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Apple's WWDC keynote gave developers a lot of work to do

Apple announced a lot of new features — and some big changes to how apps work.

MacOS Big Sur

Big Sur is the latest version of MacOS and a total rethink for developers.

Image: Apple

Over the course of a nearly two-hour WWDC keynote, Apple announced a lot of new features today. But the biggest changes were reserved for the Mac. Not only is Apple redesigning the Mac's software to make it look much more like iOS, as the two platforms continue to look and feel more alike, it also confirmed it's making the switch to using its own chips. Buh-bye, Intel.

How big a deal is this for Apple? It's calling the new MacOS version 11.0 — which means after 19 years of running ever-higher numbered versions of OS X, Apple thinks it's onto something new.

  • Apple's making a whole family of chips, with consistent architecture across all its devices — again, a large step toward bringing the iPhone, iPad and Mac even closer together.
  • In the new MacOS, Big Sur, all of Apple's apps are already built to support the new Arm chips. Office is apparently up and running on the new chips, too, and Apple is working with Adobe on Creative Cloud stuff as well. Apple's Craig Federighi said that developers using Xcode will be able to port their apps to the new architecture in a matter of days.
  • The transition's supposed to take a couple of years, but Apple's selling a $500 Developer Transition Kit starting now.
  • One question it left unanswered: Will users still be able to install apps from outside Apple's App Store? And if so, what will the Arm transition be like for them? Apple's clearly tightening its control over the ecosystem, but that would be an unprecedented step. And it would cause a developer revolt way beyond what we've seen before.
The section on the silicon transition was by far the most developer-focused part of Apple's keynote, which was in general aimed much more at consumers. But hidden in the keynote were plenty of important features:
  • On iOS and iPadOS, users will be able to set default email and browser apps other than Apple's. OK, this feature is mostly for antitrust regulators, and was buried on one of those "look at all our other features" slides, but it's still the first great chance devs have had to compete in those spaces. No such luck for music, podcasts, maps or messaging, though.
  • With App Clips and widgets, developers have more opportunities to get their stuff out of their apps and into users' faces. Though with the App Library automatically organizing home screens, their icons will be buried in many more folders.
  • There's about to be much more onus on developers to be transparent about privacy and data-collection, thanks to the new nutrition-label cards in the App Store. They'll also have to explicitly ask for permission to track users. No more "ask for access to everything just in case you need it," much more careful choosing about permissions.

That's a lot of new stuff for developers to invest in, and it'll require some prioritization. The Arm transition in particular likely won't be as easy as advertised: One developer told me they're worried that things like Electron apps won't make the transition well, and pointed out that Microsoft has been experimenting with Arm chips for a while now, and it hasn't been easy.

  • The upside, though, is that because they have so much in common, Macs will now be able to run iPhone and iPad apps natively. Which means that until Mac apps work great on the new silicon, at least mobile apps will be OK.
  • Plus, Apple's now asking developers to build the same sort of "mini apps" that Android, Snap and others have already tried — mostly to no avail.

As for the event itself? It felt more like a 90-minute Apple promo video than a live event, Apple ditching the live aesthetic for something much slicker and prerecorded. Other than a few of Cook's early remarks about Apple's work for racial justice, there wasn't much indication that the videos hadn't been made months ago. But it was slick, fast-moving, and only had a handful of awkward jokes and more awkward dance moves. So as virtual events go, that's a win.

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