SAN FRANCISCO – Coming this fall, your Apple gear will look a little different. The iPhone home screen will look more like an Android phone. The Mac will look kind of like you’re running an iPad. And the Apple Watch will even nudge you to spend longer washing your hands.
These developments and a blizzard of other software changes were on the agenda Monday at Apple’s WWDC, short for Worldwide Developers Conference. The annual event, normally held in a conference hall full of developers and press, went virtual this year, with chief executive Tim Cook and other Apple executives streaming announcements online through a slick prerecorded video. It gave the hour-and-40-minute event the feeling of a very long commercial, lacking executives’ usual stage presence and the cheers (or jeers) of an audience.
Cook touted Apple’s support of racial justice and thanked health-care workers. But he carefully sidestepped some controversies brewing with regulators over the control Apple asserts over its App Store – and the exposure-tracking technology it developed with Google for the coronavirus that we’ve yet to see widely adopted.
There was also no new hardware. Apple typically saves those announcements for the fall – which makes even more sense this year during the pandemic.
So what did we learn? Apple took the moment to announce long-discussed plans to shift Mac computers away from Intel processors to ones it makes itself. That could mean Macs with longer battery life and other advantages when they start arriving at the end of the year.
For most of us, the biggest impact out of the WWDC announcements will come in new capabilities and tweaks to software we use every day. We didn’t get everything on our wish list: You still can’t set Google Maps as your default map, and there’s still no Messages app for friends and family with Android phones.
Here’s the Apple updates we think will matter, most of which will be available as public beta test downloads in July and finished software for everyone in the fall.
There’s little revolutionary in iOS 14, but the iPhone home screen will get its first real makeover in years with a feature lovingly borrowed from Android phones. You can add “widgets,” which are windows with live, glance-able information from apps, such as the weather, music or upcoming appointments. (Previously, widgets were available on the iPhone’s swipe-left info screen and the iPad home screen.) It gives you one more reason to look down at your phone screen, but it could save you a few taps from opening common apps. Don’t fret if changing your home screen sounds annoying – you have to actively add them.
A feature made for our pandemic times, the new hand-washing alert on the Apple Watch is a gentle nudge to stop the spread of the coronavirus, or any other viruses or germs that are going around. With the update, the watch will look out for the signs you’re at a sink, from the way you move your hands to the sound of water swooshing by. Then the watch will give you a countdown to make sure you spend the doctor-recommended amount of time cleaning away all those nasty germs.
In a long-overdue option to bring order to apps on the iPhone and iPad, the App Library will show your apps in folders automatically based on category. The new view will appear at the end of your homepage and use information such as your location and the time of day to decide which apps get the most prominent position. Anyone who’s ever wasted time trying to move jiggly little apps into folders should appreciate the help. As a bonus, it will make folders that automatically update and change based on what apps you use the most or downloaded most recently.
It’s difficult to understand what apps are doing with our data. Now Apple will at least force apps to report some information about how they’re using our data, in simplified boxes that show up in the App Store. Modeled after nutrition labels, these will tell you what kind of data apps are collecting that’s linked to you, and how it is being shared. That’s good for people who take the time to look, but it doesn’t solve our bigger privacy problem.
And one more thing: iOS 14 apps will also ask your permission to track you across other apps and websites. Lots of apps do this to deliver targeted ads at you.
Well, this only took a decade: iPhones and iPads can now choose a different, non-Apple default app for email and Web browsing. You’ve long been able to install competing apps but could not change the default that iOS opens when you click on a link. Now you can switch to a competitor such as Firefox or DuckDuckGo.
But Apple forgot an important one: Maps. Apple forcing us to use its own Maps app – which only this year is gaining directions for bicycling – is the sort of anti-consumer move that riles government antitrust regulators.
WatchOS 7 adds a built-in sleep-tracking capability, but it comes with some strings attached. You activate it by choosing your ideal time to go to sleep and when you want to wake up. At your selected time, your watch’s screen will turn off, and it will begin looking for signals that you’ve fallen asleep. In the morning, it will wake you with an audio alarm or a jiggle on your wrist. A featured called Wind Down lets you create a pre-bed routine, such as playing music that makes you sleepy.
Unlike other sleep-trackers on the market, this Watch app won’t track your sleep cycles or tell you whether you were restless. You just get a daily readout on how long you were in bed and asleep. Your watch will need to have at least 30% battery life left before you go to sleep – which means you’ll have to find some other time every day to charge your watch.
File this one away for your next car purchase: iPhones and Apple Watches will eventually be able to replace car keys on compatible autos. Tesla vehicles already do this using a phone’s Bluetooth connection. Apple’s approach uses different technology, either the near-field communication system used by Apple Pay or the ultra-wideband wireless that Apple built into its latest devices. You’ll even have the power to temporarily share a key with a kid – curfew will never be the same! But it will require a car with compatible hardware; the first is the 2021 BMW 5 Series, available next month.
The iPad’s OS 14 may look familiar to Mac users, with more sidebars, drop-downs, toolbars and search features that seem lifted directly from the Mac operating system. Meanwhile, over on the Mac, a design overhaul will make it look slightly more iPad-like as part of the Big Sur operating system, including bringing more mobile features to the Messages app, such as confetti animations. Apple’s default browser, Safari, is throwing in a new translate tool and the ability to customize its home screen.
Sometimes you want to use an app but not download it. App Clips is Apple’s attempt to make it easy to use a feature offered by an app without installing it. For example, if you pass a busy store and want to get on a waiting list, point the phone at a special QR code and the option would pop up on your screen. There’s an option to then download the app, but the beauty is being able to skip downloading something you don’t need.
A few things made us smile even if they’re not a huge deal:
The Apple Watch will track dancing, because that’s totally exercise, too. Close your rings with the Macarena.
Memojis, Apple’s cute animated avatars, can now wear face masks along with a bunch of other new options. Covid-chic.
When you’re using AirPods and put down one device and pick up another, the wireless connection should travel with you. We’ll believe it when we see it.
The Maps app on iPhones and the Apple Watch adds bicycling directions, which is useful for socially distant commuting.
The iPhone will get a recording indicator along the top, so you know when you’re being watched out of the front or back camera.
The Washington Post’s Reed Albergotti contributed to this report.