WWDC 2020: What to Expect from Apple’s Virtual Event

It’s time to remember that WWDC is really about developers

I’ve been getting Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) wrong all along. As a journalist, I demanded news. I wanted to know about the next iOS and macOS, and all those other operating systems Apple’s spawned in recent years. I fixated on features and whiz-bang enhancements that might make my hardware seem a little more other-worldly.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook at WWDC 2019.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I kind of forgot that WWDC is really a conference for developers. I know, it’s in the name, but I relegated it to an afterthought. That was a mistake.

Not long ago, I decided it might be fun to write my own mobile app. I have a few ideas, which I can’t share here for fear of intellectual property theft. Suffice to say, I think they’re game changers.

The last time I programmed anything was in the early 1980s in BASIC. I also did a little bit of JavaScript coding in the 90s, but that was it. In my defense, I went to school to be a journalist, not a programmer.

Still, I’ve been thinking about app development for years and realized it was time to stop procrastinating and start, well, with that other “p” word.

I found a 10-part YouTube App Development for beginners’ series from a guy named “CodeWithChris.” I’ve been transfixed, if not transformed, for almost 10 hours by Toronto-based instructor Chris Ching’s mellifluous voice as he guided me through XCode basics, App layout, Swift programming language basics, Methods, Classes, IBOutlets, and more.

There have been some bumps, like the difference between the XCode 10 on which he based the series, and the XCode 11 I’m running on a MacBook Air. There’s the occasional missing piece of information that’s led to wonky layouts and acres of code where there should be just a few lines. Overall, though, I’m learning a lot.

iPhone
I'm not expecting huge changes in iOS 14.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’m also coming to the painful realization that I may not be smart enough to code. Which brings me back to the developers at WWDC. I’m sure that they, like me, are interested in learning about what, for instance, new iOS APIs they might be able to call for their new iPhone apps. But the hundreds of sessions are about more than that. They cover intricacies that go way beyond a new dark mode feature or better password management.

Developer information is complex and can be, especially if it’s new, a lot to absorb. Now imagine what it would be like to try and digest all of it remotely.

Right, we don’t have to imagine it. This year’s WWDC is unlike any other in the event’s 31-year history.

Understanding WWDC 2020

The four-day event that kicks off on Jun 22 is entirely virtual or, more accurately, streamed to millions of developer desktops around the world. Apple is promising more than 100 engineering sessions and 1-on-1 labs with 1000+ Apple engineers.

As in previous years, the event will kick-off with a keynote streamed from Apple’s massive Apple Park Campus in Cupertino, California. Even though Apple hasn’t announced it, it’s a safe bet that the first keynote speaker will be Apple CEO Tim Cook. He’ll probably cede the virtual stage quickly, making room for platform leads to reveal highlights of upcoming operating system updates.

Before he goes, though, Cook will probably offer the closest thing to broad-based consumer-friendly news. I expect him to start by addressing the extraordinary times we live in. He’ll briefly update us on how Apple is reemerging as a company from the pandemic, reiterating store reopening, people returning to Apple Park to work (though, I do wonder if Apple is, similar to Facebook, extending permanent work-at-home policies to more of its staff).

I’ll be listening for any update on the state of iPhone and other hardware production and supply chains, especially as China, where Apple assembles the iPhone and other hardware, is now almost fully back to normal (leaving aside any news of recent outbreaks). We probably won’t get any details on iPhone 12.

“I don’t think Apple will talk about any new iPhone at this year’s WWDC,” Creative Strategies President and longtime Apple analyst Tim Bajarin told me via email. “Apple should give some indication of how the iPhone 11 is doing in China and that should be watched closely since the China market has been one of their more important growth markets.”

Apple VP of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai
Last year, Apple VP of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai walked the WWDC 2019 audience through watchOS 6's health and fitness updates.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I think it will be impossible to talk in such an important and public forum without addressing the current social turmoil and Apple’s diversity efforts. Last week, the company announced a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. Over the last few years, Apple’s done a better job diversifying its keynote stage. It will be interesting to see how many diverse faces appear across the entire 4-day program.

Bajarin agreed that Cook will probably echo his recent comments on diversity but reminded me that the keynotes are “really for the developers to get an idea of Apple’s direction for the new year so that they can attend the proper sessions relative to them.”

 Which is why you should expect Cook to primarily address any broad development themes, ones that run across iOS, iPadOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS.

iPadOS

This year-old platform is quickly becoming one of Apple’s most important as it represents the most aggressive merging of creative and productivity activities across Apple’s entire ecosystem. I expect developers will learn about more ways they can leverage mouse support across their iPad apps. I’m also certain there’ll be fresh multi-tasking updates.

iOS 14

It’s been seven years since Apple killed skeuomorphism (making icons that look like the real-world actions or objects they describe), and I wonder if it’s time for another major iOS UI overhaul. Actually, now is not the time for that; we’re dealing with enough, aren’t we?

Still, Apple could update Control Center, making it even easier to add and remove actions. It should do more polishing of Notifications and add some much-needed enhancements to the dock. Personally, I’d like to see it side scroll to at least double width so you can more easily access your eight favorite apps. Apple might also do some work around app groupings and, I hope, fix some of the app management / home screen edit stuff that in recent years has gotten a bit harder to use.

