Apple Just Broke the Platform Mold

Big changes are coming to iOS 14, iPadOS14, macOS Big Sur, and the Mac

Apple's making sweeping changes to all its platforms, many of which will impact how you interact with your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, but the biggest might be the switch to its own ARM-based CPUs. How developers handle the transition will define how smoothly things go for you and your favorite apps.

Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the WWDC 2020 Keynote.

One world, one universe, one platform. Unification. Apple’s momentous Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote just painted a picture of a world in which the walls come down and, from the silicon underneath to the pixels in front of your face, Apple’s ecosystem becomes one.

To be clear, there are still distinct platforms for the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and Mac, but Apple’s transition to its own silicon for the Mac, a process that will take two years but begins in earnest immediately with the delivery of a Developers Transition Kit, lays the groundwork for cross-screen consistency the likes we’ve never seen before on any platform.

It is, as Apple CEO Tim Cook noted on Monday, one of the biggest transitions in Mac history, right up there with the switch to Intel CPUs.

That change also influences how to think about all the changes Apple’s cooking up in iOS 14, macOS Big Sur, iPadOS 14, and, to a lesser extent, Apple Watch and Apple TV.

What Apple’s doing is switching all its systems from running on a variety of fuels, like wind, solar, and gas, to just one that might arguably be described as rocket fuel.

Apple Silicon

Apple’s plan is simple, audacious, and seemingly without limits. The company plans to transition its Mac lineup to all its own bespoke, ARM-based CPUs by 2022. No mention was made about excluding, for instance, the workhorse Mac Pro. Apple’s plan is to break the see-saw relationship between performance and power consumption and situate its own bespoke silicon in the sweet spot. That might mean these chips won’t work for Apple’s most powerful system, but it could also mean that all Macs become exponentially more power efficient.

Macs with Apple Silicon chart from WWDC

When you make such a change, applications written to run on the original chips, in this case those from Intel, will not automatically run on the new silicon. This was a particularly painful sticking point when Apple made the switch from PowerPC to Intel in 2005. Hoping to avoid similar missteps. Apple spent a lot of time explaining how it already has the tools to migrate existing apps to the new platform and demonstrated Microsoft Office (PowerPoint, Word, Excel) and Adobe Photoshop running on a test system running macOS Big Sur on Apple chips. And, as with the last big CPU transition, Apple’s including a new version of Rosetta (Rosetta 2) to handle apps that haven’t been rewritten or re-compiled through XCode.

It all Works

More interesting, though, is how a Mac running Apple-made chips will be able to run all iPhone and iPad apps. Apple even plans to include these apps inside the Mac App Store.

Perhaps this is why the new macOS Big Sur’s myriad changes make it look so much like iOS or, at least, iPadOS.

macOS features screen from WWDC

In addition to adopting universal icons wherever possible, macOS Big Sur gets Control Center, just like the one on the iPhone and iPad. Messages are now more or less an exact replica of what you get in iOS, right down to the Memoji creation and sharing. (Messages across iOS and macOS now can “pin” important conversations and stop notifying you about group message updates unless you are mentioned.)

With widgets and Notification groups, macOS Big Sur’s Notification Center will be totally familiar to anyone who owns an iPhone.

Apple Maps for the Mac looks a bit more iPad- or iPhone-like and adds the ability to create custom guides for your next trip (Maps across multiple platforms also gain Cycling directions).

WWDC Apple Maps screen

And, naturally, the Dock’s design’s been adjusted to reflect a more iPad-like design. The only thing Apple didn’t add (yet) is touch-screen capability for Mac because, naturally, they’re still not selling touchscreen laptops. I now expect that to change sometime in this two-year window.

There are other more desktop-centric adjustments in the new macOS that are not all about the new silicon or being more like an iPad. Safari has some powerful new privacy features, like one-button access to the Intelligent Tracking Button, a privacy report for any site you visit. It also has some of the best extension management I’ve seen in a while, giving you the ability to grant extension access on a per site basis and to even revoke it on a per-use basis.

iOS 14

In iOS 14, Apple is taking its achingly familiar home screen and mixing it up. It’s tackling app overload with something called App Library, which sort of boils down some of your app screen pages into a more browsable form that lives a screen or two after your home screen. It even uses machine learning to concoct one library that recommends apps you might want.

