What to expect from Apple's online-only WWDC 2021

Can this really be Apple's "biggest and best" developer show ever?

Google I/O is done, and so is Microsoft Build — that means Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is the last high-profile software showcase for at least a month. If you’re one to take Apple at its word, this year’s WWDC is shaping up to be the “biggest and best yet,” which leads us to the obvious question: what does the company plan to show off this year?

Short answer: a lot. We totally get it if you’d rather be surprised, but if you don’t mind spoilers about what we’re expecting to see once WWDC kicks off, we’ve got you covered.

The details

WWDC will begin on June 7th with a keynote at 10AM Pacific/1PM Eastern, where Tim Cook and the rest of Apple’s execs will walk us through some of the biggest changes going into iOS, iPadOS, macOS and more. These addresses typically last a shade over two hours, so be sure to block out plenty of time. (Oh, and don’t forget to carve out time to watch our reviews editor Cherlynn Low and UK bureau chief Mat Smith dissect the day’s news after the keynote over on our YouTube channel.)

Of course, there’s much more to WWDC — after all, the show runs through June 11th. There’s just one catch: while WWDC is technically free to attend, it’s only open to registered developers who have shelled out the $100/year fee. That means the event’s many sessions, deep dives, and one-on-one developer labs are off-limits to the public. At the time of publication, Apple is still keeping its full list of sessions under wraps, but don’t worry — we’ll keep you abreast of any big developments that turn up after the keynote.

Apple iPhone 12 mini review
Chris Velazco/Engadget

iOS 15

iOS got a pretty substantial revamp at last year’s WWDC — expanded widget support, a new App Library, App Clips and limited support for changing default apps were just a few of the changes found in iOS 14. Reports suggest we might be looking at a quieter year for the iPhone, but we’d still expect it to get the lion’s share of attention.

The juiciest details we’ve seen so far come from Bloomberg, which claims that — among other things — Apple has revamped the way notifications work in iOS 15. You’ll apparently be able to set an iPhone to deal with incoming notifications differently depending on what you’re doing — say, when you’re driving or sleeping. Bloomberg also suggests that iOS 15 can be set to automatically respond to messages depending on which of those statuses you’ve set. It sounds almost like a spiritual successor to away messages from the AOL Instant Messenger days. As a nerd who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, that’s very exciting.

We’ve also heard that Apple might be gearing up to show off a new look for the iPhone Lock Screen, which would make sense if they’re planning to push the concept of “statuses” or “availability”. That also dovetails with rumors that the iPhone 13 could embrace an Android-style always-on display, a feature that’s only possible because Apple started using OLED screens in iPhones last year.

Now, considering how vocal Apple is about its focus on privacy, I can’t say I’m surprised that the company seems to be building on the App Tracking Transparency work that debuted in the recent iOS 14.5 release. For iOS 15, Apple has reportedly built a feature that shows users which apps are subtly collecting information about them. We’ve also heard that Apple is planning to flesh out iMessage with more social features to help it compete with platforms like WhatsApp, but who knows if that’s going to be ready in time for the update’s fall launch.

Apple has already highlighted a handful of interesting accessibility features coming to iOS 15, including a feature that plays soothing background sounds like rain, crashing waves, babbling brooks, and what Apple calls “bright” and “dark” noise. That might not sound like a big deal, but for people who get distracted very easily — like many of us around here — this might be the iOS 15 feature that gets the most use.

Apple iPad Pro (2021) review photos

iPadOS 15

Since iOS and iPadOS share the same basic feature set, you can expect every improvement we’ve talked about so far to apply to Apple’s tablets too. With all of that in mind, we’re expecting some big new changes this year, and that’s mostly thanks to this year’s high-powered iPad Pro. Our review, along with just about every other one out there, has called on Apple to take better advantage of the M1 chipset in the company’s highest-end tablets. After all, this is the very same silicon found in Apple’s current MacBook Airs, MacBook Pros, and iMacs — it would be a waste if the company didn’t find a way to make iPads better at multitasking and more computer-like.

Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done. For now, all we’ve heard about Apple’s efforts on this front is that iPadOS 15 will get a revamped home screen that you can fully load up with widgets — iPadOS 14 only lets you place them in the little Today View sidebar. That report comes courtesy of Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, and it’s about the only reasonably firm rumor we’ve heard about the new iPadOS, though we could make some justifiable leaps in logic.

If full-screen widget support is making the jump from iPhones to iPads, we wouldn’t be surprised if the iOS App Library came to iPadOS too. That means you’d finally have a place to stick all of the apps you need but don’t want to look at all the time. Beyond that, though, Apple has managed to keep its tablet-focused work under wraps, so we’ll just have to see what the company has to say about the future of the iPad.

Apple WWDC 2021

macOS 12 and Apple Silicon

Apple has long believed that iPads represented the company’s vision of the future of computing, but a surge in Mac sales this past year has proven that people aren’t giving up on more traditional computers just yet. That’s at least partially because last year’s WWDC was a big one for Macs — we finally saw Apple ditch Intel processors in favor of its own, surprisingly powerful chipset.

Since Apple is still dealing with the ramifications of that shift, it’s possible Apple may not announce many dramatic changes to macOS this year. Considering the relative shortage of rumors and leaks around Mac software in the run-up to the show, we’re inclined to believe that’s true. We’re still expecting to get an up-close look at the work going into this year’s macOS 12 update, but the most eye-catching reports we’ve seen so far suggest Apple is planning to flesh out its assortment of Apple Silicon Macs.

For example, noted leaker Jon Prosser claims we’ll get our first look at new MacBook Pros: these would be 14-inch and 16-inch models, which are said to lack the love-em-or-hate-em Touch Bars. Prosser also suggests we could see the re-introduction of long-lost features like the MagSafe charger, SD card reader and a proper HDMI output. That might sound like Apple is returning to the good old days of laptop design, but there will be no shortage of modern touches. These MacBook Pros are expected to use mini-LED displays like the ones in the new iPad Pro, not to mention Apple’s next-generation, high-performance chipset, allegedly called the M1X.

Apple hasn’t said anything publicly about its next-generation chips yet, but a Bloomberg report from May claims that the company is working on processors that “greatly outpace the performance and capabilities of the current M1 chips”. That’s reportedly thanks to the new chipsets’ ten CPU cores — eight for high-performance tasks and two for more energy-efficient use — and either 16 or 32 integrated GPU cores depending on the Mac’s configuration.

Apple Watch SE hands-on

watchOS 8

As for Apple’s Watches, we really don’t know much apart from what the company has already confirmed about watchOS. For example, the next watchOS update will include a new feature called AssistiveTouch that’ll allow people to control their Apple Watches just by clenching their fists and making pinching motions with their fingertips. That’s already pretty wild as a concept, but not quite as wild as how the company pulled it off — the Watch will use its motion sensors, its heart rate monitor, and a dash of machine learning to detect minute motions in the wearer’s muscles.

If the name wasn’t already a giveaway, AssistiveTouch is part of Apple’s push for greater accessibility, and this could be a very big deal for people who only have the use of one hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see other people trying it out too. As usual, we’re also expecting to see a slew of new watch faces, but that’s about it for firm details at the moment. The rest of the watchOS 8 story remains a mystery, but hey — at least we won’t have to wait very long to get some answers.

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