WWDC21 keynote review

A new year, a new WWDC with once again new iOS, iPadOS, macOS and watchOS releases. If you ask me, I think yearly releases are overkill and really not necessary; I’d rather have Apple split off features like Weather, Maps, Notes and more into separately updated apps, and have less frequent and bigger OS updates where there is less focus on Apple’s apps, since they wouldn’t be part of the OS anymore.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed this year. Not only am I simply a bit tired of Apple and their predatory practices, but the features announced today are too often not available in the Netherlands, or they’re just not features I see myself using.

As a quick side node, an incomplete list of things that are not available over here: Apple News, Fitness+, Apple Card, Siri on Apple TV (even when everything is set to English), the new improved Apple Maps, cycling directions in Apple Maps, sharing Health info with your doctor, ID in Wallet, HomePod, Apple Watch cellular (they don’t even sell the stainless steel models here because of it)

Let’s go over the major features that were announced today.

FaceTime

I almost never ever use FaceTime - maybe once or twice a year with my mom, and that’s literally it. During COVID my Dungeons & Dragons sessions have moved online, and our group uses Google Meet. With a client I’m working for we use Zoom, and with my mentees I use Pop (formally Screen).

It seems that many of the reasons why I never use FaceTime have been addressed this WWDC: you can now create meeting invite links to share in sms, email or calendar invites, just like you can with Meet, Zoom and Pop. You can view a grid of all participants, which is how I always set up Meet and Zoom as well. You can finally share your screen, so it now becomes a valid tool for pair programming remotely or giving tech support to family members. And most importantly: anyone can join via the web, even people on Android and Windows PCs. Nice!

Then there are the spatial audio, portrait mode and Voice Isolation mode improvements, which are all nice to have as well. Plus SharePlay, which I don’t see myself using, ever.

Will this make me start using FaceTime more? To be honest, I doubt it, but it definitely has a better chance now.

Messages

The new Shared with You feature is something I don’t really care that much about, I don’t see myself using it. They showed it off using Apple News which reminded me: still not available in The Netherlands.

I would’ve much rather seen improvements to the pretty horrible UX of the Messages app - I still struggle with all the features they cramped into that app.

New Memoji outfits: sure, why not. But why are Memoji still not available in a stand-alone app? Missed opportunity.

Focus

I already use Do Not Disturb extensively so I am not sure what the benefit of the new Focus mode would be for me. I do like that in Messages, the sender of a message can see that you have silenced notifications with DnD or Focus.

Notifications

Redesigned notifications: finally added contact photo to Message notifications. Nice.
Notification summary: since it relies on Apple’s AI, I am not too sure about this one.

Maps

Right when Craig said “Apple Maps is the best way to navigate your world” I had to laugh, and then rolled my eyes: “yeah right”. The “all-new city experience” looks great, the new driving features look genuinely useful, but of course, it’s not available in the Netherlands. We don’t even have cycling direction here, the number one cycling country on the planet!

In my personal experience when comparing Apple Maps to Google Maps, Waze and Tomtom’s apps, I find that Apple Maps is consistently the worst in giving directions and showing the current speed limit. Sure, it’s all nicely integrated into all Apple devices, but it has such a long long way to go.

Safari

Safari gets a big visual overhaul across iOS, iPadOS and macOS, and I have mixed feelings. On macOS and iPadOS it looks best with the new tab bar, but I am not sure if a URL / search field that keeps moving around when you switch tabs is going to be annoying or not. It feels like the focus is too much on saving vertical space, possibly a case of form over function. I’ll have to try it out of course before I can give my final verdict.

On iOS, I am really not a fan of the new design. Having the address bar at the bottom makes it easier to access, yes, but the new gestures seem problematic to me, since they are so close to the normal system gestures to go back to the homescreen or to swipe between apps. I think it’s going to be rather annoying in actual use where you accidentally switch tabs when you want to switch apps and vice versa.

I also wonder how websites are supposed to handle the new design of the tab bar. Do we now have to deal with top and bottom “safe area insets” just like apps on notched iPhones?

Tab groups: this could be really useful for a lot of people, but personally I usually don’t have more than 5 tabs open at the same time so have no need to organize them into groups.

Safari Extensions on iOS: sounds good, but I am really skeptical how powerful Apple allows them to be.

Visual Look Up

They just sherlocked a bunch of “identify this plant” apps. Why is this now a part of the core OS? I’m not sure this needs to be baked deep into iOS?

