WWDC 2021: Platforms State of the Union emphasizes saving and valuing time

While Apple’s keynote focuses largely on the company’s consumer audience, the Platforms State of the Union is where things start to get technical, really targeting the core WWDC audience: developers on Apple’s platform.

Apple made a ton of big announcements at WWDC this year, and the State of the Union delved into just a few big categories of those. But in doing so, it gives a look at what Apple’s emphasizing for developers over the next few months leading up to the official release of its next major operating systems.

Code faster and in more places

The import of Xcode Cloud may not have registered for most non-developers in the keynote audience, but this substantial new system that Apple is rolling out has the potential to vastly streamline developers’ workflows in two ways. First, by integrating a lot of the various tasks that developers do—from working with teams to distributing betas—directly into Xcode; and second, by offshoring some of the most time-consuming tasks, like building and testing apps, to a cloud-based system.

Xcode Cloud
Xcode Cloud shows hints at development workflows to come.

Obviously, moving parts of this process to a cloud-based system can bring major advantages. For one thing, you’re not strictly limited by the hardware on which you’re writing your code. While developers often favor getting the most powerful system to help build their apps faster, letting users take advantage of the cloud opens the door for those who may not be able to afford high-end systems.

For another, it suggests a glimmer of future development workflows that don’t strictly rely on the Mac.

In that latter case, it ties in neatly with another big reveal mentioned during today’s keynote: the ability to build iPhone and iPad apps in Swift Playgrounds for the iPad. This marks the first time that developers have been able to write apps for Apple’s mobile devices on those devices. Moreover, Swift Playgrounds lets you export projects that are compatible with Xcode on the Mac, opening up new possibilities for developers.

Of course, Swift Playgrounds doesn’t support developing macOS apps yet, so your iPad probably won’t be replacing your Mac for full time coding work just yet, but again, the glimmers of a future are there, and this just marks the first steps.

Augmenting reality just got easier

Apple’s been talking up augmented reality for years now, and the fact that it got a prominent mention in the State of the Union—sandwiched in between the company’s tools and APIs—is a strong indication that its interest isn’t waning in the slightest.

In particular, this year’s marquee feature is the ability to easily create photorealistic AR objects by taking pictures of objects in real life, something that used to be painstaking and time-consuming, and now—if Apple’s technology proves effective—can be done in a matter of minutes. The end result is to make it easier than ever to create AR experiences.

Object Capture
Apple’s AR ambitions are alive and well.

The big question hovering over that, naturally, is why. Reports of the company’s ambitions in the AR (and occasionally virtual and mixed reality fields as well) have been plentiful, with many of those rumors coalescing around the idea of some sort of AR headset.

All of the time Apple has spent pushing AR over the past several years, combined with this latest set of tools to make it easy to implement what were previously more complex parts of the experience, points to Apple wanting to have a host of developers familiar with all the parts of the AR pipeline when the company eventually rolls out whatever hardware it has up its…sleeves?

People, not data

Every year, Apple highlights its new APIs, pushing for developers to adopt them for the latest OS updates, and 2021 is no different. The company called out a handful of those frameworks during the State of the Union, all related to technologies that were at the forefront of this year’s keynote.

First and foremost, the improvements to notifications and the new Focus system, which work in concert to allow users to more easily manage all the distractions that come with their devices. Developers are being urged to think about how their notifications might fit into that framework, including not only the special types of communication notifications (which emphasize a person’s avatar over the app icon), but also how less time sensitive notifications will end up grouped together in the new notification summary.

That last is significant, because notifications have traditionally been a one-size-fits-all approach, and developers now need to expect that their notifications may not always be immediately delivered to a user, and thus act accordingly. But it may end up with developers jockeying for position in those two larger notification summary spots, which will prioritize notifications with large thumbnail images and those that are judged more relevant to users.

SharePlay API
SharePlay got a big push from Apple during the Platforms State of the Union.

Also emphasized was the new SharePlay API, one of the core improvements to FaceTime that Apple announced. This framework allows for what the company is calling “Group Activites”: experiences like listening to music, watching a TV show or movie, or sharing a screen—all while on a FaceTime call.

What the keynote perhaps didn’t express is how simple and powerful this SharePlay API can be. A demonstration of how to implement a shared video experience in an app took only moments. Another demo showed a shared whiteboard app that allowed all users to interact with it simultaneously. It’s not hard to imagine developers harnessing this power for some really interesting multi-person and multiplayer experiences, and it’s pretty easy to understand why Apple would urge them to design around it.

There were a few other APIs featured, such as ScreenTime (which now allows for third-party parental management apps) and widgets (especially for the iPad), but the clear focus from this year’s features is that Apple is trying to push the idea of interacting more with people and spending less time on the stuff that comes with our technological present. Given the experiences over the last year, it’s not surprising to see the company making these kind of decisions, but it is kind of refreshing to see how fast the company can move when it wants to.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]

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