The Grand Stand
It’s been hard to compose a post-WWDC impressions post because there was just so much content to take in and parse. Apple delivered meaningful updates to every single operating system. The sheer quantity of customer features, and developer API, announcements is almost overwhelming, and unlikely to be repeated for a while. For the user-facing things, I think you can also get the sense that this stuff has been in the works for a while and not rushed out the door. The releases have that little bit extra polish and finesse. All told, there’s a lot to like.
The leading flagship feature for the iOS 12 release was performance improvements, particularly for older devices. Yet, just one year later, Apple is set to one-up itself. Due to innovation in how the App Store packages and serves apps, users are apparently going to see 50% smaller download sizes and up to twice-as-fast app launch times. iOS 13 also includes caching of app runtime dependencies and optimisations to other parts of the system, which provide additional benefits on top of the app packaging enhancements. iOS 12 did wonders for older iPhones, but iOS 13 is looking to provide noticeable speed boosts for all hardware models. Last year, I was concerned that the bug fix and performance focus might not be sustainable; you can’t go every year solely focusing on stability and sidelining new stuff. It’s hard to say for sure from beta 1, but I get the feeling that iOS 13 will continue the positive reputation of iOS 12 and bring a long list of feature additions and enhancements.
Apple’s take on Dark Mode is unsurprisingly to use true black as the base layer. This is okay, although it is definitely conducive to OLED smearing. You can scroll grouped table views with Dark Mode active, and the background of the row of the start of every section will wobble like a jelly. It’s an annoying effect but it’s hard to argue against the beauty of true black designs when looking at mostly-static scenes. Apple can sufficiently mitigate OLED’s burn-in issue with software but there isn’t really a way around smearing other than selecting a different colour palette. Presumably, newer OLED screens in future iPhones will be better at minimising the tradeoffs, and of course Apple is rumoured to be working on microLED panels that will not be afflicted with any of OLED’s problems.
A clever nuance of Dark Mode is that the base colour defaults to black, but the system has a concept of ‘elevation’. If a view is elevated, then the base colour changes to a dark grey. This applies to modal presentations inside the app (which now default to a card style by the way) and even the app itself. On the iPad, Slide Over apps are adapted to the elevated appearance for instance. This means they can visually contrast against the apps beneath them. It’s clever.
The new Photos tab in the Photos app is really cool. Digital photography and ever-increasing storage capacities enable people to shoot lots of pictures, many of which are taken just in case someone in the frame had their eyes closed or wasn’t looking at the lens. When taking photos, it’s empowering to have the flexibility to take these backup photos, but they are essentially redundant duplicates that hold little long-term value. It takes professional photographers hours to go through their bank of dailies and pick out what to keep and what to delete. Normal people don’t bother with any of that. The Days view does a good job at addressing how people can go back and see their best shots … without having to take the time to curate their libraries by hand. Switching from Days to Months to Years is enjoyable too. The app features incredibly beautiful transitions from state to state; the Days collage group up into months of photos which stack neatly when viewing Years. The dynamism and interactivity makes the other tabs — which have not been updated — almost pale in comparison. They just feel somehow further apart and disconnected.
I’m so happy to see street view come to Apple Maps; they are very behind Google on the breadth of their image collection but better to start now than never. The interface in the Maps app is really nice to boot. You can smoothly pan from place to place instead of the jerkiness of Street View. It’s not hard to see how the same imagery, with overlaid points-of-interest markers, could be applicable to an Apple Car HUD or augmented reality glasses experience. The Share ETA option is clever and useful. It’s not an original idea — there are apps like Glympse where this feature is their entire premise for existence — but it’s much better being built-in to the same app. You can just start a journey home, and automatically notify your significant other if you hit heavy traffic and are going to be delayed.
The mechanics of CarPlay, in which the car acts as a dumb client and the phone renders the entire interface, means that Apple can improve the in-car experience for users just by upgrading the OS of the phone. That will really come to roost in iOS 13 with the biggest update to CarPlay since its debut; a new multi-widget Dashboard home screen, a brand new Calendar app, and a new light UI theme.
Probably my favourite change is the addition of SF Symbols, an expansive icon set designed to match the San Francisco system typeface. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. No more do we have to suffer the boxy fishy hook as the system-wide share icon. The Symbols glyphs have rounded corners, non infinitesimal line weights, and are inviting to look at and touch. The iOS 7 iconography was defined by its clinical and adherence to geometry; SF Symbols are worlds apart. What’s more, Apple has undertaken a major effort to actually use these icons in its apps. Almost every iOS 13 system app has been updated to use the new iconography (and it’s only beta 1 so maybe the stragglers get addressed by September).
I think the rebranding of iOS for iPad to iPadOS is weird. It feels like fan-service to cash in some goodwill. The first home screen may have a widget sidebar now, but it’s still very recognisable as the same operating system as the iPhone. Perhaps it will diverge more in the years to come, but in that case, they could have saved the rename for a better time. In terms of features, it was a solid showing — the Files and Safari changes stick out most in my mind — but I remain unsatisfied with the iPad’s multitasking metaphors. The new multi-window modes enable more sophisticated workflows (like having multiple messages conversations open as separate windows, and flicking through them with the new Slide Over home indicator gesture) but also introduce more complexity to an already confused metaphor. I think it’s insane they still haven’t added a way to easily multitask with apps not in your Dock.
