The 2021 edition of WWDC began Monday with a keynote address. Apple used the occasion to show off a whole bunch of enhancements to its software and services.

Today, Apple began the 2021 edition of WWDC, its annual week-long developer conference. The show began with a keynote address that served as a product announcement extravaganza, with a preview of new software features and coming enhancements to Apple’s many services. Today’s announcements come a little over a month after an event where Apple debuted its latest slew of new hardware.

Things are a little awkward between Apple and app developers right now. On the heels of the company’s legal skirmish with Epic Games over the fate of the App Store, all eyes (OK, many eyes) were on WWDC to see how Apple would characterize its position as the app overlord.

Of course, the App Store drama was barely mentioned during today’s keynote address, which largely emphasized all the new ways Apple apps will be able to interact with other Apple devices, other Apple apps, and the growing list of Apple services. Here are the highlights from today’s presentation.

Updates to iOS
iPhones with new features on screen

Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 15, will show up on supported iPhones this fall.

Photograph: Apple

The star of the show at WWDC, as expected, was iOS. The software that powers the iPhone gets refreshed every fall, and today Apple gave its first look at the top-level enhancements coming to iOS 15.

With most everyone living in isolation for the last year, FaceTime has proven to be a vital feature of the iPhone. Today, Apple showed us that the next version of the videochat app is going to look a lot more Zoom-ey. There’s a new grid view for group calls that highlights the person speaking, and some new spatial audio and voice isolation features to make remote conversations sound clearer and feel more natural.

FaceTime is also getting a feature called SharePlay, which syncs streaming content inside FaceTime and allows users to watch movies or listen to music together while they chat. Of course, this simultaneous viewing and listening works flawlessly with content from Apple TV+ and Apple Music. Apple will also be launching a set of programming tools to allow developers at other streaming services to build SharePlay into their apps. Finally, people with Android phones or Windows PCs can join your FaceTime calls now. Apple users can share a FaceTime link that can be opened in the web browser on non-Apple devices.

The Photos app will be getting some new features that use computer vision technology to recognize and read text within images, and aid in image searches. (These features are pretty close to what Google offers in Lens, and what it’s adding to Android’s photo apps.)

There was more shown off in iOS than we have space to talk about here—like enhanced notifications and a big visual upgrade to Apple Maps—but we also have an in-depth walk-through of all of the new features in iOS 15 that covers everything you’ll get later this year.

More Uses for AirPods
Apple Airpods Max

The AirPods Max can play back spatial audio, which Apple is adding to select songs in Apple Music.

Photograph: Apple

Apple didn’t announce a new pair of its standard AirPods, but it did provide yet more incentives for people to upgrade to the more spendy AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.

Both pairs of Apple’s noise-canceling headphones will see significant improvements via software updates in the near future. Perhaps the most exciting feature is that they can now serve as low-powered hearing aids. People with mild hearing loss will soon be able to use a “conversation boost” mode, which uses audio processing in combination with the beamforming mics on the earbuds and headphones. With the feature on, people will be able to hear conversations more clearly and tune out ambient noise.

Siri will also be able to announce a wider range of time-sensitive notifications, like dinner deliveries—you can use which apps to enable in an upcoming settings menu. In addition, both pairs of premium headphones benefit from Apple’s system-wide improvements to the find-my network, with a new proximity view that lets you know when you’re getting close, and an exciting option that will show a notification if your iPhone senses that you’ve left your headphones behind.

Both pairs of headphones support spatial audio via Dolby Atmos, and today Apple announced that Atmos-mixed music is now available on Apple Music. (It’s currently limited to a few albums by big-name artists.) It remains to be seen whether Atmos-mixed music will take off, but it is exciting that TVos will also soon get spatial audio. That means you’ll be able to watch Apple TV in full object-based-surround sound with headphones on, a feature I can see taking off among new parents who want to crank up movie night without waking the little ones.

A More Flexible iPad
Woman working on iPad at desk

The iPad and iPad Pro are getting some new multitasking capabilities.

Photograph: Apple

For years, the iPad has been a beloved tool in the creative community, with apps for drawing, editing photos, and working with audio. But for so-called knowledge workers—folks who spend most of their days writing emails and working in documents—the iPad hasn’t been a very welcoming working environment, with half-baked app switching controls and inelegant multitasking tools. These shortcomings were noted in our recent review of the new iPad Pro. Today, Apple showed that it’s working to correct those pitfalls.

With its next update, iPadOS will get a multitasking menu that appears at the top of the screen. Using the tiny pop-up menu, you can take apps fullscreen, create a split view with multiple apps, or slide windows over to the side of the screen to access the home screen, all with one or two taps. Switching between apps in the split view is now accomplished with just a couple of swipes. These actions will also work with keyboard shortcuts—a boon for knowledge workers who pair their iPad with a Smart Keyboard for use as a laptop replacement.

Other updates: The Notes app gets more collaborative, with the ability to see recent changes, and the ability to tag your coworkers in a shared document. Widgets get an update in iPadOS, with new larger widgets, and new actions that make it easier to organize and manage widgets on the home screen. The Translate app is also getting a boost on the iPad, with real-time spoken language translations, and the added ability to translate text across all of your apps, web pages, Messages—everything on the system. Something really unique: You can use Translate to practice handwriting with Apple Pencil, so if you want to brush up on your Japanese kanji, here’s your shot.

