Why Apple’s Changes to iPhone, iPad, Watch and Mac Software Matter

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Apple’s virtual Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday was, itself, a sign of the times.

Like all conferences in the coronavirus era, the WWDC keynote morphed into an online-only affair with lone speakers presenting in socially distant productions, as the end credits claimed. But the announcements were no less jam-packed. The moves extend across the Apple universe, bringing changes to the individual software platforms for the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV and Mac computers, while also tying them closer together.

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The list of updates both on the surface and under-the-hood, look rather extensive: Redesigned widgets in different sizes will be able to sit on homescreens and in the Mac’s notifications area. Siri and call notifications are shrinking down, taking up less screen space. Picture-in-picture video, which has been available on the iPad,  heads to iPhones. And users get new powers of organization to clear the app and folder clutter.

There are also new mechanics — among the most intriguing of which are App Clips, a small set of features that app makers can make directly accessible based on context.

“An App Clip is a small part of an app. It’s lightning fast and easy to discover, so you can quickly get what you need, right when you need it,” explained Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering. “Everything about App Clips is designed for speed.”

App Clips show up as a card that pops up on screen, allowing users to take actions immediately — like paying for a purchase with Apple Pay — even if they don’t have the full app installed on their devices.

The card, or “clip,” can pop up when the user taps a phone to a compatible terminal and friends can send them to one another. In the video’s example, a contact messaged an App Clip from Etsy to a product, making it easy for the recipient to open and buy it. The clip immediately vanishes when done. Another example tied into Apple Maps, letting users find and interact with local businesses.

Integration with “Sign in with Apple” logins is built-in, so interactions may be more than just transactional, depending on what developers want to include, such as booking appointments. Of course, that encourages brands and businesses to adopt the Apple sign-in feature to make the most out of these clips.

Recently used App Clips are also housed in a new app library, and they can be launched from the web, through a text from friends or via QR codes.

App Clips are effectively Apple’s new way of approaching discovery. For brands, the promise is that individual app downloads are no longer a barrier to potential new business — that is, as long as they support the other facets of the Apple ecosystem.

The company believes the new feature will be beneficial both for businesses that already have an app and smaller operations that don’t.

“We made it possible for apps like Yelp, which support multiple businesses, to create applet experiences for each of the places they work with,” Federighi said.

It’s worth mentioning that in recent days the company has been facing accusations that it forces app creators with paid subscriptions to include in-app payment options, presumably so Apple can take a cut. Now, in an apparent bid to ease developer relations, the company unveiled a series of forums, so app makers can give feedback or suggestions. This summer the company will also give them a new ability to challenge App Store guidelines and it promises a little more flexibility for bug fixes to existing apps.

There’s a lot at stake. Developers are the lifeblood of the App Store, with iPhones already acting as a massive force in commerce.

Apple disclosed last week that the App Store facilitated over half a trillion dollars in commerce in 2019. Of its $519 billion in global billings and sales, physical goods and services accounted for $413 billion. That’s a massive fire hose of transactions, and App Clips has the potential to grow those numbers even further.

Other upgrades speak to the mere experience of iOS 14, with the tech giant’s built-in software getting plenty of attention too. The changes include enhancements to real-time language translations, Apple Maps’ addition of bicycle routing, updates to Memojis — which expand diversity options, as well as timeliness, thanks face-masked avatars — pinned Messages conversations, smarter Siri searches and a host of other improvements.

The new features in iOS 14 will come across to iPadOS 14, with some even making their way to MacOS “Big Sur,” such as the latest widgets. Updates to the Mac’s interface will bring the look and feel of it more in line with the iPad and iPhone. New sidebars, which have come to the iPad, will also inform the Mac in places like the Finder and Photos. But there are a few device-specific changes. The iPhone, for instance, is getting new capabilities intended to replace car keys, from opening locks to starting the ignition, beginning with the BMW 5 Series next year. And the iPad will give Apple Pencil users more advanced handwriting recognition capabilities.

For Mac, the biggest upgrade is hardware-related. These computers are moving on from Intel-based chips to Apple’s own processors. According to Apple, that shift will make Mac software run smoother and offer swifter responsiveness, which means the experience will also be more unified and consistent with Apple mobile devices. Notably, for the first time, Macs will be able to run iPhone and iPad apps, bringing mobile-only offerings to a desktop environment.

To app makers, this can matter a lot. Essentially, it means that it will take less effort to make software that works across Apple devices.

Changes are coming to Apple’s littlest screen too. For the Apple Watch, “complications” — or lightweight watch features — no longer have to sit in one place on the watch face. WatchOS 7 developers can build numerous complications at once, effectively allowing greater levels of customization. The effect will lead to a much broader array of entire watch faces. Their makers will enjoy more distribution as well, as Apple Watch owners will be able to share watch faces with each other directly.

In the nearer term, Apple Watch owners may be preoccupied playing with new features, such as built-in sleep tracking, the ability to quantify dance fitness and even a COVID-friendly coaching feature that helps users with hand washing, thanks to sensors and automatic detection.

Another noteworthy feature comes from Apple’s HomeKit smart-home platform. The company recently teamed up with unlikely partners Google and Amazon to create smart home standards that, if effective, will reduce complexity and allow more smart speakers, security cameras, lights and other appliances to work with each other. Of note was a new facial recognition feature that can tell homeowners who’s at the front door via the Apple TV or HomePod. Apple showcased how a smart home camera could read a visitor’s face and match it to the tagged contacts in the homeowner or account holder’s Photos app.

Undoubtedly, highlighting facial recognition — just a week after John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” highlighted the serious privacy concerns around the tech — at this time was a bold move.

Granted, throughout the nearly two-hour presentation, Apple repeatedly stated the various ways it safeguards privacy. The measures include doing more local computing on its devices, instead of sending user information to remote servers, and ensuring cameras and microphones visibly show when they’re recording. Whether that will be enough to ease concerns, however, remains an open question.

Overall, however, these latest updates look like significant steps to improve the experience and the extensibility across Apple’s devices. It’s through these changes and more, in both big and small ways, that the company hopes to embed its tech further into consumers’ lives — even as that way of life changes right before their very eyes.

Chief executive officer Tim Cook couldn’t have been clearer about that at the start of the video.

He opened by talking about inequality and diversity, along with the company’s measures to address them, and these challenging times living under a pandemic. “We’ve also seen the profound impact our products have had. People are relying on them more than ever to remain connected to family and friends, to do their work, to express their creativity, to be entertained, as well as to entertain others,” said Cook.

“Today, the world is counting on all of us, and on the products and experiences that we create to move forward,” he said.

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