Apple kicked off the first day of WWDC 2021 on Monday, June 7th. WWDC is Apple’s flagship event of the year, and the information revealed is always critical in shaping the app development technical strategy for the coming year and beyond. The new announcements covered all of the platforms and devices in the Apple ecosystem, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, and Mac.
WWDC 2021: Day One
The COVID-19 pandemic has made digital connections more critical than ever. Throughout the keynote Apple made the topic of shareability a cornerstone part of their story about the future of their platforms. Apple will be bringing new features such as Shared with You sections to many apps such as News, Music, and more.
Another critical piece of this is being able to share content while FaceTiming with friends. Imagine watching a new movie or listening to a new album, all timesynced as you talk on a FaceTime call. This works natively with the TV and Music apps, and for third-party apps, Apple announced the SharePlay API. The SharePlay API will enable developers to allow users to share and experience your content together, right within a FaceTime call, expanding the reach of your content even further.
Many of our clients have expressed interest in crafting experiences that can be shared between multiple users, and this has been especially true over the past year. Apple’s addition of the SharePlay API is a great stride towards facilitating these types of interactive and shareable multi-user experiences, and any client or brand with a video-based app will be especially good candidates for implementing this functionality to connect their viewers together.
Privacy is always a critical part of Apple Events. Today, Apple announced a few new privacy features that give users more insight and control over their data. As part of a rebranded iCloud+ offering, Apple now offers Hide my Email and Private Relay features. Hide my Email allows users to create alias email addresses for specific purposes, and Private Relay acts as an encrypted way to handle internet traffic without exposing your IP address.
Likely the biggest impact announcement for third-party developers is the new App Tracking Report. This feature will enable users to see how often apps are accessing permissions such as location, photos, camera, microphone, contacts, and more. Additionally, users will also be able to view which third-party domains your app interacts with over the internet. This visibility will give users even greater insight into how their apps are behaving and sharing their data behind the scenes, which is a natural extension to the other privacy-focused features they’ve rolled out over the past few years.
More information about this will likely be available in the coming days and weeks as developers get access to the beta software.
Whether it’s the start of a weekend tournament, a tent pole release, a limited-time in-store event, or the rollout of another major brand event, there’s always something interesting going on inside our apps. Discoverability of those events is an important challenge to solve, and up until now, notifications have been a cornerstone technology to let users know about them. But it’s difficult to get those notifications to users who haven’t already interacted with an app.
In-app Events solve that problem. In-app Events will allow us to display information about time-relevant app events right within the App Store. They’re personalized for users, meaning they’ll be displayed to users who will find them relevant based on their usage behaviors and tastes, even if those users have never interacted with your app or brand before.
App Store App Page Updates
Apple is also rolling out a set of enhancements to App Store app pages that will help more users find and install them. Alongside iOS 15, the updated App Store will allow us to provide alternate sets of screenshots, preview videos, and icons for our apps. Those alternate sets can be personalized to different user types, making sure that the right layouts are shown to each individual user.
And it’ll also be possible to A/B test configurations of content within those store pages, allowing us to test and optimize the effectiveness of each configuration. New user analytics will allow us to build a better understanding of the customer visiting our App Store pages, which will provide greater insights about the users who show an interest in our apps and brands.
We’re eagerly awaiting more announcements from Apple to see exactly how these new features will be controlled and implemented. We expect they’ll be a key part of the App Store optimization process and are excited to apply them to help grow our clients’ audiences.
Multitasking has been a core feature on the iPad for years, with features such as split-screen app support, picture-in-picture, and slide-over allowing users to work within multiple apps at the same time. The discoverability of those features has not always been perfectly intuitive in the past and may have limited the usage of those features.
In iPadOS 15, iPad multitasking features will become even more prominent within the user interface. Floating controls at the top of the screen will allow users to quickly switch between multitasking features with clearly defined buttons, rather than relying on purely touch-based gestures. This means users will be more likely to expect support for those multitasking modes and engage with them.
And the new Quick Note feature will allow iPad users to instantly create a note by simply making a drag gesture from the corner of their screen. These features all continue to demonstrate that Apple considers the iPad more of a multi-app device than a purely modal paradigm, and so developers should strongly consider how their app fits into the experience alongside the rest of iPadOS when designing and building these apps.
iPad Home Screen Widgets
Home Screen Widgets and the App Library are also making their way to the iPad in iPadOS 15. Apple debuted these features on iPhone in iOS 14, and seeing them make their way to the iPhone further emphasizes how important Apple considers them in the user experience. The iPad will also feature a new extra-large widget layout exclusive to the larger-sized device layout, which will allow for even more app functionality to be accessed right on the user’s home screen.
Yearly updates to the notifications system are usually guaranteed, and this year is no exception. iOS 15 is debuting a new notification summary feature that gathers up notifications into a group that will be delivered to the user at the right time for them, rather than immediately demanding their attention.
Before now, we would generally assume that notifications would be delivered to users immediately, as soon as they were sent out. But the new notification summary feature means users may not see those notifications until a time of day personalized specifically for their needs, depending on their app usage behaviors and device settings. Notifications can now be tagged with new passive, active, time-sensitive, and critical types, which determine their priority and ability to aggressively surface to users.
Notifications are also receiving a small design update, bringing app icons and user contact photos into more prominence within notification banners. Apple pointed out that rich notifications that include large thumbnail images will receive a higher display priority in the summary, so it’s even more important to provide visually rich notification content.
And an update to AirPods will also allow Siri to automatically audibly read out time-sensitive notifications to users as they come in, giving them more than just a visual indication of what’s going on within their apps.
Swift and Development Tools
Swift continues to evolve as a programming language in some tremendously exciting ways this year. While these may not be user-facing additions, they work behind the scenes to speed up our development process and allow us to build higher-quality and safer apps.
At the top of the list, the new version of Swift brings an updated concurrency management model to the development process. Swift’s new async/await/actor paradigm will allow us to write concurrent code (such as networking operations, background processing, etc.) in a simpler, cleaner, and less error-prone way. It’s often said that concurrency is one of the most difficult problems in software engineering, and so the new concurrency development model is a huge step towards simplifying the complexity of that process.
Other additions such as the inclusion of a native AsyncImage control in SwiftUI for loading images asynchronously over the network will be an extremely helpful boost. We’ve typically used hand-written or third-party frameworks to achieve this functionality for years, and so it’s exciting to see it integrated directly into the platform by Apple.
Outside of Swift, Xcode will also see a handful of updates that will vastly improve the development process. Xcode Cloud is Apple’s updated set of tooling and frameworks for managing continuous integration and deployment directly within Xcode. And as its name suggests, Xcode Cloud allows developers to run build tasks in the cloud, allowing for parallelized test execution, more streamlined credential and build artifact management and smoother integration with tools like TestFlight.
Build management has traditionally been a unique and involved process in iOS app development, and so the addition of Xcode Cloud is a welcome one in helping make that experience easier and more manageable. Our team will be experimenting with the beta versions of the updated tools to explore their suitability for our development pipeline.