Apple's WWDC21 keynote brought nice software refinements, but little else
It's been one heck of a week, and Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is wrapping up. Apple has been doing virtual, pre-recorded events since the pandemic started, and honestly, it's gotten pretty good at them. These keynotes pack in a ton of information in a good amount of time that doesn't drag on, and we get less cringe-worthy moments that later become bad memes.
This year, Apple gave us iOS 15, iPadOS 15, watchOS 8, macOS 12 Monterey, and tvOS 15. I'll admit it, though — I may have been a little overhyped for this year's event after all of the rumors because those rumors ended up being what we didn't get. Despite that fact, as we dive more into the developer betas, there is actually a lot to like about the next generation of software coming from Apple — in fact, a lot of it feels like big refinements to existing features, and that's okay. I like to think of this year's updates as a Snow Leopard phase, though some updates might be a little more disappointing than others.
iOS 15: It's about the little things
Okay, I am severely disappointed by the lack of improvements to customization in iOS 15, but I actually do like the changes that Apple did announce, especially Focus. And honestly, that does add another layer of customization since you can have certain Home screen pages only appear when a Focus is set.
But Focus, that's one of my favorite new things in iOS 15. I am the kind of person who gets easily distracted by things, especially when I need to focus on activities such as work. So I can see Focus becoming essential in my everyday workflow. I especially love that with the new notification system, you can basically cut out all notification distractions because I have notifications going off on my phone too many times to count. But I can also make exceptions for specific people and apps and still allow important, time-sensitive notifications to get through. And again, you can select certain Home screen pages to display when Focus is in effect, which I've wanted for a long time.
I also love the fact that Focus and Do Not Disturb will now notify other people of your status, similar to how Do Not Disturb While Driving works, as well as the old days of AIM. I hope that people respect my status and don't notify me unless they absolutely have to.
Speaking of notifications, I'm ecstatic that they're finally improving how they work. Now we'll be able to see contact photos for notifications from people and larger app icons to help discern what app is alerting you. And Mute Notifications? Seriously, about time! I often get tons of messages from my siblings that aren't necessarily important, so I am eager to put those on mute until I'm done with work, and intelligence can also suggest muting if you're not active in a conversation. And the option for notification summaries to be delivered at times that I designate, especially when paired with Focus, should help me cut down on unwanted, pointless distractions.
The Safari improvements also have me crying tears of joy (well, yes, but actually no). I love the fact that the URL/search bar is now at the bottom because it was always a pain to have to reach for the top to access it — now I can do so with just one hand on my iPhone 12 Pro! I also tend to end up with what seems to be a million tabs, so being able to group my tabs will be a huge quality-of-life improvement.
Another big headline change coming in iOS 15 involves FaceTime. While I'm really not a big FaceTime (or video calls in general, to be fair, unless I absolutely need to) user, Apple is making some huge strides here. I'm not just talking about the Spatial Audio, Portrait mode, Voice Isolation, and Wide Spectrum microphone modes, either. I'm talking about being able to create and share FaceTime links for other users to join in from the web and even on Android and Windows machines. This is huge and makes the new SharePlay features even better because you can do so with anyone, and not just other Apple users.
One of the smaller features announced for iOS 15 were some improvements to the Find My app, including "Leave Behind" alerts for AirTags. As I started using Tile item trackers, this was one of my favorite features, but I did not want to pay for a premium subscription. When AirTag came out, I was ecstatic but disappointed that it had no way to alert you if you left an item behind. That's changing in iOS 15, and I couldn't be happier. Other less-talked-about features include Drag and Drop support (finally!), offline Siri, and so much more.
Even though I did not get better customization options, Apple has definitely refined many of the little things in iOS 15. It may not revolutionize the iPhone as iOS 14 did, but it makes it a better experience for the best iPhone, like what Snow Leopard did for the Mac.
iPadOS 15: The iPad's weakness continues to be the software
Oh boy, where do I start with this one? I was eagerly looking forward to a huge change coming in iPadOS 15 to make the iPad Pro (2021) with an M1 chip packed inside worth it, but nope. This was pretty much the biggest disappointment of WWDC21, and I know I'm not alone. Like many others, I was expecting iPadOS 15 to be big and make me want to upgrade from my 2020 11-inch iPad Pro. But it did the complete opposite.
First, let's talk about the good. We can now FINALLY have Home screen widgets and the App Library on the iPad. These were both features that were absent last year with iPadOS 14, even though they came on iPhone with iOS 14. Now we can customize our iPads to display informational widgets and search for the apps we want through Spotlight or the App Library. Less clutter on the screen is always good, in my opinion.
We now have somewhat better multitasking with new ways to activate and control Split View and Slide Over modes. Now we can pull up a Quick Note from pretty much anywhere, and it uses intelligence to detect context for things like links in Safari. Oh, and Swift Playgrounds can now build apps, compile the code, test them, and submit directly from the iPad without ever having to go to Xcode on a Mac. This is definitely a big one — I mean, you can create, build, and submit apps right on the iPad! It's one step closer to being a laptop replacement.
