Apple’s annual worldwide developer conference (WWDC) will be going on till 8 June. But the keynote delivered by CEO Tim Cook and other senior Apple representatives such as senior VP for software engineering Craig Federighi, focussed purely on software, in a way going back to its roots.
The two hour event was packed with covering every aspect of Apple’s software divisions such as iOS, watchOS, tvOS and macOS which will lay down the foundation of the directions these product lines will be taking over the next 12 months.
No hardware announced
While the event was packed with software announcements, the speculated hardware such as iPhone SE 2, iPad Pro with a notch supporting Face ID, refreshes of the MacBook lineup was nowhere to be seen. To be honest, a week before WWDC, rumours had already started floating online that there would be no hardware announcements, so everyone was in a way prepared for that. Add in the fact that there was no leak of any hardware product, just added more gravitas to the reality of no hardware launch. This was also in stark contrast to last year, which saw a slew of new devices being announced.
Having a new product at launch always creates that extra buzz, especially when it comes to Apple hardware. It seemed like Apple was just not interested in releasing new variants of its hardware lineup, but more keen on getting the software aspects right. iOS 12 got a lot of screen time, with lots of promises to improve upon the fallacies seen with iOS 11, one of the most bug-ridden software launches ever. Plus, September isn’t far off.
Playing catch up
Apple announced new features for iOS 12, watchOS 5, tvOS as well as macOS which has now got a new name, Mojave. As far as iOS 12 is concerned it was a mixed bag. While some features were new, majority of them seemed like iOS was playing catch up with Android. Federighi may well have made a tongue-in-cheek comment about the dismal number of Android users on the latest OS (and that is something that needs to be made fun of), but the fact remains that some of the basic features which have been there on Android for generations now, were just announced a couple of days ago at WWDC. Case in point, group notifications, updates to Photos app, Siri shortcut features to even the features around digital wellness.
Now Digital Wellness that is becoming increasingly popular among the big tech companies, was also one of the major additions to iOS 12. A feature called Screen Time baked right into iOS 12 will now give you a clearer look at how much time you spend on your apps, which apps bombard you with notifications and how you can set an ‘App Limit’ which will keep a timeout (decided by you) on apps which you feel are the most addictive.
Apple’s voice assistant Siri got some new feature addition called Shortcuts, which basically lets you create a list of tasks which are triggered by a voice command. If that sounds familiar to Google Routines or Alexa Skills, well that’s because in principle the functionality is the same. Siri Suggestions seems a lot like what Google Now and Assistant have been doing - suggesting you things to do or sending your reminders before you even ask for it, based on the time of the day or the location you are in. Siri still seems to be stuck in the past, and the way Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have advanced over the last couple of years, it seems like Siri has a lot of ground to cover to get to the same level. There was nothing in the announcements at WWDC which give me any confidence that Siri could be the challenger to the Assistant-Alexa duopoly.
Memoji seemed like Apple’s answer to Samsung’s AR Emojis (which actually was heavily inspired by Apple’s Animojis). Being Apple, the Memojis, which are your personal animated avataars, are a lot more refined and much more responsive to your facial muscles than the animated personalised emojis seen on Samsung flagships. But the amount of time spent on the Memoji feature made me wonder, on the one hand Apple wants you to spend less time on its devices and then there is a feature such as Memoji, which could itself be a time sink if you are keen on changing your avatar very often. Was the feature cool? Definitely. But do you want to spend hours creating that perfect avatar with the right hairstyle, right shades colour, etc? You may want to think again.
MacOS Mojave announced the much speculated Dark Mode, which got a lot of cheer from the developer crowd. Also the Mac App Store has got a much needed design rehaul which takes a lot of inspiration from the App Store. Only time will tell if the mere cosmetic changes to the Mac App Store would really change things much there. The organising of the files on the desktop into stacks and features pertaining to screenshots seemed quite valuable and something that can help in your workflow. Updates to Finder are also welcome and will certainly improve its usability as it lets you do a lot more based on the context. For instance opening an image file will bring up quick editing options such as cropping or rotating.
Developers couldn’t contain their excitement about these things
Two things that stood out for developers were Core ML 2 and ARKit 2. Core ML 2 is the second iteration of the suite of machine learning apps for iOS devices, which is expected to be 30 percent faster than previous generation. With a feature called Create ML, developers can create the machine learning models for their apps within the Mac ecosystem (using the Macbook Pro or iMacs) and since it is a GPU-accelerated tool there’s a promise of training the AI models faster.
