Apple’s 2018 developers’ conference WWDC started yesterday with an announcement-packed keynote, followed quickly by the release of four new operating system developer betas: iOS 12, macOS Mojave, tvOS 12, and watchOS 5. I’ve been diving into the betas to bring you the big picture of what’s new, and now that the keynote dust has cleared, I’m ready to share the details.
Note that for the time being, all four of the betas are solely for developers, but public versions will likely follow for iOS, macOS, and tvOS in the near future. Here’s what’s worth knowing about.
1. iOS 12 is already surprisingly stable and probably will make your device run better — months before its official release in September. But Maps and Siri temporarily have (new) issues.
As a general statement, I don’t advise installing the first beta of a new Apple operating system, but iOS 12 is an exception. It feels roughly as stable as iOS 11, yet is noticeably faster on an iPhone and iPad I’ve personally tested … except for two things. Apple’s Maps app seems to have some significant issues providing initial directional guidance and rerouting, making it less than safe to depend upon.
Similarly, the most recent revision to Siri has (even more) problems, including a partial “here’s how it should eventually work” implementation of the new Suggestions feature — the standalone app based on Workflow isn’t yet included — and a new female South African voice that doesn’t seem to function properly after it downloads. Group FaceTime is also a work in progress. Expect these features to work fully in subsequent betas.
I’ll note briefly that I think that Siri Suggestions — specifically, a user’s ability to get Siri to do whatever they want within an app, so long as the app supports Suggestions — has the potential to be huge. It could start a turnaround process where users who walked away frustrated from Siri actually start to test the feature again, and perhaps begin to really like it. But apart from Suggestions, Siri has been getting even worse recently at properly responding to requests, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see things go sideways yet again for the much-maligned digital assistant.
2. Little things matter: Memoji, grouped notifications, and quality of life tweaks are legitimately welcome.
Though Apple is expected to show up to WWDC with major new tentpole OS features every year, there are times when the “focus on performance and stability” and little new features actually make a difference.
This feeling is palpable across iOS 12, particularly on the iPhone X, where app quitting and repeat Face ID scanning have been made single-flick simple, while Memoji and visual effects have been added to make messaging more fun. I’m already seeing the benefits of grouped notifications and a deeper Do Not Disturb feature on my lock screen, too.
That doesn’t mean everything’s right. The same polish is really needed for the iPad’s weird new Home Screen status bar, which thanks to a redesign for upcoming Face ID iPad models now looks like a disjointed mirror image of the Mac’s top-of-screen bar. It desperately needs customization options.
3. New and updated iOS apps, including Measures, are promising.
It’s really nice to see Apple finally bringing a collection of new apps to the iPad — Stocks, Voice Memos, Home, and Measures — along with nicely updated versions of prior apps Books and News. The latter apps’ interfaces are really beginning to (re-)develop distinctive styles that were lost in the infamous iOS 7 user interface whitewash, and Books is particularly promising.
Measures, a newly integrated iOS app that will use AR-assisted tools to let you measure real-world objects, is comparatively awkward. I’m not sure if it’s just not feature-complete, but the UI isn’t exactly intuitive for average users. It’s also pretty weird to see the app running at what appears to be a much higher framerate than the rest of the iOS user interface.
4. Screen Time (aka Digital Health) still needs major work.
I’m a huge supporter of Apple’s (long overdue) move to introduce Screen Time digital health features such as usage tracking and app limits into iOS. But the current implementation needs more polish.
One of the most important things about presenting aggregated data is to make it both succinct and actionable — able to show you information that you can then quickly use to make improvements. The current Screen Time UI looks pleasant enough, but doesn’t make great use of either the iPad or iPhone screens to display data, nor does it currently seem to be aggregating information across multiple iOS devices. Many of the specific data measures seem way off, too. Hopefully this gets a whole bunch of fine-tuning before release.
5. macOS Mojave’s Dark Mode is still a work in progress and shows why a Mac Dark Mode took so long.
Mac users have begged for a system-wide Dark Mode for years, and Apple seemed to be dragging its feet on the request. But as macOS Mojave demonstrates, the initiative was clearly a lot more complex than anyone realized.
Turning all of the OS’s UI elements from light gray to dark gray required near inversions of everything from system “chrome” to text, and you can still see the rough edges all over Mojave’s beta interface. Safari and Mail are in particular need of fine-tuning, but what’s here is a good start. It’s a shame that users of older Macs won’t be able to get access to this feature, since Mojave requires 2012 or newer Mac hardware; Dark Mode goes a long way towards improving the Mac’s accessibility for visually disabled users.
6. While Mojave’s Finder continues to idle, new first-party iPad apps give it new life — and third-party iOS apps will do more next year.
Despite Apple’s past claims that it doesn’t plan to merge macOS and iOS, macOS has been in a weird holding pattern for years, largely adding hand-me-down features from iOS without offering iPads or iPhones much in return. The pattern continues with macOS Mojave, which makes a bunch of small Finder tweaks while gaining another set of iPad and iPhone stock apps — ironically stage one of a now-official initiative to merge iOS and macOS app bases.
