Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference kicks off next week, one of two major events the company hosts every year. WWDC, like other developer events, is largely focused on the platforms that app-makers build stuff for; in this case, iOS and macOS, along with tvOS and watchOS. It’s not only a chance for consumers to get a preview of how the next significant software rollout could fundamentally change their iPhones; WWDC can also be a bellwether for what Apple has set it sights on for later in the year, when it typically releases new hardware.
This year’s WWDC will be notable for a few reasons. For one, it’s the 10th anniversary of the App Store, which launched in July 2008, a year after the iPhone was born. Since then, the App Store has swelled to more than two million apps. Some developers have been vocal about their struggles to make a living off of making apps, and are hoping for a better payout from Apple. But there’s no doubt that an entirely new economy has spawned from mobile software, while a generation of iPhone users has come of age looking up to the app developers who keep them staring down at their phones.
That “staring down at their phones” part will be key to this year’s event: Apple is expected to preview software features that supposedly offer users greater control over their phone usage, according to a source familiar with the company’s plans. (Bloomberg reported on this initiative as well.) There have also been reports that Apple has rolled back some of its original plans to redesign its mobile software this year. And then there’s the matter of Siri. Apple says it’s always improving the consistently inconsistent digital assistant, but it clearly still has a lot to prove.
MacOS and iOS Meet Cute?
The next version of iOS is widely expected to be called iOS 12, while the next version of macOS will be 10.14. Each operating system will receive their fair share of feature updates. But this year's changes–on iOS especially–are expected to be less dramatic than last year's, which included a redesigned control center, more photo effects, enhanced discovery in the App Store, driving safety features, and of course, ARKit, Apple's mobile augmented reality play. This year's updates might very well end up being categorized as "fixes."
A more interesting move would be for Apple to announce support of universal apps, something that's been rumored on and off for years. This would allow developers to build apps for one platform that would run on another, i.e., someone could build an iOS app that could also run on a Mac, without having to rewrite the code for macOS. It's unclear how this would work, especially since the iOS devices and Mac computers currently still run on different chip architectures, and Macs don't have touch screens. If Apple were to do this, it would fall in line right behind Microsoft and Google, who already support either universal apps, or mobile apps that run on laptops.
Put Down Your Phone (Once in Awhile)
Tech addiction is a hot topic right now, and even if the long-term research behind it is still scant, Apple's acknowledgement of the issue will be long overdue. Next week Apple plans to launch something that will inevitably invite comparisons to Google’s new Android P’s phone-control features (as in, features on the phone that will help you control…yourself).
But these "digital wellness" features are likely to have Apple's distinct mark on them; rather than a cascade of permission toggles or something that keeps track of the amount of time you spend in apps, expect a more subtle approach to managing iPhone addictions. It's also been reported by Axios that the new software includes improved parental controls as well.
The wearable market isn’t nearly as huge as the smartphone or PC market, but it’s a platform that Apple still values. And there is some validation for Apple Watch: Earlier this year Apple became the global leader in smart wearables, while CEO Tim Cook has said that the Watch business is the size of a "Fortune 300 company."
The thing about Apple Watch, though, is that it hasn't become the platform for wrist-sized third-party apps that some originally thought it would be. It's really more useful for built-in features like messaging and health tracking. So any WWDC announcements on the software side of the Watch are likely to center around those core features. Apple has even organized WWDC workout sessions with Nike and fitness entrepreneur Kayla Itsines, which suggests it might have new workout features to show off. No word yet, though, on where all those conference attendees are supposed to shower in between the morning workouts and their coding sessions.
It’s All About the Developers
Of course, a developer conference is for developers, and it's often the stuff not aimed directly at consumers that gets app makers most excited. Apple has consistently updated Swift, its programming language, around WWDC; if Apple maintains this cadence, you can expect to see Swift 5 at this year's event. Last year's major announcement for developers was CoreML, a new machine learning framework that was designed to give developers more access to artificial intelligence inside mobile apps. It wouldn't be surprising to see more guidelines from Apple this year on how developers can better use CoreML.
Apple's ARKit is one of those frameworks that in a short amount of time has managed to excite both developers and iPhone users, since these AR effects are easily accessible through the lens of the phone. In January, Apple rolled out version 1.5 of ARKit, which gave it support for "vertical planes," a technical way of saying that developers were able to create slightly more immersive AR apps. Cook has raved so much about AR's potential that it's hard to imagine, at this point, an Apple software event without some stage time devoted to the technology. Bloomberg has suggested that one advance may involve the ability of two iOS users to face off in a shared AR game environment.
Unfortunately, Apple’s public-facing schedule for the conference sessions is a lot more vague than some of its tech cohort’s, so it’s hard to know exactly what they’ll be showcasing in developer sessions. Also, the session descriptions include a heck of a lot of emoji.
WWDC may be a software event, but that doesn’t stop the die-hards from hoping a new piece of hardware will be announced. And it’s not unprecedented: Last year, Apple used WWDC to unveil its first smart speaker, the HomePod, as well as new iPads.
This year’s potential candidates include a refresh of the MacBook Pro, which in an ideal world would include both more up-to-date Intel processors and keyboards that don’t break. There have also been rumors that Apple could release a newer, cheaper version of the MacBook Air sometime in 2018, based on predictions from well-known analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. If that’s the case, a new MacBook Air (which hasn’t been refreshed in years) would certainly be worthy of the “One More Thing” nod at next week’s event. A second generation of the tiny-hands-friendly iPhone SE would also be a crowd pleaser, but it’s uncommon for Apple to announce new phones at its spring event. The last time Apple announced a phone in spring was the iPhone SE in 2016, and even that was in March, not at WWDC.
And then there’s AirPower, the wireless charging pad that was first announced last fall. An accessory product wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as an iPhone SE part deux or a new MacBook Air, but it’s unusual that this thing still hasn’t shipped this many months after it was unveiled, so it might be time to put it back onstage.
But those are all hardware hopes for what is still a software-centric conference. Consider them long shots. Apple needs to focus, more than anything, on functionality, security, and privacy. It’s suffered some embarrassing security flaws and iOS bugs over the past year.
One thing Apple does have going for it: It’s been thumping the privacy drum for long before the words “Cambridge Analytica” came into the public consciousness. The company has always stressed that it doesn’t tap into user data the way advertising-driven tech companies do. Apple knows that, perhaps now more than ever, people may be willing to pay a premium to join the Apple ecosystem if it can guarantee a certain level of privacy and security. WWDC is another opportunity for the company to try to convince users of that.
Arielle Pardes contributed to this report.
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