Augmented Reality is a huge thing for Apple as it also happens to be the largest AR platform. ARKit 2 builds upon the advantages of the first iteration of ARKit and the major draw here was the Shared Experiences feature. This can let you play a game set in an AR environment with another friend or people within a team can collaborate on a project using AR and so on. Even features such as Persistent AR enable you to leave virtual objects in an AR environment as is and then return to it at a later date. For instance, a teacher can use her desk as an AR environment to add virtual objects to teach students a concept. So even if the lecture is over and the teacher wants to continue from where she left off, the persistent AR feature will let her and the students return to the same virtual object in the class’ AR environment the next day.
A lot of the developers that I spoke to after the event are keen to try their hands on these two new technologies. For game developers, the possibilities that ARKit 2 opens are endless. The Lego AR demo showcased at the WWDC showed just how well physical and virtual worlds can collide and take the immersiveness to a whole new level with your friends joining in to play games in AR.
According to Jyoti Ramaswamy, a 16 year old developer who has created an app to help people self diagnose the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, the use of the Core ML framework in her app is quite important. She was super kicked about the Create ML feature that Apple announced, as according to her she would not need to create her machine learning models in other platforms. Others such as WapleStuff’s Raja whose calculator app Calzy 3 won the Apple Design Award said that he was excited about the ARKit 2 and is already thinking of new app ideas where in he can implement ARKit 2 and its functionalities. The story repeated with every other developer I spoke to. The introduction of Dark Mode also got a thumbs up from the dev community.
Not so subtle digs at Facebook
One thing that was evident from the WWDC keynote is how Apple is putting all its efforts to ensure the digital wellness of its users as well as keeping user data private and secure. To make both these points even more clear, Apple took some not so subtle digs at Facebook and Instagram.
When demoing the Screen Time feature, the apps which were shown as being the top time suckers had Facebook and Instagram in the top three. When demoing the App Limits feature, Instagram was singled out. When announcing the Intelligent Tracking Platform improvements, where Apple announced that the Safari browser in iOS 12 and macOS Mojave wouldn’t allow tracking and would remove the ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ buttons as well as the Comments widget, guess which site popped up as the one tracking your online behaviour? Facebook of course! There is certainly some sort of cold war brewing here. I have written a larger piece on this which you can read here.
The marriage of iOS and macOS
One other thing that has been long speculated is the merger of iOS and macOS. Federighi had a simple answer for that, “No.”
The audience reaction and claps that followed the ‘No’ seemed like a lot of the assembled people were in favour of this. Federighi went on to explain why a merger of the two operating systems wouldn’t make sense as the macOS software was designed keeping the ergonomics of the mac hardware in mind, and iOS apps were designed keeping touch interfaces in mind. But the fact remains that there is a significant difference when it comes to the sheer number of apps on iOS and that on the Mac App Store. So in a move that would keep both the users and developers happy, Federighi announced that Apple would be allowing third party app developers to develop their iOS apps for the macOS Mojave from 2019. Earlier in the day Apple itself had announced that iOS apps such as Apple News, Stocks, Voice Memos and Home app. Apple will do that by taking some key frameworks from iOS and bringing them over to the macOS and these frameworks will be adapted to certain macOS behaviours related to trackpad and mouse usage, window resizing, scroll bars, copy and paste, drag and drop and so on.
I feel this could really be a win for the user and the developer as well. There are so many times I have wished that a particular iOS app was available on the macOS too. If this marriage between iOS and macOS is successful, the macOS could get that much needed app portfolio from iOS which could add a lot of value for its users and developers.
Overall, the WWDC 2018 keynote was quite measured. In addition to announcing new software features, Apple also made it clear that it was concerned about its users’ digital wellbeing and would make it very difficult for any third party app or service or even data companies from identifying you as a person and playing fast and loose with your personal data. Yes, a lot of the features announced seemed like a deja vu if you have been an Android user. Siri definitely needs to have a lot more ground covered though. But macOS Mojave is something I am really looking forward to.
But whether one likes or dislikes the announcements made at WWDC, one thing is for certain. The developer community invested in Apple’s software ecosystem is a fiercely loyal and dedicated bunch. For a platform such as iOS which has around 20 million developers form 77 countries developing apps for a store that gets close to 500 million weekly visitors, it just makes sense.
Disclaimer: The correspondent was invited by Apple India to California for WWDC 2018. All his travel and lodging expenses were taken care of by Apple India.