Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

WWDC 2021 keynote impressions.

It's Apple's second fully-remote WWDC keynote. After decades of having fine-tuned the art of live broadcasts that evolved from Steve Jobs' early presentations, the strange and fresh feeling of seeing how Apple would craft a pre-recorded event is a year old now. Like last year's, it was spliced with whimsical, artful and musical transitions around Apple Park which never happened during their live events (though, interestingly, other companies have long made a habit of it. And never in any Apple keynote have I heard "ladies and gentlemen, please welcome," which always struck me as bizarre).

No rumoured hardware announcements, which is right for WWDC. It seemed like a more evolutionary year for the OSes – handfuls of exciting features, but nothing totally new, sparkly, or in-your-face (FaceTime notwithstanding). I've missed that and found it refreshing: it's been a decade since Apple switched pace to a major release of OS X every year, rather than every… longer while. The pace of software updates today feels like a subway against a horse and cart, and it's nice to feel like you can take a breath on that timescale – enjoy using technology without worrying about what will have changed before the seasonal weather does.

A lot of stuff about holistic integration into users' lives and relationships. Set a custom quasi-"do not disturb" status which curates work-related versus personal notifications. Share your personal health data with family members or trusted friends. Get a prompt from your watch to reflect on your day. This stuff is a far cry from the calculated focus of Steve Jobs' famous four-quadrant product line: four kinds of products, all Macs, and the operating system that would run them. Even seven years later when the iPhone launched, I doubt the leadership was even thinking about anything from mindfulness to measuring cardio fitness. But "Apple's grown like a weed," and now their ability to work across this range of areas belies something that's always been traceable in its thinking: computers need never be a segregated slice of existential pie, as other companies have conceptualized them. They have their role as helpers and not masters, but their modern sophistication suits them to tasks beyond those of their simpler ancestors.

It's pretty amazing. But it's come so far, so fast, that today I finally found myself asking "wasn't this company called 'Apple Computer' just a few minutes ago, selling just those four Macs? Now they're spending ten minutes talking about home, work, focus, and reminding you to breathe? Is any of this developer conference going to be about using computers?" Happily, there would be plenty of that.

The new Safari design was a highlight I was craving. People have sharply personal browser preferences, and – though happily designed and coded around open, refined standards by several companies rather than one – browsers look and feel different to use. My main gripe with browsers (all the way back to Netscape) is that they feel cluttered, and I've always sought the balance of power, stability and zen-likeness that Safari has honed. Organizationally, the tab groups and tabs-in-the-main-bar thing look like a radical curve, but I suspect they're just the improvement I failed to think of. The visual tab itself is the address bar? Of course – when we use a browser's address bar, we already intend to change the destination of the currently-focused tab. Pages whose primary colours starkly flood the chrome look great. All that, plus the introduction of extensions on iOS, have me really looking forward to a new life of placid Internet journeys.

Shortcuts was previously "Workflow," a third-party app Apple decided to acquire to bring automation to iOS. It's become sophisticated enough that Federighi framed it as the future of automation on Mac, starting a transition from the beloved Automator. (Will AppleScript die a slow death or find a new life?) I'd hoped for this one last year, and I'm nerdishly excited to play around.

FaceTime seems to be doing some catching-up, acquiring features that made other apps like Zoom more popular during the pandemic: multi-platform access, ease of use on the web, screen and window sharing, and a plain old grid view. (Craig says the "Portrait Mode" feature was "inspired by" Portrait Mode photography on iPhone, though Skype has included a background-blur feature for years). However, while Skype is clunky, Zoom was haunted by security issues, and I'm not aware Discord even makes their privacy policy clear for conferencing transmissions, FaceTime will maintain its always-on end-to-end encryption. Ever since Jobs announced FaceTime would be an open standard (evidently false), its main obstacle to popularity seems to have been its usability between only Apple customers.

Where Apple might be going a step further? "SharePlay," an API for developers to integrate FaceTime with native apps on devices for super-efficient synchronization that doesn't rely on screen sharing at all. I'll be paying attention to the possibilities this week. (All this, and "iChat Theater," which let you share any Mac file preview in-video with wonderful smoothness, would seem to remain sadly forgotten.)

The truly magical-looking, Apple-feeling thing of the day was "Universal Connectivity." Craig places an iPad to the right of a MacBook Pro, moves the Mac's cursor past the extreme right, and it automatically peeks into the iPad's screen. Move it a little further to confirm, and the Mac's trackpad is now controlling the iPad's cursor in iOS, and is free to move back and forth. He even drags an image from an iPad all the way across the MacBook Pro's screen, all the way onto an iMac sitting to its left, and drops it into a Final Cut Pro timeline. This was the first time I lamented the lack of a real audience, who would have applauded for a solid minute. I use my iPad next to my iMac every day, and that's a feature I would love, but didn't even think to hope because it didn't seem remotely realistic. Fantastic.

Honourable mentions: lots of good privacy stuff (e.g. Mail blocks tracking pixels), a lot of detail in Maps (even for non-photography-based maps, it looks like models include traffic lights, crosswalks, various kinds of trees, and custom-modelled representations of buildings), Siri can process many voice requests on-device, and government-issued ID on the iPhone (for participating US states).