Craig Federighi at WWDC
Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi at WWDC 2019.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Most people expect Apple Pencil support to finally arrive on iOS. That could also mean that Apple unveils here or later this fall a pint-sized Smart Pencil designed specifically for the iPhone. It would be no longer than, say an iPhone 11 and fit neatly in specially designed iPhone cases.

Augmented reality should be a major focus on both iOS 14 and the iPadOS update. While Apple is unlikely to identify specific, new AR Applications, it should speak obliquely about how the next ARKit update will enable future applications.

“I am very skeptical that Apple can have AR glasses out this year given my discussions with the supply chain that tells me the tech needed to deliver these types of glasses are just not ready for prime time,” said Bajarin. Even so, “new features in ARKit could give us a hint of what they are thinking about in this area beyond its use on iPhone and iPad.”

There’s been a lot of chatter about the potential of a folding iPhone. Personally, I’m not buying it (Apple would prefer to let competitors spend years flailing about with moderately successful foldables before diving it and showing them the “right way” to do it) but the clearest indication of such a device would be iOS 14 support for dual-screen productivity. Imagine two apps running side-by-side on an iPhone. Now, we could use that kid of true multi-tasking anyway, but I think support for it could be a signal that maybe, just maybe, Apple is working on that fabled dual-screen device.

We should also expect some new animoji styles (maybe full-body ones?), iMessage and FaceTime enhancements (would merging them be too much?), and some password and privacy updates. Perhaps Siri will get some real-time language translation support: You say Bonjour and Siri says Hello.

watchOS 7

It’s impossible to talk about watch platform updates without addressing health and fitness. If Apple introduces the anticipated Fitness app, it will live, obviously, on iOS and the iPhone, but have an important presence on watchOS and the Apple Watch.

The question is how Apple will resolve the inevitable conflict between Workout and Fitness apps on the watch.

Blood oxygen tracking is an obvious addition that I fully expect Apple to implement in watchOS 7, especially since Apple can probably implement it without a hardware update. There are already other smart watches, like Withings ScanWatch, that use light to measure blood oxygenation. Plus, code for such a monitor was already spotted in leaked iOS 14 code.

Kits

WWDC is also where Apple unveils new and improved Kits. These are developer-centric software collections for calling task-specific features like those revolving around smart home control (HomeKit), augmented reality (ARKit), research (ResearchKit), health (HealthKit), CloudKit, MapKit, ClockKit, you get the idea.

I don’t know that we’ll see any new Kits, but I do hope Apple pays special attention to HomeKit and the associated Home app. Apple still lags far behind Google and Amazon in the smart home race and I believe part of that is the still overly-complex software. Personally, I’d like a Home app redo and maybe a hint that the HomePod Mini is in the wings.

“Apple has had mild success with the HomePod,” said Bajarin, “and I always saw it as a work in progress. I have no direct knowledge of what they plan but it would be about the right time to update its design and expand what it can do.”

A Fundamental Shift

Perhaps the biggest news to come out of this year’s WWDC could be the anticipated shift from Intel to ARM-based CPUs, likely ones custom-built by Apple (just as the A-series chips are in iPhone and iPads) in Apple’s MacBook line.

Even though this is a hardware change, it would make sense for Apple to announce it at WWDC, where developers must think about how to rewrite MacOS apps to run on both Intel and ARM CPUs. Apple already has its Mac Catalyst app, which helps developers bring iPad apps to the Mac.

WWDC 2019
A virtual event means WWDC 2020 will look nothing like this.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This change, which would mean both the iPad and MacBook run on ARM-based CPUs, could make that transition easier, allowing developers to develop once and run on either MacOS or iPadOS with only some cosmetic changes.

This rumored move does not strike everyone as obvious or smart.

Calling this news one of the industry’s worst kept secrets, analyst Patrick Moorhead, President of Moor Insights and Strategy, told me via Twitter DM that Apple’s been preparing for this for years. Still, “it’s a risky and expensive move for Apple and right now I’m scratching my head on why Apple would do this. There’s no clear benefit for developers or for users and it appears Apple is trying to boost profits,” wrote Moorhead.

macOS 10.16

That ARM shift should have a direct impact on Apple's next desktop-laptop operating system and, obvious, how developers code for it.

Details on macOS feature enhancements are basically non-existent, but I suspect this will be the moment Apple starts pushing it’s computer operating system more aggressively in the direction of iPadOS. I still don't see a merger happening anytime soon, but more shared features seem likely.

Expect messaging to move in the direction of iOS.

While Apple will "never" add touch screens to its MacBooks, it may make the trackpad act, as much as is possible, like a touch screen. I would love to see drawing enabled on the trackpad.

BTW: I have no idea what Apple might name this latest macOS, though I am holding out hope for Crystal Skull.

Mac Pro workstation
Last year we got the Mac Pro. We won't see a similar hardware announcement during this virtual event.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

One thing I do not expect are any real surprises or hardware launches (remember, last year we got the Mac Pro). I just don't think the virtual format lends itself to that kind of reveal.

All this news, which I love, is still beside the point. WWDC is about and for the developers, the people building the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, and Watch apps we all use. Thanks to Kits, code packages, and visual programming, it’s easier than it used to be. But that’s a little like saying that autopilot makes flying easier. It does, but you still must know how to take off and land that plane. Suffice to say, I’m a long way from my pilot’s license.