Mac O’Clock
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Mac O’Clock

WWDC 2020 — key trends and Apple’s strategic moves

WWDC 2020 has been groundbreaking for Apple — between the online-only format of the event itself, through a truly generational leap for the Mac, to sometimes subtle but fundamental paradigm changes, it has been packed with news. Perhaps most importantly, at this year’s WWDC, we have seen Apple at its absolute best — the company incredibly well positioned for the long-term, taking bold moves, shaking up things and reinventing itself instead of clinging to tried-and-true formulas.

Here are some announcements and developments that I find the most exciting from the strategic standpoint — presented in a somewhat chronological order.

The sunset of apps as the UI paradigm

For years, iPhone and iOS UI and UX have revolved around apps at the epicenter of everything. The home screen has been a grid of app icons. The workflow assumption has been to launch an app and do something in the app. To be clear, this paradigm has been widely successful and enabled the massively popular App Store, and this was arguably the only efficient way to build a user-friendly, powerful mobile platform. Excited with the popularity of the “pull” apps paradigm (e.g. when a user is required to actively use an app for any given task), Apple has brought the same philosophy to watchOS and tvOS — and it hasn’t fully succeeded. The App Stores for these two platforms just didn’t become too popular, and neither Watch, nor TV felt like great vibrant platforms for active app usage.

Apple has started “unbundling” apps into slices (for Shortcuts, for example) and enabling richer notifications and widgets years ago, but this year in particular it feels that apps are no longer at the epicenter of the UI. Of course, the apps are still the building blocks of many things we do, but they are increasingly taking a background role. In iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, entire screens with app grids can now be hidden. Widgets are becoming vastly more useful and prominent across the UI. It feels that Apple is building a layer of UI on top of apps, moving from “pull” to “push” — meaning that apps are presenting slices of information and functionality when you need it, instead of the user actively looking for it.

This approach is even more on display with watchOS 7 and more configurable, now shareable Watch Faces. With enhanced complications, they are becoming the UI layer in itself, the wrapper around the apps and app slices. On tvOS, this has been also the case for a while now — apps take a back seat, while content occupies more and more of the screen.

In this context, perhaps the most intriguing feature of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 is App Clips. This is the “push” paradigm taken to another level — instead of searching for a full app in the App Store, a user will now be presented with a pop-up mini-app that can be interacted with without even downloading it on the device, right when they need it. App Clips can even be “pushed” in Safari and Messages. It remains to be seen if App Clips are going to be adopted my marketers who consider an app download as a key element of the funnel, but the technology in itself is a very interesting move for Apple.

Apple Car without the car

For years there have been rumors that Apple is building its own car. It remains to be seen if we actually see an Apple-branded car one day, but in a way, this might not be needed. With ongoing development of CarPlay and other car-related technologies, Apple is increasingly controlling all the key aspects of the experience in a modern car — from dashboard interface and multimedia, through aggressive development of Apple Maps and navigation and newly-announced EV routing, to the digital car keys. You might be driving a BMW, but it’s hardware that is packaged into Apple’s software and UX.

Apple has taken similar approach with smart home and HomeKit. You might have zero, or very few Apple-made smart home accessories, but these are all controlled by your iPhone or Mac.

On-device

Apple has been aggressive about its privacy stance and the push for on-device machine learning and computation for a long time. However awkwardly, things like dictation and translation have only worked online, whereas Google (the company embracing web and cloud arguably more than Apple) has offered them offline for a while now. Finally, this is changing with dictation and translate working offline in iOS 14. We’ll see how the quality compares to what Google offers.

AirPods becoming a truly AR, “always wear” product

AirPods have been positioned from day one as a wearable “always on” product — you can wear them not only when you are on a call or listening to music, but throughout the day overall to quickly send and receive messages with voice, control your devices through Siri, and perhaps even hear the world around you better through Accessibility settings. This becomes even more useful as AirPods can now automatically switch between devices you are interacting with. Apple truly wants you to wear AirPods all the time, all day long.

But on top of all that, AirPods are now becoming a full-blown AR product with Spacial audio feature that allows you to be completely immersed in the video content, or (perhaps later?) a game. One can only imagine all kinds of wild experiences developers would be able to unlock down the line with a truly three-dimensional sound that virtual objects in the real world could emit. Combine that with widely rumored upcoming Apple Glasses, and Apple Watch, and you can see how Apple is building a powerful combo of AR devices and experiences that not only could become a next mainstream computing paradigm, but currently not seeing any notable competition from anyone else in the industry.

