This year’s WWDC managed to be interesting for more than just the circumstances in which it was held.
Apple held this year’s event under strange conditions: the coronavirus pandemic has changed all our lives for the foreseeable future, and global protests are demanding an end to social inequalities.
“Our mission has always been to make the world a better place,” Cook said. “And we’re committed to being a force for change.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook opened the keynote with a heartfelt message about Apple’s support for their BAME communities. Cook said that it’s time for the US to “aim higher to build a future that lives up to our ideals” of equality. Apple says it will distribute $100 million to “challenge systemic barriers that limit opportunity for communities of color in the critical areas of education, economic equality and criminal justice” and has also launched an entrepreneur camp for minority developers.
“Presenting the conference in this [virtual] way allows us to be more inclusive than ever,” Cook said. “Perhaps this will inspire the next generation of developers. So, even though we can’t be together in person, in some ways, we’re going to be more together than ever.”
The lack of inclusivity at WWDC has often come into question:
These are welcome commitments from Apple, but they feel somewhat hollow while the company still has questionable practices like using Foxconn to manufacture devices. Foxconn workers face long hours on low pay in poor conditions and the company has even had to install “suicide nets” on the outside of its buildings. A report from China Labor Watch has uncovered various breaches of labour rights by Apple and its partners.
Apple also held its keynote a week after the EU launched two antitrust investigations into the company. This week, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried shared his issues with the App Store’s policies and called comments from Apple SVP Phil Schiller “antitrust gold” in an open letter.
In an apparent attempt to quell these concerns, Apple used WWDC to announce new ways for developers to challenge the App Store’s policies.
“This year at WWDC20, we’ve added online App Store Labs, extended the annual App Store developer survey, and more because we want to hear directly from hundreds of thousands of developers on how they want us to improve the App Store for them, and for users,” said Schiller.
With the criticisms out of the way, we can move on to some of the great new ways Apple is improving their platforms for developers.
New developer features
Starting with iOS 14, Apple is essentially launching their own answer to Android Instant Apps with some improvements. The new “App Clips” feature allows users to jump into specific parts of an app, say for booking an electric scooter, without having to download and install the full app. App Clips can be accessed via a link, NFC, or by scanning a real-world image which acts like a QR code.
That recognisable real-world image makes App Clips far more useful than Android Instant Apps. It’s not hard to imagine being able to do things like scan a code at a bar to quickly order some drinks without having to download the full app.
Widgets are properly coming to iOS and iPadOS. While this is yet another of those Android features that’s been around since the very beginning, it’s one of those implementations that makes you think: “How has no-one managed to get this right previously?”
The new widgets offer a way for developers to give users the information they need at a glance. With the new SwiftUI API, developers can use the same code to build a widget for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS.
Developers of browser extensions will be glad to hear that Apple is updating Safari for Mac with support for the popular WebExtensions API used by Chrome, Firefox, and Edge. Speaking of browsers, users will finally be able to choose their own default (and for mail apps!)
Xcode is, of course, the central point for developing for Apple’s platforms. The IDE has been given a lick of paint to match the look of new macOS release Big Sur. One welcome new feature is document tabs, allowing things like project files and logs to be open in their own tab.
StoreKit is a new tool available in Xcode which allows developers to simulate purchasing workflows on their Mac – including subscriptions, in-app purchases, and refunds.
The latest Xcode will target macOS Universal apps by default to support the fancy new Macs utilising Apple’s in-house chips.
Other developer features:
- ARKit 4 introduces new ways to capture information about the real world using a new Depth API that is designed to work with the LiDAR sensor in iPad Pro, enabling entirely new types of apps, such as on-site architecture, design, landscaping, and manufacturing.
- Machine learning development is easier and more extensive with additional tools in Core ML for model deployment and encryption, new templates and training capabilities in Create ML, and more APIs for vision and natural language.
- PencilKit now features Scribble, which makes it easy to create apps with text entry fields that users can write in with Apple Pencil. Developers will also have access to stroke data using PencilKit, all while seamlessly handling both Apple Pencil input and system touch gestures.
- Swift Package Manager adds support for resources to easily share Asset Catalog bundles and localizations. And new open source packages for Numerics, ArgumentParser, and System make Swift a great language for more use cases.
- TestFlight now supports up to 100 team members for fast build distribution.
- AirPods Motion API gives developers access to movement data in real time.
- Developers can now enable users to upgrade existing third-party app accounts to Sign in with Apple accounts.
Overall, this year’s WWDC was jam-packed with announcements that will give developers new ways to greatly enhance the experience for users of their apps on Apple’s platforms. Apple managed to deliver a WWDC that’s memorable for more than just its unusual circumstances – and that’s pretty commendable.
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