The bevy of new faces in watchOS 6 have the potential to become long-standing favourites. Modular Compact is a really good execution of an analogue face with space for richer Infograph-style complications. The new numerals faces are a more stylish interpretation of the utilitarian X-Large face. But the standout winner is California. It may have a niche name, and its default configuration touts the eponymous horological combination of Roman numerals and normal digits, but it can be customised to be arguably the best all-round face. It looks great in full-screen and circular modes; the circular version is like Infograph with a bit more restraint. You still get the bezel text complication, and four rounded complications in each corner, but the centre is a simple analogue face. It’s a modern Utility.
The addition of Audiobooks, Calculator, Cycles, and Voice Memos fill out obvious missing fundamental features of the Watch form factor. Having a dedicated app for measuring the ambient volume feels a bit overkill, but warning notifications about being immersed in loud environments for too long are potentially life-changing for some people. It’s interesting that Apple put a dedicated App Store on the Watch; maybe it will drive watch app downloads higher but I’m not sure people will really be spending their day searching through the store. It definitely gives exposure to the selection of developers Apple features on the App Store’s main screen, but I don’t expect Watch users to dive any deeper — at least on the watch itself. The big news for watchOS this year is Swift UI. I have long campaigned for something better than WatchKit and Swift UI definitely fits the bill. There is so much stuff that is possible now that simply wasn’t before, and much more stuff is now easy when previously it was so hard to achieve that basically no developer bothered to do it. I know I’m excited to develop for the watch again.
It was interesting that Apple spent relatively little stage time (either in the main keynotes or the sessions) discussing Catalyst, née Marzipan. Catalyst will have by far the biggest impact on the Mac ecosystem in the near term. Apple didn’t shy away from the fact that ported iPad apps will not be as high quality as apps made for Mac first. Catalyst was positioned as a way to get your existing iOS apps available on the Mac with almost no work. I think that’s fine. They may not be as good as real AppKit or SwiftUI apps, but they sure beat apps built on Electron. There is going to be an explosion of Mac apps this autumn. The Mojave Marzipan quartet seem to be largely unchanged in macOS Catalina, but the new Podcasts app makes a concerted effort to be a better platform citizen. It is not merely a port of the iPad interface, it probably doesn’t even share that much code under the hood. I think Apple is hoping that developer’s Catalyst apps will catch on, which will then allow them to justify dedicating resources to code for macOS — whether written in AppKit, UIKit or SwiftUI.
I haven’t updated my MacBook yet to Catalina, but I probably will soon in order to start getting to work on bringing my suite of iOS apps to macOS. This also means I haven’t tried Sidecar for myself yet, but from everything I’ve seen it looks fantastic. Rendering the Touch Bar on the iPad display is a stroke of genius. The bluetooth mesh Apple is building with the Find My network has a lot of potential and clearly will be bolstered by an Apple-branded tag device sometime soon. “Find My” as an app name is downright stupid though. Find a better name. macOS 10.15 says goodbye to the iTunes brand, but it seems like most of its code is preserved in the Music app. I think I would have preferred a larger departure but the strip-down-what-already-worked plan means they haven’t upset the loyal hardcore iTunes fanbase — most features of iTunes remain. The benefits of splitting up iTunes are really seen in the manifestation of the other two apps. The TV app will offer a good platform for accessing the TV+ service on the desktop, and it brings support for Apple’s 4K HDR movies to the Mac for the first time. The dedicated Podcasts app is a huge leap over what Apple had provided on the Mac before; the podcasts section of iTunes sucked.
HomeKit Secure Video is a great feature with the potential to disrupt the business models of a lot of incumbent smart security camera manufacturers who have been depending on subscription services to boost revenue. Analysis of the video to generate significant event notifications, like spotting a person moving, is handled locally by the user’s HomeKit hubs and then the video is stored on iCloud in an end-to-end encrypted fashion. The 200 GB iCloud tier enables 1 camera recording and the 2 TB plan ups that to five cameras total. There is seemingly no option to pay for additional cameras even if you wanted to, which is a weird omission.
I was really surprised and pleased when Apple announced multiple-user support for tvOS; I never thought that was seriously on the cards. The home screen changes for Apple TV also look fantastic and console game controller support for iOS, tvOS and macOS really boosts the chances of Apple Arcade being a success. I also can’t wait to try out the multi-user features on the HomePod — alas there is still no beta process for that device.
The Mac Pro also looks like a winner, for the market it addresses. Apple’s new cheesegrater highlights the bastardisation of the word ‘pro’ in consumer technology. It’s not pro as in iPad Pro or MacBook Pro, it’s pro as in pro-grade. It talks to a very small niche, but that niche appears to be being satisfied. The Pro Display is similarly aimed at that same audience; video and audio professionals. Apple is not targeting the developer market with the Mac Pro but that’s fine, the iMac Pro is a great choice for developers wanting a desktop computer.
And yes, Apple announced an overpriced display stand in probably the most tactless way possible.