Apple previewed a number of new product features that are perfect for a pandemic, like watching streaming TV together or blurring your messy FaceTime background. Unfortunately, many will arrive just as much of the United States is reopening and switching back to in-person socialization.
The software updates for iPhones, iPads and Macs were announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on Monday. The annual event is like a public to-do list for Apple’s products over the next few months. The operating systems will be available to everyone this fall, and in July as a public beta for people who like to test out new features before their friends.
There was a barrage of hundreds of new features, some long-overdue improvements and others that will dig Apple’s products further into our private lives and health.
Among the highlights: The next iPhone update, iOS 15, will include more Zoom-like capabilities for video-call app FaceTime, including screen sharing and the ability to call people who aren’t using Apple devices. There are also new privacy controls, including an extra service to cloak your Web surfing that’s similar to a VPN.
iPhones and Apple Watches will now be able to carry government IDs (from participating states), which could be great in bars and airports, unless your battery dies. And a handful of new health options let your devices look for patterns and send you reminders about your health – as well as give family members and doctors more ways to see other people’s health information.
For the second year in a row due to the coronavirus pandemic, Apple streamed the announcements over the Internet rather than perform them in a conference hall full of guests. Without the live element, the WWDC keynote felt at times like one long, glossy video ad.
The event is especially fraught this year. Apple typically uses WWDC to bolster its relationship with app developers, some of whom don’t like Apple’s tight control over its App Store. Last month, a judge finished hearing arguments in a lawsuit from “Fortnite” maker Epic Games about Apple’s 30% commission.
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Here’s what Apple previewed that most caught our eyes:
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More privacy – and even more, if you pay
Apple announced several new privacy changes – including, for the first time, some additional protection you’ll have to pay for.
Among the updates that will come to all Apple customers, the iPhone and Mac’s built-in Mail app will now combat efforts to track you through email. Marketing emails often contain pictures or tiny pixels that are used to gather information about the people opening them.
Apple’s Mail app will now hide your device’s IP address when you open messages, so senders can’t as easily link you to your other online activity. Doing this will also hide if and when you open emails, as well as some clues about your physical location.
Second, a new section in Settings called App Privacy Report will fill in a big gap in our knowledge about what apps are doing with our data. This report will tell you how often apps use your location, photos, camera and microphone. It will also show you all the third-party domains apps are contacting, a missing element of the app privacy “nutrition labels” Apple introduced last year. (Maybe this will finally end the perpetual debate about whether Facebook is listening to our conversations.)
Finally, Apple’s paid iCloud storage subscription will now be called iCloud Plus and include a service called Private Relay that encrypts the traffic coming and going from your device. This will prevent your Internet provider from knowing what sites you look at, and also remove some of the clues websites use to identify you. This is similar to a virtual private network (VPN), though Apple underscored its system had been designed with a double-blind protection so even Apple can’t tell what sites you’re visiting.
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iOS gets pandemic-ready features, and some peace and quiet
FaceTime is adding its best Zoom-like features, more than a year into the pandemic. In addition to blurring out backgrounds, a new option called SharePlay turns the video calls into tools for watching the same streaming TV with friends, listening to music and sharing your screen. They’re the kinds of activities that have been key to keeping people connected over the past year, but on other apps.
Apple put everything on the iPhone: Your work life, your social life, notifications for everything from vet appointments to breaking world news, and a camera roll filled with thousands of photos. It’s great to have everything on one device 24/7, until it isn’t.
In iOS 15, it is trying to make it all of its own bells and whistles a little less overwhelming, starting with a way to tune people and apps out.
A new feature called Focus is similar to ‘do not disturb,’ but you can customize it for different parts of your day. It will let you pick whom or what you want to have access to you during work or after work, while sleeping or at other special times like while working out.
Another place Apple is trying to give back control is its notifications. Apple regularly tinkers with its notification features and pages, and now it is adding a summary that shows non-urgent notifications in one spot, so you can visit them when its convenient.
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Health goes all in on tracking and sharing
At the heart of Apple’s health strategy is the belief that to get and stay healthy, you just need more data and monitoring. The iOS Health app and Apple Watch already suck up information about how much you walk (or don’t walk), your menstrual cycles, your heart and lab results. Now Apple is adding new ways to use that information, by turning it into reminders from your phone, and sharing it with relatives, doctors or caregivers.
It’s taking all of your historical data and trying to make sense of it with trends, comparing changes in your activity and vitals over time. It will look at things like your resting heart rate, blood glucose, sleep patterns and steps to detect long-term changes. It might alert you to anything concerning, like a drop in activity level.
The Apple Watch and Health app features have always had a focus on older users. The latest option turns the watch into a way to remotely monitor the health of older or at-risk relatives, children or partners. The features will give doctors or relatives access to more personal health information gathered by the watch and iPhone.
The option requires the users’ permission, but raises questions about how we increasingly use technology to monitor the health of people in our lives.
In addition to the existing fall detection feature, which uses the watch’s sensors to tell when someone had a tumble and offers to call for help, Apple is adding more mobility sensors. It will track how someone walks and look for signs of decline or unsteadiness, then make recommendations for mobility exercises.
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iPhone and registration, please
iOS 15 will also bring the iPhone a few steps closer to actually replacing your wallet, long one of the big promises of smartphones.
The iPhone Wallet app will now be able to scan and store an official U.S. government ID such as a driver’s license. Your ID would be encrypted and stored in the same bit of iPhone hardware that’s used by Apple Pay.
Now the fine print: Apple said the digital ID would only work with participating states, and didn’t immediately say which ones had signed on. But it did say it was working with the Transportation Security Administration to enable airport security checkpoints as one of the first places we could use it.
The iPhone is also making inroads in replacing keys, albeit slowly. Last summer, Apple introduced digital car keys. This year, it’s adding the ability to use the iPhone’s Wallet app for keys to unlock a home, office or a hotel room. But it will only work with compatible smart locks, and that’s starting with about 1,000 Hyatt hotels.