But then, where are the other "pro" apps? I mean, the iPad Pro (2021) has 8GB of RAM with the 128/256/512GB versions and 16GB with the 1TB and 2TB models, and these have M1 in them, the same as the latest Macs. Why doesn't Apple bring its own professional apps like Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro over to the iPad to take advantage of that M1 power? And with limitations on how much RAM iPad apps can use, putting in 16GB of RAM is just a huge waste.
Like many, I hoped that iPadOS 15 would bring big changes to how we use our iPads. But I'm just disappointed — an iPad Pro (2021) won't be much different than my 2020 iPad Pro when running most apps because iPadOS 15 doesn't make the most out of the M1 chip.
Again, the iPad Pro (2021) is just a story half-told, and who knows when it will actually be completed at this point because it sure wasn't with iPadOS 15.
watchOS 8: An even better health companion
The main purpose for my Apple Watch is health — I like to get notifications on my wrist, but I don't use it for much else, aside from knowing the time. There are some cool new watchOS 8 features coming that revolve around Photos and watch faces, messages, as well as improvements to the Home app, but I want to primarily focus on the health aspects.
I never really used the old Breathe app, but it seems to be changing to Mindfulness, which should do more than tell you to breathe for a minute. Life's been getting very stressful for me, so I'm eager to give the new Mindfulness app a try. Apple says that it is supposed to help you focus and even reflect through a kind of meditation practice, which is honestly something I could use these days. I also like that it will include Mindful Minutes to show you the connection between mind and body.
Though sleep tracking through watchOS 8 won't give you details on REM, light, and deep sleep stages throughout the night, it brings sleep respiratory rate. My Apple Watch has been one of the most helpful tools in my long-term goal of being more healthy, and I am looking forward to another health metric of mine to track. This not only gives you a greater insight into your overall wellness but this data can be used to help detect if you have problems like sleep apnea.
Maybe next year we can get those details on our sleeping stages throughout the night, eh Apple?
macOS 12 Monterey: The lines between macOS and iOS continues to blur
The day has arrived — Shortcuts is making its way over to macOS Monterey. Shortcuts are designed to make your life easier when it comes to pretty much anything. I often use Shortcuts on my iPhone and iPad for quickly doing actions, and you can also make Automations that trigger when certain conditions are met. I don't do anything complicated with Shortcuts, but I'm eager to see how it'll work on my Macs. Shortcuts won't be replacing the old Automator app, but it'll be interesting to see what users can come up with using both in tandem with one another.
As much as I love the Safari changes on iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, I believe I'm going to get the most use out of them on my Mac. That's because I have to look at dozens of tabs every day while working, so Safari tab groups? Absolutely yes, please! This will make it so much easier to organize my tabs based on what I'm doing for the day, and hopefully, my stress levels go down.
I'm also excited to see Focus coming to the Mac, as this will help me throw out those annoying distractions while I work. And the new AirPlay tweak that lets you turn another Mac into a displayis worth getting hyped over. I'm not sure if I'll be using it since I have a nice big display with my 27-inch iMac, but this is great for others who may have a smaller display and have an old Mac lying around.
However, I am a little disappointed that not all of the new features in Monterey will work on Intel Macs, like the one I just bought a few months ago. These features include Portrait mode in FaceTime calls, Live Text in Photos, and some of the new Maps features like 3D city maps and the interactive globe. This is probably because the features require Apple's Neural Engine, which you don't get with Intel Macs and only the M1. Still, as someone who just dropped over $2k six months ago (my old late-2013 MacBook Pro was dying), it's irritating that I won't be getting all of the new features of the next macOS already.
tvOS 15: Improving your home theater experience
I don't have an Apple TV 4K, but it does have some cool new features that Apple TV users can look forward to in a few months. For example, you'll be able to set your HomePod mini as the default speaker for your Apple TV, which will cut out some annoying steps. It's also exciting that Spatial Audio is coming for select movies and shows.
The big thing is SharePlay and Shared With You. I'm looking forward to this feature on all of my other devices, but I'm sure that this would be even better with an Apple TV. It basically puts all of the content that is shared with you from your contacts into one place on Apple TV, and you see who shared it with you so you can pick up the conversation. If I had an Apple TV, this would be a great enhancement to my media consumption.
What did you think?
What did you think of Apple's WWDC21 keynote? Were you thrilled with the software updates? Or were you left disappointed? Let us know in the comments.
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Christine Romero-Chan was formerly a Senior Editor for iMore. She has been writing about technology, specifically Apple, for over a decade at a variety of websites. She is currently part of the Digital Trends team, and has been using Apple’s smartphone since the original iPhone back in 2007. While her main speciality is the iPhone, she also covers Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac when needed.
When she isn’t writing about Apple, Christine can often be found at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as she is a passholder and obsessed with all things Disney, especially Star Wars. Christine also enjoys coffee, food, photography, mechanical keyboards, and spending as much time with her new daughter as possible.
I found the whole WWDC thing rather underwhelming, but I am not a developer, so I did not expect to be knocked out of my chair by some huge announcement. Some people are aghast at the fact that the new features of MacOS Monterrey will not be coming to Intel Macs. I also find that a little disappointing, but when I look at what features those are, I really don't see myself using any of them at all, ever, so the fact they will not be available on my 2019 Intel iMac won't affect me at all. I will be perfectly happy with all the other operational and security updates that Monterrey will provide, and wait till I retire this machine and get a new M1 iMac at some point in the future.