All that said, after years of somewhat awkward (but impressive) ARKit demos, 2020’s keynote has been very quiet on the AR front. It feels that Apple has recognized that AR use cases don’t generate much excitement yet. This would change dramatically when Apple Glasses are announced.

Anti antitrust

Somewhat quietly, Apple announced two changes which are arguably addressing recent antitrust allegations and investigations into Apple. One is the changes to App Store rules — developers can now submit bug fixes to apps even if Apple believes the app itself violates certain App Store guidelines. Developers can now also “challenge” App Store review guidelines.

The second is the ability to switch default email and browser apps on iOS 14 and iPadOS 14. With mail and especially web browsing being key elements of the ecosystem and UX that Apple undoubtedly wants to fully control, one can imagine how unwillingly Apple has probably been introducing these changes. No wonder these were not even mentioned during the keynote.

iPadOS and macOS on the collision course

This is how The Verge’s Nilay Patel phrased it, and it’s a good description of what is apparently happening. The Mac and the iPad have been already stepping on each other’s toes for a while now, but with iPadOS 14 and macOS Big Sur, even the design language is now increasingly unified. The new Search functionality in iPadOS looks exactly like the Search (or should I say Spotlight?) on macOS. The new app icons and the dock in Big Sur look exactly like iPadOS. The apps now increasingly share more UI elements (which is logical considering the development of Catalyst and SwiftUI).

For the first time, iPadOS and macOS feel like two takes on one operating system, at least design-wise — and this enables even more speculations about future touch-screen Macs and desktop-like iPads.

Apple Pencil as a powerful input method

One of the things which truly differentiate iPadOS from iOS is Apple Pencil and all kinds of UI tricks it enables. I have been a huge fan of Apple Pencil for a while, as it has significantly helped me with my studies — and with iPadOS 14, it is becoming an even more capable device for taking notes, drawing and handwriting.

But what’s more interesting, Apple is moving the Pencil towards being a fully capable input method for the whole iPad experience. Handwriting is becoming a way of inputting text and interacting with the system interface across the board. With more advanced handwriting to text recognition and search, Apple aims to erase the boundaries between typing text and handwriting, which is both technically fascinating and potentially life-changing for all kinds of users not very comfortable with typing.

Intersection of technology and liberal arts

This is what Apple considers its definition and its position in the world — and it truly shines through their products. One of great examples is the Handwashing feature in watchOS 7, when an incredibly advanced technology, through software and all kinds of sensors, comes together to improve such a routine but important (especially in 2020) activity as washing your hands. Tech nerds would consider it a gimmick, whereas in fact Handwashing is a great depiction of what Apple is as a tech company and how it sees itself in the world.

Subtle investments in gaming

Apple has arguably never fully understood, or at least embraced core gaming, but things started to change recently. Game Center is modernized and becoming more functional in the new OS releases across the board. tvOS (and other systems as well) now supports more controllers. Apple Arcade becomes even more visible across the UI. Shifting between devices to play Arcade games becomes easier, as well as playing games in a multiplayer mode. tvOS in particular feels more and more tailored to gaming, and perhaps this is a very strategic long-term investment considering Apple’s aggressive push towards unified app ecosystem across the entire lineup of now fully Arm-powered hardware. It increasingly feels that Apple wants to own gaming long-term.

Mac has a very long-term place in the Apple ecosystem

For long years now, there have been debates about whether Apple is slowly sunsetting the Mac. These weren’t unfounded — between very glacial pace of macOS improvements and a number of controversies (Pro hardware and software development truly felt like an afterthought several years ago), it seemed that Apple has been investing most of its resources into current (iPhone, iPad) and future (wearables) products while sidelining the Mac. In fact, this was the argument of people doubting potential switch from x86 to Arm.

This past Monday, Apple has ended all of these speculations and concerns. With announcing macOS 11 and switch to Arm-based own silicon, as well as a significant UI redesign, Apple couldn’t be more clear that it considers Mac as a key element of its ecosystem, and it invests into its long-term future. What’s more, it feels that overnight, the Mac has turned from the oldest and most neglected part of the family to the headliner of the whole ecosystem.

Switch to Apple Silicon for the Mac is obviously not something that one can plan last minute, and the very fact that Apple is doing this means that it has very ambitious plans for the platform for many years to come. One does not make architectural shifts like switching from x86 to Arm if the plan is to sunset the platform. And not only Apple switches architectures, it has gone out of its way to ensure the smoothest transition possible for both customers and developers.

