Apple started their annual World Wide Developer Conference yesterday and for the first time it was delivered virtually, and free for all developers. The conference continues throughout the week and will be running over 100 live sessions with Apple engineers.

As always the event kicked off with a keynote address showing the major changes to each platform.

Apple launched a new Apple Developer app which is pretty good and contains all the video sessions from the current and past WWDCs going back to 2016.

Apple Silicon

The biggest change is the announcement that Apple will be switching from Intel processors to their own custom designed ARM chips over the next couple of years. As the performance of their A-series chips has improved in successive iPhones and iPads, I’ve wondered at what point Apple would consider putting them in a Mac.

We’ve been in this situation before. Back when Apple used PowerPC chips, they had become increasingly frustrated with the architecture. The most powerful G5 chip was to be found only in desktop models, Apple just hadn’t been able to shoehorn it into their notebooks, despite years of trying; the chip was just too big and power hungry to work within the thermal envelope of a portable.

Steve Jobs put it best when he said:

“As we look ahead, we can envision some amazing products we want to build for you, and we don’t know how to build them with the current PowerPC roadmap.”

Steve Jobs, WWDC Keynote 2005

He spoke of “performance per watt” as a unit, and looking at the PowerPC roadmap projected out 12 months, they were going to get 15 “units of performance per watt”, whereas Intel’s roadmap was going to deliver 70.

I think Apple have found themselves in this situation again. Intel’s move toward 7nm manufacturing isn’t going that well, and they admit that their 10nm process is doing quite poorly after years of delays. Intel seems unable to deliver the chips Apple wants in order to build their next generation products.

This time Apple doesn’t need to look externally to find a solution as they’ve been shipping their own silicon for more than ten years already. Since 2010 with the A4 chip in the original iPad, Apple claim to have delivered over two billion custom SoCs in the last two years alone, and improved GPU performance by 1000X since the original iPad. That’s pretty amazing.

Using their own silicon in a Mac will also allow them to bring some of the specialised circuits they’ve already been adding to iOS devices, such as the Neural Engine for Machine Learning, or dedicated image signal processors for things like computational photography.

I’m looking forward to see where this can take the Mac.

Privacy

Apple got a lot of mileage out of their privacy stance. It’s good to see them putting extra effort in to explain what the difference is between their approach and mainstream tech, helping users see why it’s better.

They didn’t just mention it as each new feature was revealed, they had an entire section dedicated to their position that privacy is a “fundamental human right” and their key principles to achieving it, which were:

  • Data minimisation - avoid collecting any data in the first place if you can
  • On-device intelligence - avoid sending data to the cloud wherever possible
  • Security protections - stops malicious attempts to access data
  • Transparency and control - puts users in the driving seat

In a time where mass surveillance and data gathering, the likes of which George Orwell couldn’t even imagine, is so prevalent, I think it’s admirable that Apple is one of the few in “big tech” that is putting their money where their mouth is to defend privacy.

On iPhone, the inclusion of activity lights for the camera and microphone, showing up to the right of the notch, is a nice touch too.

On the web, Apple have been driving privacy forward for years now in Safari, with Intelligent Tracking Prevention identifying and blocking trackers from profiling your browsing activity. The latest update adds a new Privacy Report showing which trackers are being blocked, and how often they’re cropping up in your browsing sessions. It’ll also alert you if a password you’re using on a website has been compromised, and gives you fine-grained control over which browser extensions can run on which websites.

iOS 14

The biggest change for iOS must be the new home screen design. It’s never really made that much sense to me that the widgets were relegated to an almost hidden screen to the left of home. I’ve always quite liked the Metro UI on Windows Phone, and these new widgets remind me of that, but with a nicer design and more flexibility. The “Smart Stack” widget looks like it will be quite useful, showing multiple widgets in a stack, and automatically showing the most relevant at the top. It’s worth noting that these new features are not mandatory, users can keep all their home screens the way they are right now if they like.

The new “App Library” is a nice take on an old Android feature for listing all apps, I think it’s a better implementation though as it groups each app by its category, with the top two slots being reserved for “Siri Suggestions” and “Recently Added”.

The changes to iMessage are welcome too. Features like “mentions” and “threads” already exist in many other chat apps, so iMessage is playing a bit of catch-up here, but again we shouldn’t forget the privacy benefits.

The improvements to Maps (especially navigation) looked quite nice, but they tend to be quite US-centric, rolling out to other countries quite slowly. For example their take on Google’s Street View, named “Look Around”, is still US-only. Again though, privacy is at the forefront with Apple claiming (emphasis mine):

“Maps is the best way to navigate and explore the world, all while protecting your privacy.”

Here’s hoping they can speed up the rollout of these features worldwide so everyone can benefit.

iPad OS

iPadOS is growing up again. A lot of the features were “quality of life” improvements, bringing parity with the Mac, things like proper sidebars with drag and drop, full Spotlight search integration and so on.

