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Reflecting on WWDC 2020, four weeks on

Just shy of four weeks ago, Apple unveiled a swathe of brand new software at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. The event was, of course, unique for a whole host of reasons, no less so than because, thanks to a global pandemic, Apple was forced to hold its first-ever remote, all-online event. In a slick video presentation at the start of the week, Apple unveiled new software for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and the Mac, as well the long-rumored switch away from Intel processors to Apple Silicon. Now the dust has settled, let’s settle in and reflect on one of the most memorable WWDCs in years, with help from developers Steve Troughton-Smith, and Andrew Hart.

The Event

Without a live keynote to rely on, Apple instead unveiled all of its latest software in a slick video presentation, giving us a sneak peek inside Apple Park in the process. Personally, I thought the new format was a roaring success. I much preferred the high-quality video production to a live stream from inside a theatre, and Apple sprinkled just the right amount of humor, presenter changes, and location switches to keep everything fresh.

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Steve and Andrew both agree. “The presentation of WWDC was great – Apple clearly took the opportunity to host the best remote conference they could.” Said Andrew, CEO of Dent Reality, an indoor AR platform working with Apple’s Indoor Maps Program.

Like Andrew, Steve said that the virtual WWDC was “a huge success”, highly-polished and also comfortable for the presenters. For me, this was another key point, without the unknown variable of a live audience, Apple was able to pace its presentation exactly how it wanted too, without pauses for applause or laughter at the slightly awkward puns of previous years. The only downside was that the presentation was so fast it was easy to miss things, but even this added to the aura of the event, as we all spent the following days discovering new features and announcements we’d missed the first time around.

Pandemic depending, I think next year will be a truly interesting conference, as Apple tries to balance the incredibly slick, visually appealing presentation of 2020 with the live dynamic of previous years. Personally, I wouldn’t complain if every WWDC keynote of the future was a 90-minute video presentation. Not only was it more enjoyable and frankly higher-quality viewing, but I actually felt like part of the event, not a spectator sat in front of a live stream. With everyone watching the same stream, it felt like we were all participating together.

The developers

These changes had a knock-on effect for developers as well, who were treated to a week-long program of live streams, Q&As, and online videos. An interesting extra was sample code and transcripts offered to developers to accompany each session, which Steve praised as a “great” new feature. Andrew too noted how sessions were “far easier to watch”, and were “as long or short as they needed to be.”

The only wrinkle for developers, as Andrew points out, is that some of them may well have been catching up on sessions, etc. at the end of a workday, rather than taking the time off to partake in WWDC for the week because of the change in format. In Andrew’s experience, labs where developers ask teams at Apple about new features often finished before people had even had a chance to catch up on everything new.

“The big missing piece was community”

“The big missing piece was community” says Andrew. Given how Apple didn’t have long at all to prepare for a remote, online event, it seems like community might have taken a backseat this year. When I spoke to Steve prior to WWDC he echoed the importance of community:

The biggest loss for developers, in my opinion, is the networking and socializing. For many of us around the world, WWDC is the one time of year that we get to meet our friends and peers, and really get to know each other and make lasting connections. There’s so much we can learn from each other, and it’s always inspiring to be around other developers who care about the same things you do — I’m sure many a project has been born in the halls, coffee shops and hotel rooms of WWDC from developers getting to know each other. Similarly, as a developer, it helps so much to know Apple engineers in person, just so you know whom to loop in when you have technical questions or run into gnarly bugs; for most people, the only access they have to Apple engineers is during the Labs at WWDC, where you get one-on-one time with engineers and can talk them through issues with your codebases at hand. I treat Labs as part of the social experience, but it’s just as valid as a technical resource.

No doubt, for all we gained in awesome visual presentations and comprehensive online sessions, many developers will have lost out on a week of networking with other developers and members of Apple’s community. This, in my opinion, was the biggest loss of the year and will be one of the greatest benefits to a potential return to a more “normal” format in years to come.

With that being said, for me, 2020 was my favorite WWDC keynote in recent years.

The software

Of course, Apple announced plenty of new and exciting software, which we’ve covered extensively across iMore since dub-dub. Certainly, from a mobile perspective, it was a quieter year. “iOS 14 seems like a solid update with a few key features and improvements to APIs — a ‘slow year’, if you will” says Steve. No doubt, iOS has been in desperate need of some consolidation and stability, after the bug-riddled disaster that was iOS 13. I am very excited about Widgets and several other new minor features, but on the whole, I’m stoked for a more conservative release this year. Early reports suggest that Apple’s iOS 14 beta is more stable than the public version of iOS 13, which is both a testament to Apple’s hard work and a fairly big indictment on the previous year.

And that’s good news for developers too, as Steve notes, it means they don’t need to spend their summers reacting to huge changes that will affect their apps. This is even truer of iPadOS 14, which didn’t get much in the way of big, platform-specific changes. But, this can be forgiven in light of the fact that Apple introduced trackpad support earlier this year, one of the biggest ever changes to iPad. As Steve points out, one exciting change to watch out for is better keyboard and mouse support for mobile gaming going forward.

“App Clips are going to be huge”

One very cool addition to iOS 14 is App Clips, which Andrew highlighted as a huge move going forward. As some have rightly pointed out, App Clips could give us insight into the world of wearable Apple tech in the years to come. “App Clips are going to be huge,” says Andrew, “When we look 5 years into the future when Apple’s new wearable product has hit the mainstream, there’ll be all sorts of use-cases such as guided assistance when you walk into a retail store.” When Apple’s AR/VR wearables do hit the market, they’ll surely rely on being able to interface quickly and effectively with lots of different experiences such as retail, navigation, tourism, and more. App Clips, tiny snippets of apps that can be used quickly without the need for a download could be the very earliest foundations of how this will work in the future.

The Mac

Arguably, this WWDC was more about Mac than mobile, with the announcement of both a huge redesign to macOS in macOS 11 Big Sur, and the move from Intel to Apple Silicon-based processors. The tremendous overhaul to Big Sur’s UI brings it right up to speed with Apple’s mobile offerings, streamlining its design. It could even signal that one day, it will be very difficult to tell the difference between Apple’s mobile and Mac operating systems, something the Apple Silicon transition makes even more possible. “iOS has been the center of Apple’s universe for a very long time now” says Steve, “and the Mac had been coasting and drifting further and further away from where Apple is heading.” Not only that but bringing iPad and iOS apps to the Mac will be an enormous change, opening up the possibility of new user experiences and even new devices.

Apple Silicon promises to bring the Mac into a new era of power, efficiency, and performance. Beyond hardware, Apple Silicon opens up the possibility that one day, ‘Pro’ apps like Final Cut, Mainstage, and Logic on iPad could be a reality. Apple has opened up a two-way street of development, bridging the gap between Mac and mobile like never before.

For the developers

Apple also announced plenty of new, great tools for its developers this year. Steve’s favorite is Catalyst, which he says makes it abundantly clear “that this is going to be the way to build Mac apps for the next decade.” Switching apps to macOS 11 will let developers take advantage of new features like native pixel scaling, and the Macs controls and behaviors, which he believes will make it much easier to build great apps.

Summing up

No doubt, Apple’s first-ever remote WWDC was going to be a landmark event. With the prospect of any kind of live event out the window, Apple stepped up and delivered a stunning visual keynote. They seem to have calmed the troubled seas of iOS with a much-needed stability update, and Apple’s major Mac announcements show that Apple’s best computing days are very much ahead of it.

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