Privacy

I really like the new App Privacy Report, especially that it shows which domains an app connects to. This is huge to gain insights into where you data is getting sent to. Of course this is not a feature that’s useful for the average user, but this definitely something I am going to check for my most used apps from time to time.

Mail Privacy Protection: I wonder what the difference is with just turning off remote content. Does this allow you to load remote content, but it intelligently doesn’t load the tracking images? How would it do that? An interesting feature that I’d like to learn more about.

iCloud

The new Account Recovery Contact feature seems like a pretty good idea, although I’d never use it myself. I wonder if this can be abused by phishers?

Then there’s iCloud+ with a few new privacy related features: Private Relay and Hide My Email. But the first question that immediately came to my mind was “if it costs the same, why the new name and subscriptions? I don’t really understand.” Why not just give these features to everyone?

I wonder if the Hide My Email feature only works with icloud.com addresses, which I simply don’t use.

iPadOS multitasking improvements

Yes yes yes, finally! I never got the hang of the side-by-side apps in iPadOS, this update seems to finally make it easy to use. Especially via the App Switcher, which mimics how I mostly do it on macOS.
The new shelf though.. not so sure about that one. Takes a lot of space and seems to clash with normal system gestures.

Widgets on the iPad Home Screen

A year overdue, but as I don’t use widgets on iOS or iPadOS, can’t say I really care too much. Same goes for the App Library: I recognize that it’s useful to plenty of people, but I just don’t use it.

Swift Playgrounds

You can now build actual iOS and iPadOS apps right on your iPad, and can even submit them to the App Store, all without needing Xcode. It’s limited to SwiftUI, but I think this is huge. Not something I see myself doing (I carry my laptop with me when I want to code), but considering how much more affordable an iPad is than even the cheapest Mac, this will allow a lot more people to develop apps.

I’ve seen plenty of people snicker at the idea of developing apps on the iPad, but I really think this is a huge deal.

Universal Control

Man, that demo looked so slick. But when I look how bad Sidecar performs even when connected with an USB-C cable to my 2018 iPad Pro, I am kinda skeptical that Universal Control is going to be anywhere near as smooth as that demo. I want to be proven wrong though, this looked really cool.

I wonder how this would work when you use Sidecar, would this finally allow you to use your mouse on the iPad’s screen?

AirPlay to Mac

I’ve been doing this for years via AirServer. Super obvious to add it natively to macOS, an obvious one to sherlock. Long overdue, but finally here.

Home improvements on watchOS

Will it finally show me a picture of the detected person, when it sends me a notification that a person was detected? And for that matter, will it finally stop detecting my cats as people?

Siri on Device

YES! Hopefully this will indeed finally make Siri fast to respond. And when driving around in an area with spotty internet connection, make Siri finally useful.

Xcode Cloud

Is this Buddybuild 2.0? It surely seems like it! But why isn’t this free? We pay Apple plenty of money already. I am very excited about Xcode Cloud, but really think it should be free.

TestFlight for macOS

I don’t work on any macOS apps, but this seems like it was long overdue. I know plenty of developers who are super happy with this particular announcement.

Other thoughts

  • Translate: a useful update, you can now translate any text anywhere in iOS. Even text within pictures.
  • Interactive Memories in Photos: I don’t see myself using this, ever. Looks slick though.
  • Mindfulnes: why isn’t this just left to third party apps?
  • Quick Note: seems useful, although it also seemed a bit complex in the demo.
  • Shortcuts on Mac: could be useful, but considering I never use them on iPhone or iPad… we’ll see.

Conclusion

For me the big standout announcements were Xcode Cloud, Siri on Device, iPadOS multitasking improvements and Universal Control, with an honorable mention to Swift Playgrounds which I won’t use myself but think is a hugely important improvement. The rest of the things announced, I am just not that crazy about.

I really wish Apple would’ve addressed the App Store, announcing improvements we actually want, like paid upgrades, the ability to explain how to subscribe outside of In App Purchase, different payment methods, etc. All the things that put Apple under investigation across the globe and the target of multiple lawsuits. Instead, we got A/B testing within the App Store and the usual spiel about how the App Store is designed to be a “safe and trusted” place where all apps are reviewed and there are no scams. Completely ignoring the truth about rampant scam apps and a review process that simply doesn’t stop them. It felt like a slap in the face, and a bad way to end the keynote.

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