We’re less than a week away from Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Like prognosticating about who might win the World Series this year (if baseball ever begins again), it’s anyone’s guess what surprises will be announced at the event. Due to COVID-19, Apple decided on March 26 to make the conference an entirely online virtual event. There are even rumors that the iPhone will be the chief device used to broadcast the WWDC sessions and breakout meetings—a classic Apple touch, designed to convey the power and sophistication of the iPhone’s camera technology.
Apple claims that it has more than 23 million registered developers, across 175 regions and countries, and more than 500 million people who visit the App Store every week. WWDC is an important annual event for Apple, where it gets the chance to articulate its product strategies and direction. While the event tends to focus on the operating system level, it occasionally touches on the hardware realm as well. Admirably, Apple donated $1 million to San Jose, where WWDC is typically held, in order to offset some of the community’s economic loss from the event going virtual this year.
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a swing at the items I’m reasonably confident will get announced at WWDC. As all longtime Apple followers know, it’s tough to hit a grand slam and guess everything that will be announced. That disclaimer aside, here’s my shortlist of predictions:
#1: Apple announces long-awaited transition to in-house ARM processors
For many years, Apple has been rumored to have plans to shift from Intel to its own in-house ARM processors. If the recent media reports are accurate, this may finally come to fruition. It’s important to recall that Apple was very cautious when it made its transition to Intel back in 2005. This migration will likely be equally judicious.
Since the transition to the ARM architecture is a gigantic one, it will be intriguing to see how Apple positions the migration. Many users embraced Macs because of their ability to run both macOS and Windows (via Boot Camp) and get broad access to applications across both sides of the OS spectrum. Presumably, virtual apps like Parallels (and others) might provide that hedge for Windows users who must have access to some X86 apps. But will that be enough to satisfy Mac users who are used to having the best of both worlds?
ARM-based chips will provide Apple with multiple advantages over Intel-based Macs, such as reduced power consumption (especially crucial for laptops), faster optimized MacOS performance and potentially better graphics performance. From a user standpoint, a common ARM architecture between iOS and iPadOS would open up the possibility of running iPhone/iPad apps natively on macOS—an initiative that was given life over a year ago with Mac Catalyst (an offering that enables developers to build native Mac apps from a current iPad app). The upside for developers? Apps can share the same project and source code, enabling developers to efficiently convert their iPad app’s desktop-class features.
If announced, Apple’s transition to ARM solutions will inspire more questions than what we can expect to have answered at WWDC. One of the most critical issues is how Apple will articulate and message the performance of an ARM-based Mac compared to one based on Intel’s processors. Intel has 40 years of expertise and proficiency in marketing and they have considerable expertise on how to market the value proposition of a processor technology to consumers. In a Forbes column from 2017, my Moor Insights & Strategy colleague Pat Moorhead made a passionate case about Apple’s rationale and desire to prevail in the silicon space—that prediction now seems prescient. What Apple ends up disclosing on June 22nd will be undoubtedly one of the key highlights of WWDC.
#2: A new MacOS designed to keep desktops/laptops relevant within the Apple ecosystem
In comparison to the rumors swirling around iOS 14, there have been remarkably few leaks about the future version of the macOS. This may be directly related to the fact that iOS features are likely to cross over to the Mac after its transition to ARM processors. I do think it’s likely we will see an updated MacOS iMessages app (more on this below) that will be Catalyst-based. Siri may end up getting third party voices, and it's possible that Safari may get translation capability.
With macOS, Apple’s biggest challenge is to keep the desktop and laptop relevant in an increasingly mobile device world. Apple continues to evolve the iPad into a competent productivity device (especially with its recent trackpad enhancements), so it will be intriguing to see how it messages and positions the Mac. I could see the Mac positioned as a platform for specific high-end applications, while the iPad continues to take on more mainstream productivity work.
#3: Improvements to iOS, iPadOS, and watchOS
There are several rumored improvements for iOS 14 (and presumably its iPadOS variant). Apps on the Home Screen may be getting a list view, so the user can see everything installed in one easy-to-view spot. Also allegedly planned is a new Fitness App that will let exercise diehards download guided workout videos on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV.
Thankfully, the iMessages app may be getting some long-desired enhancements, including “@mentions” in group chats, a feature for retracting an iMessage (I can hear the applause now!) and an option to mark messages as unread.
Apple has been vocal about the potential of AR for over a year and the company showcased a very cool demo at the opening keynote of last year’s WWDC. Expect to see an Apple AR app that utilizes the camera technology of its most recent iPhones to provide viewers with more information about the world around them.
Additionally, Apple is apparently working on a feature that will the Apple Pencil to handwrite text in any text input field. Handwritten content will then be converted into standard text before it’s sent. This feature is reminiscent of Apple’s initial PDA solution, the Newton, that was launched back in 1993. On a less earth-shattering level, there are rumors that Apple will allow developers to create third-party wallpaper options for the iPhone. These would be installed through the Wallpaper section of the Settings app.
Finally, expect to see some parental control enhancements for watchOS that enable parents to to manage, via smartphone, which apps their children can access and when. There are also rumors that the next-gen iOS will, along with the updated watchOS, allow the Apple Watch to detect blood-oxygen levels. It’s not clear whether a feature like this would be tied to a yet-unannounced Apple Watch or with pre-existing models.
#4: Possible new hardware
While the new ARM-based iMac models will presumably not be announced at WWDC, there are rumors that Apple will take the wrapper off a redesign of its iconic all-in-one desktop—the first new iteration in years. It would not be surprising if Apple implemented the iPad Pro design language, in order to employ thinner bezels like the Pro Display XDR. This new iMac could feature a T2 chip for controller and security functions, an AMD Navi graphics controller unit and all-flash storage, which would allow Apple to eliminate its hybrid Fusion Drive. It’s possible that this new iMac design could feature the “Comet Lake” CPUs that Intel released in April.
With the latest iPhones’ ultra-wideband capability, it’s also possible that Apple will release the long-rumored AirTags: a Tile-like device that allows users to track items not usually connected to the Internet.
A few closing thoughts
Like the famous Paul Masson TV ad that spoke of “not selling wine before its time,” Apple does not rush itself. It’s one of a handful of tech companies that takes a very long view of the product categories and markets that it invests in. Invariably, this strategy has paid off handsomely for them from a revenue and margin growth standpoint over the past 15 years. That said, this approach often means we have to receive Apple news in a piecemeal fashion. That can be frustrating to those that follow the company, but ultimately it’s a testament to the company’s deliberation and thoughtfulness.
Actual substance aside, I do expect WDDC to be a Broadway-caliber show from a production standpoint—particularly in the breakout sessions. Knowing Apple, it will set the bar for how these virtual events should be conducted. That in itself will make it worth your time to tune in.