WatchOS 8
Apple Watches showing new WatchOS features

New mental health features and some photo enhancements are headed to the Apple Watch.

Photograph: Apple

Your constant companion, the Apple Watch, can’t pat your back and tell you to put your head between your knees when you’re having a panic attack. But it’s doing its best to chill you out with some new meditative features. Now the Breathe app has a more absorbing animation. A new Reflect feature feeds you feel-good prompts, like to be thankful for something you love, or remind yourself of something that gives you joy (seashells!). The sleep-tracking system introduced to watchOS last year now also has new ways to measure different sleep goals, like measuring your respiratory rate.

Continuing on the meditative trend, Apple’s Fitness+ service now includes a tai chi workout to reduce stress, as well as artist spotlight workouts from artists like Keith Urban that are bound to increase the user base. A new celebrity trainer, Jeanette Jenkins, has also joined the Fitness+ workout team as an added attraction.

Finally, the Photos app is getting a significant update on the Watch. The new photo watch faces that put images of your loved ones on your Watch are sure to be a hit. Also, you can now scroll through your memories, look at featured highlights, and share them to your friends and family without even taking out your phone. Once you’ve found a particularly endearing shot, you can select it to send to your best friend, dictate a text, use the Scribble feature to edit the text inline, and then follow up immediately with just the perfect gif. It’s all the communication your friends and family could want, entirely from the wrist.

The Next macOS
Apple iMac and iPad showing new features

The iPad becomes a true second screen.

Photograph: Apple

The next version of macOS will be nicknamed Monterey—it follows Apple’s recent habit of naming macOS releases after beautiful parts of California, though the name is a bummer for anyone who had their money on Buttonwillow or Manteca. With this next version of the desktop OS due this fall, Apple is aiming for device synergy. Apps will sync more easily between all your Apple devices: Mac, iPads, and iPhones. In fact, with a new feature Apple calls Universal Control, users can set their iPad beside a Mac to double as an instant second monitor. The Mac’s trackpad and keyboard will work across both devices too, with the cursor jumping between screens as the focus changes from one device to the other.

Continuing its theme of borrowing browser features from other software companies, Apple announced changes to desktop Safari that make it feel a little more like Chrome or Vivaldi. Tabs appear smaller and more compact, and Safari users gain the ability to group tabs together in the sidebar, making it easier to organize your 250 open browser tabs. Tabs also change color to complement the visual scheme of whatever web page you’re viewing.

Privacy Enhancements
Apple's new Privacy Report feature

The Privacy Report dashboard.

Photograph: Apple

Never one to miss an opportunity to highlight the steps it’s taking to protect its users’ privacy, Apple announced a few new security-minded features coming to its various products. One big update coming to Mail is the ability to block tracking pixels in emails that can expose your email activity. The same feature also hides your IP address from email senders. (Yes, people can track your activity and location through email.) Similar privacy controls will be available to Apple users who subscribe to the new premium version of iCloud, which is called iCloud+. There’s a new browsing mode in Safari that will allow iCloud+ subscribers to obfuscate their location and destination in the browser. Apple is accomplishing this by routing encrypted web traffic through two separate internet relays.

Also new is an App Privacy Report, which is similar to what’s currently offered for websites in Safari. It’s a dashboard that gives you an overview of how often your downloaded apps are accessing your location, contacts, camera, and microphone, as well as which third-party addresses each app is pinging.

Siri gets more secure with some on-device speech recognition smarts that lets the virtual assistant hear and execute most simple tasks (setting alarms, switching to Dark Mode) without needing to send your voice clips into the cloud for processing.

Finally, the Wallet app will soon allow you to store more sensitive cards like government-issued IDs (such as your driver’s license) and keycards for your office building.

HomeKit and tvOS 15 updates
Apple HomeKit package detection feature

Package alerts tell you when the box of cat treats has landed on the stoop.

Photograph: Apple

Apple wants to make sure it has you in its clutches even when you don’t have your nose buried in your iPhone and when you’re not closing those rings on Apple Watch. That’s where HomeKit and tvOS updates come in—which are two separate software platforms, but both geared towards the home. The most significant HomeKit news to come out of this year’s WWDC is that support for Apple’s voice assistant Siri is coming to third-party devices. Up until now, you’ve only typically only been able to talk to Siri on Apple devices. This new software update means that other hardware makers, like smart speaker manufacturers or makers of funky smart home locks and cameras, can fully deploy the voice assistant on their devices.

There are a few other home software updates that are clearly designed as multi-device experiences—Apple devices, mostly. For example, you’ll be able to use Apple’s Home app on your Apple Watch as an intercom communication device, provided the intercom system you’re using works with Matter, a new de facto software standard that Apple has opted into along with Google and Amazon. Your Apple Watch will also unlock the door to your house, if you’re using an Apple-compatible smart lock.

On the entertainment side, Apple’s $99 HomePod mini, the iPhone maker’s answer to the Amazon Echo, can be used as part of a stereo speaker setup if you’re watching video through an Apple TV 4K box. Siri, through HomePod mini, will be able to pull up TV shows and movies on your Apple TV. (Well, in theory Siri will be able to do this; queries through Siri often go awry.) There’s the support for Spatial Audio in the new tvOS mentioned earlier, which works with Apple’s more expensive headphones. Also, that same new SharePlay feature that enables simultaneous video-watching on phones, tablets, and PCs will also work on Apple TV. The initial call happens through FaceTime video, but the “watch party” video happens through Apple TV.


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