On top of silicon and architectural change, the UI of macOS Big Sur screams modern and forward-looking. It is a fresh, crisp design that is now speaks iOS and iPadOS language — platforms that are instrumental to Apple’s long-term success — and hints at possible future paradigm changes for the Mac hardware (I already mentioned speculations about touch-screen Macs).

It is now obvious that the future of the Mac couldn’t be brighter and more exciting.

Apple is fearless with the Mac

Neil Cybart has been vocal about calling the Mac Apple’s Achilles’ Heel. The platform has been increasingly becoming a product that needed to support legacy workflows for users not ready to embrace the “post-PC era”. In a way, it was holding Apple back.

The fundamental changes Apple announced to the Mac is the sign that Apple is not willing to be stuck in the past. Like many times before, it is moving forward, not being afraid of alienating some of its older users. There is no doubt many users have been seeing Macs as machines that run legacy software, some of which will undoubtedly will never be properly ported to the Arm-powered Macs. Some of the Mac users dual boot into Windows — this won’t be possible in macOS 11 (and even if it is eventually, Windows on Arm is not how most people use Windows). Finally, certain segments of Mac users couldn’t care less about modern design aligned with Apple’s mobile-first platforms.

Unlike Microsoft that is stuck in decades of legacy Windows workflows, software, UI layers and user demands, and in spite of a long history and user expectations for the Mac, Apple fearlessly reinvents the platform and carries it forward, aggressively letting go of the past. No matter how smooth the transition to Arm and macOS 11 will be, there undoubtedly will be lots of pain points, broken use cases and reduced functionality. But this is necessary for the Mac to no longer be Apple’s Achilles’ Heel.

A truly transcendent app ecosystem

With macOS 11 and the completion of the unification of both hardware and software architectures across all of the Apple’s platforms, Apple is now full speed ahead with building the ecosystem of apps that are almost platform-agnostic. It would be easier than ever to make an app that would work across Mac, iPhone, iPad, Watch and TV.

This would benefit every single individual platform. There is an always shrinking list of reasons why a Mac app developer wouldn’t make an iPad build of their app. And then who knows, perhaps it would make sense to make a version for iPhone, Watch and TV as well?

But the platform that would benefit the most is the Mac. With iOS and iPadOS apps now available through the macOS 11 App Store by default with zero effort from the developers, Apple is turning Mac App Store into a huge vibrant app platform basically overnight. Sure, lots of iPhone and iPad apps would make no sense on the Mac, but many of them will. This is another manifestation of the Mac becoming a rapidly developing, forward-looking platform.

Apple wants to control the web UX

Nothing truly new here — but with Apple’s relentless development and sharp focus on Safari, it is clear that Apple considers the web and web technologies the fundamental layer of the UX. This is great to see from the company that has appeared to fight the web at times. Sleek, functional, popular Safari is the instrument for Apple to future-proof itself and be prepared for the times when (or if) the web becomes the operating system in itself completely.

Apple’s commitment to competing with Google and Chrome to control the web UX couldn’t be more obvious. Interestingly, this is in stark contrast to Microsoft who threw the white flag with Edge and has reengineered it using Google’s Chromium. Apple’s push with Safari is a yet another example of the company willing to control primary technologies behind its products.

One Apple OS

With recent WWDC announcements, Apple is now very close to having several platforms — from wearables to TV — that all share common silicon design foundations, operating system architectures, and software. UX and UI specifics aside, the boundaries between all of Apple’s platforms are blurring on the technical level. We are closer than ever to one Apple OS that powers all products.

Couple that with the rise of Arm in the servers infrastructure, and thinking very long-term, one can argue that Apple is now extremely well-positioned to build the cloud-based overarching OS of the future.

Visionary architecture decades in the making

Hardware, software and design unification across the board has been literally decades in the making at Apple. Steve Jobs envisioned Apple as the functionally organized, vertical company where products don’t exist in silos and have their own P&Ls, but rather cross-pollinate and influence each other, share technologies, design language, and are parts of a bigger whole.

Tim Cook has not only respected and embraced this approach, but doubled down on executing on it. With macOS 11 and switch to Apple Silicon, Apple has never been closer to perfecting this long-term vision for the entire company. Across silicon design, hardware, low-level software, apps, and services, the Apple ecosystem in itself is a visionary, engineering marvel no other tech company has been able to achieve to date.

I’m sure if Steve Jobs was alive, he would’ve been very pleased and proud watching the WWDC keynote this past Monday.

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