The standout feature for me was “Scribble” which allows you to use Apple Pencil to convert handwriting to text in any text field on the system. When I was studying at University I invested in a Toshiba Portégé 3500 hybrid laptop/tablet which ran Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. You could use it in a standard notebook configuration, or you could flip the screen around so it closed facing outwards and use it as a tablet with an included stylus.

It allowed you to take handwritten notes, which would be converted to text, mixed with diagrams and so on. This was most definitely a great idea that was way ahead of it’s time. Sadly the technology of the era just wasn’t up to the task, but the concept itself has always appealed to me, and it’s brilliant to see it here again in iPad OS 14. The Portégé was 3.2cm thick and weighed 1800g, compared to the iPad which is only 5.9mm thick and weighs a mere 471g. I would have loved this device back when I was a student. To be able to carry all of my textbooks and take down all my notes, sketches, diagrams all on this single lightweight device would have been incredible.

macOS Big Sur

No longer do Apple fans have to explain to people that the X is pronounced “ten” as this is the first macOS since 2001 that isn’t version 10. There’s quite a big change to the UI, bringing back some of the depth that was missing since the flat design of Yosemite debuted.

There are lots of rounded corners in windows, buttons, menus, and icons, which unifies some of the design language between iOS and macOS, but rather than totally iOS-ify the Mac, Apple seems to recognise and acknowledge that the Mac has its own personality, and they should embrace that rather than extinguish it.

It also made me think that a change in Mac form factor might be around the corner. iPhone and iPad already have displays with rounded corners, perhaps the first Macs to use Apple Silicon will feature rounded displays to match? In Luke Miani’s video review he shares this view but also observes that these big round buttons are “more touch friendly” too, possibly indicating touch screen Macs could be on the way in the future.

The ability to run iPhone apps natively on Apple Silicon will be interesting to see. My concern here is that the current generation of Catalyst applications haven’t been very good so far. Could this lead to a dumbing down of Mac applications? I hope not, but Apple still have a bit of work to do with Catalyst to prove that you can create apps that look and feel like proper Mac apps.

At the same time, I do think the shared architecture will make it easier for developers to build applications that run across all Apple devices, optimising the UI for each device, but without needing to re-engineer the entire backend of the app each time. This is the strategy Microsoft were pushing with Windows 8 and Windows Phone, unfortunately that didn’t work so well, but I have more faith in Apple here to deliver on this.

Interestingly, Apple seems to be reversing course on extensions in Safari, having all but removed them in previous versions, they are embracing them again through a new technology called Safari Web Extensions. This seems very similar to the WebExtensions API that Firefox uses and should allow extension authors to write extensions that work on multiple browsers, with just a few browser-specific changes.

Apple were also keen to highlight the industry leading performance of Safari, claiming the new version is 50% faster than Chrome, plus the extra battery life you’ll get from Safari (1 to 3 hours more depending on the activity) compared to Chrome and Firefox. I’m looking forward to the final benchmarks to confirm this claim, but Safari does have a track record of being much lighter and faster than other browsers.

Everything Else

Since this article is getting quite long, some final thoughts on a variety of things Apple mentioned during the keynote:

  • Built-in curated Guides for Maps looks nice for people visiting new cities, once the current pandemic is behind us. Things like cycling directions taking elevation, road density and business into account are nice for optimising your cycle route. Maps gains EV charger location support but goes a bit further and can take into account the charger type your vehicle uses, so you don’t end up stuck at a site with the wrong one.

  • Spatial audio for AirPods Pro looks incredible, automatically switching between multiple devices based on which ones you’re using is a game changer for bluetooth audio, which is otherwise clunky when dealing with multiple devices.

  • I liked their idea of a “Nutritional Information” table for app privacy covering what data will be collected and what it will be used for so you can see at a glance what to expect. I think this metaphor will help people understand the importance.

  • The open-sourcing of HomeKit, and the cross-partner Home Automation approach sounds like a great idea, hopefully we’ll see more compatibility across the home automation ecosystem with this, all with a focus on privacy.

  • Adaptive Lighting is basically “Night Shift” but for your light bulbs - very nice.

Wrapping up

Tim Cook said a couple of times throughout the keynote:

“We haven’t stopped innovating”

I think this is true. Although there wasn’t one big item revealed that blew people away, I think the scale of what they’re trying to do across the board right now - to create a unified platform across desktop, notebook, phone, tablet, watch and television - is very ambitious and exciting. It’s also good to see Apple recognising and trying to address where they’re weaker, for example by finally allowing people to change some default applications on iPhone, and opening up Siri and HomePod to work with more applications.

I for one will be looking forward to seeing what happens next.