Apple Is Smashing the Walls Between Platforms
A hardware-free Apple WWDC21 is about sharing, health, your data, and local intelligence
Apple is bringing so many good and necessary changes to all its major platforms that it seems almost unfair to say Monday morning’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote left me a little underwhelmed.
There are a lot of announcements, including some big ones like Siri on third-party devices and your Driver’s License in Apple Wallet. However, there was no Apple Silicon, M1-level moment. In fact, M1 got little more than a few mentions, without any details on future Apple Silicon platform enhancements. How, for instance, might macOS Monterey take advantage of the M1 architecture? If Apple’s working on an M2 or M1 Pro chip, we got no hints here.
That there was no hardware at all is only disappointing if you forget that this is a Developers’ Event. It’s about software, platforms, and code, and looked upon in that light, the event fulfilled its brief.
For a company so fixated on privacy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone mention “Share” so much.
Apple is busy tearing down the walls between platforms and the walls it’s constructed around your data. It’s not doing this to share it willy-nilly with partners or the public. No, this is a calculated effort to let Apple customers do what they want with their information and for its systems to better see one another, work together, and share information when it makes sense.
The biggest expressions of this strategy have to be SharePlay (built around FaceTime) and Shared with You, a pair of new features that in iOS 15, macOS, and iPadOS will let you listen to Apple Music, watch video (with shared controls), and even share your screen with other iOS friends. And when people share links and other info with you in, say, iMessage, that information might appear in other apps like Photos, Music, Safari, News, Podcasts, and Apple TV. This also means that these shared items could appear on other platforms where you use these apps. Apple’s so intent on opening up with share space, that it built a SharePlay API for third-party developers.
Keeper of your stuff
Apple’s reputation as an unerring privacy keeper is not at cross purposes with its desire to hold much of your personal data.
The company is now ready to store everything from hotel and office keys to, yes, even your Driver’s License. Obviously, Apple must convince 50 states to work with them on this, but I look forward to the day when, even if I accidentally left my wallet behind, I could show a traffic cop the digital license in my wallet and be on my way. It looks like you still must scan or photograph your IDs. Perhaps someday we’ll see all-digital licenses delivered from states to your wallet.
Apple’s also getting more aggressive in the health space, offering to, with your permission, share health data directly with your doctor. Again, Apple needs to help of healthcare solution providers to make this work. Personally, I am so tired of reentering my health information every time I visit another doctor. Digitize it and let me share it all.
Apple is also letting you share your real-time health data with family. I think this could be huge for those trying to care for or keep watch over aging family members (especially that new Walking Steadiness report).
I was surprised to learn that people are using Apple’s Breathe app on the Apple Watch, (something I consistently ignore) and that it was worthy of an update. Perhaps it was the stress of the pandemic that drove more people to seek ways to control their breathing and manage the stress. Now, in addition to breathing help, your Apple Watch with watchOS 8 will assist you in Mindfulness, even suggesting that you, in a way, think a happy thought.
On a more practical level, watchOS 8 enhances sleep tracking with Respiratory Rate tracking. I wonder if it will notice my borderline sleep apnea.
Less is more
While some utilities, systems, and services are getting redesigned, none of the platforms will endure sea changes. This, by and large, is a period of refinement. Updates like Focus, for helping you better manage distractions and get context-aware guidance, and Notifications that are now aware of Do Not Disturb, are all welcome but won’t radically alter your OS experience.
There was no mention of major changes in interface flow on tvOS, watchOS, macOS, or iOS. iPadOS 15 basically hands iPads a bunch of features, like Widgets on the Home Screen and App Library, that were first introduced in iOS 14. I’m especially happy to see the new multitasking control menu and the iPad Shelf, which only works for multi-tasking-aware apps and is really just another nudge in the direction of desktop-like use.
The ability to code apps on the iPad is, obviously, a huge deal. Again, the iPad Pro with the M1 chip is quickly becoming a reasonable MacBook replacement.
In search of
Apple Maps is still struggling to shed its early bad rap, even though the current iteration is an excellent mapping and turn-by-turn guidance platform (I use it all the time). Perhaps the updates coming to, I believe, all platforms, will finally right public opinion.
I thought Apple Maps’ new rich, 3D navigation system looked compelling and am pleased to see a Google Earth-like Globe.
Speaking of Google, Apple is starting to flex the search technology muscles it’s clearly been building behind the scenes. Live Text that, using on-device intelligence, can capture and search text from new and existing images and identify information, like dog breed, from images, is a “me too, Google,” technology, to be sure, but it’s also a message to Google. Apple is serious about building out its own search capabilities so it can, perhaps, reduce its reliance on Google.
Apple didn’t deliver new hardware, but it gave a boost to the ultra-popular popular AirPods line with iOS 15 support for new Conversation Boost technology, which let you use your AirPods to focus on voices while cutting down on ambient noise. AirPods can already read you your text messages but now they’ll be able to announce notifications, as well. This sounds great unless you have a bazillion notifications.
Siri privacy and the cloud
Apple says it’s shifting Siri to local speech recognition to protect your privacy, but I think the real news here is the speed boost. Siri can sometimes seem to take forever to respond to a query because it’s connected to the Internet. The demo, where they conducted a handful of local Siri queries, made it look much faster.
I’m confused by iCloud+. Why would new and altered features (Private Relay, Hide My Email, and HomeKit Secure Video) require a name change? As soon as I heard “iCloud+,” I assumed unlimited cloud storage for a premium price but no such luck.
The watchOS also follows the theme of sharing more from more places. The ability to share photos directly is a big deal. Still, with Apple’s Watch’s relatively limited storage space, I wouldn’t recommend storing that many photos on the device.
I was a little underwhelmed by the Apple HomeKit update section. I wanted an overhaul (where did “HomeOS” go?) but instead got better access through more devices.
Yes, Siri access on third-party devices is a big deal, but I think it’s still just the usual Apple HomeKit partner suspects. I do not expect to see Siri’s interface on, for instance, a Nest Thermostat or Lenovo Smart Screen.
MacOS Monterey is light on design changes, but there are some big updates worth talking about. I really like the cleaner, leaner Safari. Tab Groups is just a useful as it is when it’s called Collections in Microsoft Edge. I wish Apple had also added the ability to move open tabs to a vertical list, as you can on Edge.
It’s always interesting how Safari updates tend to get cross-platform treatment, with updates on macOS appearing on the iPad, and usually with some alterations, iOS. In this instance, iOS Safari tabs are getting a much-needed and more fundamental and mobile-friendly update. It looks like it’ll be a vast improvement.
Universal Control is probably my favorite update. This is more than a desktop extension, it’s a true bridging of two disparate systems with one control interface (the keyboard). You can even drag and drop between the iPad and Mac. Seriously, what sort of alchemy is this? Also, do you need any more evidence that these platforms are slowly, but surely merging?
By the way, I’m glad Siri Shortcuts is coming to the Mac where, to be honest, it’ll probably get more use than it does on iOS. Desktop users are already adept at desktop automation. Mac users already have a platform for doing so. At least Apple acknowledges that and said during the keynote that you can port your Automator workflows.
All these consumer-facing updates pale in the face of the Xcode Cloud, cloud-based app development environment, Swift app building on the iPad, Object Capture with iPhones or iPads and a 3D rendering app, and Apple’s insane number of new APIs. It’s those more dev-facing updates that will ultimately have the biggest impact on our Apple product future and your experience.
Correction: I misidentified Athena Health as healthcare provider Aetna. Athena Health is a healthcare technologies solution company. I regret the error.
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