86. As I mentioned at the beginning, I won’t go into too much detail on that switch since I have covered that enough here. What I want to talk about is the aesthetic changes and the app changes.
Apple is really good at making the point that it is one ecosystem with separate operating systems and devices. However, macOS Big Sur looks like iPadOS with a couple of small changes to account for non-touch. macOS takes on the same design language as iPadOS known as Neumorphism. Neumorphism is skeuomorphism but in a flatter and more modern look and feel. Skeuomorphism is taking an element and making it look as realistic as possible. A great example of this is YouTube’s original app icon that looked like an old TV. This design language is scattered all throughout Apple’s operating system.
Apple has also brought the control center from iPadOS to macOS, which looks as though it were made for touch. Other features like widgets on the desktop and notification center resemble carry over from iPadOS. Apps have also been updated like iMessage for macOS and Maps for macOS to more closely resemble its mobile counterparts. Safari has faster page performance, new privacy controls for extensions, and more intuitive tab features like the ability to hover over a tab before clicking on it. Overall, this is a big change for macOS and whole-heartedly deserves the bump from macOS 10.xx to macOS 11.
I think Apple’s incremental changes to iOS14, although very similar to Android, fit well with its place in the Apple ecosystem. It is easy to say that Apple has copied a lot of Android features, but I think it’s just as easy to say it is unique in Apple’s unmatched ecosystem.
I’m excited to try the update to the Apple Pencil and see the comparison between Samsung’s Note lineup and Microsoft’s Surface Pen. I’m also excited to see the changes in the Airpods with Dolby Atmos support.
Overall, I think users are going to enjoy the extra privacy and simplicity that Apple includes in its ecosystem. It is a strength of Apple’s ecosystem, but also a double-edged sword in terms of exclusivity. I am interested to see how Apple users react to the new macOS and its replication of iPadOS in a non-touch environment. As someone who watches many keynotes, webinars, and online events, I enjoyed the way Apple did WWDC. Great job, Apple.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.