Apple’s also breaking down barriers between different types of platform elements. In iOS 14, widgets can live on the home screen, right among the app icons. It’s a simple change that radically alters that once-familiar home screen.

iOS feature screen WWDC

A few other highlights from iOS 14 of note:

The new Translate app offers real-time translation. It listens and auto-decides which language to translate to and from. There’s even a handy landscape view that puts the two languages, original and translation, side-by-side.

The other big update is CarPlay’s ability to unlock or start your car with your iPhone (or Apple Watch) using NFC technology. During the keynote, Apple said the system will initially work with an BMW 5 Series, but did not mention any other makes or models.

In addition, developers can now create something called “App Clips,” a sort of location-aware mini-app that can pop-up when you need it most. These aren't the full-blown apps and do not mean you’ve installed the complete app to, say, buy a cup of coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee. I would assume that you have to opt-in to some location tracking for App Clips to work.

iPadOS 14

As you might expect, iPadOS is the platform that now lives in the rapidly disappearing line between Apple’s mobile and desktop OS. There are a lot of small interface changes that I think make it a little more Mac-like while totally retaining the iPad’s crucial touch ability.

Apple didn’t call it Spotlight, but iPadOS 14’s Universal Search, for instance, is about as close to Spotlight as it could get without sharing the name.

iPadOS features from WWDC

Apple also made several small but important updates to the Pencil, including the ability for simple sketch shapes to be auto-transformed into polished ones (my terrible square into four perfect 90-degree angles) and for it to auto-transform handwriting into text. I challenge iPadOS 14 and the Apple Pencil to interpret my scrawl.

watchOS 7

With watchOS7, the Apple Watch gets to stand somewhat apart from Apple’s new One World ethos and, as a result, its updates feel somewhat less momentous.

The biggest change is probably sleep tracking, which requires you to sleep with an Apple Watch on your wrist. Based on what you tell the watch about your sleep schedule, it will help you wind down and wake up. It uses the accelerometer, which looks at your movement and the motion of your breathing to identify when you fall asleep. The alarm can be set as audio or a gentle haptic tap on the wrist. The watch will also remind you to charge your watch when you wake up.

The goal here is to track sleep goals and, as a result, the report won’t tell you anything about the quality of your sleep.

I’ve tried other sleep bands and, honestly, struggle to sleep comfortably when I’m wearing them.

Sleep tracking screen on Apple Watch

watchOS also adds a new health category called “Mobility,” that will look, for instance, at the quality of your gait. Older people can start to shuffle their feet as they age.

Talk about timeliness: Apple managed to cook up an Apple Watch hand-washing app that tries to help you clean your hands for the COVID-19-safety-prescribed amount of time. The graphics, by the way, were kind of adorable.

There are also some new Apple workout options, including “Dance,” which is designed to measure the somewhat asynchronous and non-repetitive way we dance and count it as a workout. I wonder how it would do with “The Elaine.”

Along with some new watch faces, which you can now share with other Apple Watch owners, Apple Watch developers can access multiple complications per app on their watch faces, which means that apps will be able to deliver more app information on a single face.

The Rest

Apple Home and HomeKit are getting a few updates. For new devices, Home will try to guide you to most-commonly-used automations. This is good because Apple Home App’s current automation interface is still too confusing.

WWDC Apple Home feature screen

They’re also adding, for devices that will support it, facial recognition and activity zones for cameras, and HomePod announcements from when someone is at the door. I have most of these features on my existing Nest cameras and Amazon audio devices, so none of it feels like a major leap.

Bottom Line

Apple’s WWDC 2020 Keynote is just a kick-off for days-worth of detailed and technical information that developers will use to build new apps and experiences across Apple devices. By now, though, most Apple developers probably understand they’re entering a rapidly changing world, where an app they build for the iPhone could very likely end up on someone’s Mac, or a Mac experience could run on an iPad.

The barriers they and we imagined for Apple products are vaporizing. Just like stepping onto a new planet, we’re approaching this new Apple environment with a mixture of hope, trepidation, and excitement.