Doesn’t it seem at this point like Apple’s Finder pitch every year or so is a new way to organize existing thumbnails, previews, and data in windows? And clean up your messy desktop? Well, that’s this year’s pitch, too. I just happen to like the way this year’s Gallery view and desktop use of Stacks work.
Like Dark Mode, they feel like additions that took a long time to hit the Mac. But the real changes will come when iOS apps start running on Macs — something I suspect won’t happen until the next major macOS release, rather than a mid-cycle point release of Mojave.
7. watchOS 5 once again dropped the ball on custom watch faces, and it’s becoming ridiculous.
There aren’t many gigantic missing features in Apple devices these days, but if there’s one thing glaringly absent from the Apple Watch, it’s support for third-party Watch faces. On day one of the iPhone’s availability, Apple knew that letting users customize the lock screen was critically important, yet we’re on the fifth release of watchOS and still have only a small number of shallow modifications for the one screen Watch users see all the time.
There is clearly some business motivation here — Apple must have made a special deal with Hermes or Nike — but in the big picture, this is as wrong-headed as trying to charge separate fees for iPhone ringtones and songs. Third-party Watch faces should have been here years ago, and developers showed up at WWDC looking for something new and worthwhile to do with the Apple Watch. The fact that this feature didn’t get announced during an otherwise underwhelming watchOS 5 unveiling is a big disappointment.
8. Walkie-Talkie mode and web displays in emails/messages are welcome, but years late, and watchOS needs a bigger-picture rethink.
Apple promised direct Apple Watch to Apple Watch voice communication years ago, but the feature was inexplicably left out of watchOS until now. So it’s great to see the new Walkie-Talkie app in watchOS 5, even though it doesn’t work in the first beta. Similarly, it’s fantastic that Apple is including limited webpage viewing support in watchOS, making emails and messages containing web previews actually usable on the Watch rather than requiring use of a nearby iPhone.
That said, watchOS feels at this point like it’s not making major progress on anything apart from fine-tuning and extending old features — and for a relatively young platform, that’s concerning. A bunch of major companies abruptly discontinued their Apple Watch apps over the past few months, and almost no one noticed or seemed to care. As much as I’m genuinely looking forward to the next version of the Apple Watch — something I wouldn’t have said years ago — I really think the UI needs a redesign, and the overall experience of customizing the Watch to be “personal” to the user needs to take a big step forward from where it is today. There’s so much untapped potential here.
9. Even though tvOS already seems to be going nowhere, cable providers may have just guaranteed that it remains stale.
The big news of WWDC 2018 for Apple TV users: Apple TV 4K is getting Dolby Atmos support — “hooray,” said a handful of well-to-do home theater enthusiasts. But other announcements for tvOS 12 were so thin on the ground as to be seriously disappointing. There was no expansion of Apple’s awesome 2017 4K streaming video deal to additional film studios, no developer-side improvements in app features or support, and nothing new on gaming. But … there are new screensavers.
If there’s any bright light on the Apple TV horizon, it’s that at least three cable companies have decided to use the Apple TV 4K as their set-top box alternative to the larger, clunkier, and less capable coaxial boxes that have been in homes for decades. I’m concerned that Apple’s partnerships with slow-moving cable providers will lead it to reduce the pace of major updates to the Apple TV so as not to confound their partners. But given that tvOS doesn’t seem to be changing much anyway at this point, perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore — Apple may have stopped “pulling the string” on this platform.
10. macOS, Metal, and watchOS are demonstrating Apple’s hardware support windows, and they aren’t all pretty.
Apple focused on a piece of positive news during its keynote — iOS 12 will support all of iOS 11’s devices, and improve their performance — while leaving out the fact that macOS Mojave will be dropping support for most pre-2012 Macs, and watchOS 5 is leaving behind the original Apple Watch released in 2015. It’s hard to shed tears for anyone who spent $17,000 on a gold Apple Watch Edition, but I can’t help but feel bad for customers who enthusiastically dropped cash on iMacs, Mac Pros, or early black steel Apple Watches only to see the devices effectively reaching end-of-life status while small but long-awaited OS updates are finally arriving.
Developers are getting hit, too. Apple has noted the impending end of 32-bit app support on Macs, the upcoming discontinuation of support for OpenGL in favor of Metal, and the lack of watchOS 1 app support in watchOS 5, once again pushing devs to keep their apps updated or lose their ability to reach Apple’s customers. In the past, Apple was able to use the promise of exciting new technologies and ever-larger customer bases to rally its developer troops to look past their old work and move forward.
But this year’s WWDC didn’t make as aggressive of a pitch. It opened and closed with videos that offered somewhat odd perspectives on developers — themes that might have resonated with certain members of the audience, but felt weird to other observers. One video portrayed developers as unusual animals, while the other spotlighted the early struggles of Yelp, which grew from humble roots into what’s been widely called a “billion-dollar bully” of small businesses.
For developers who paid $1,599 for tickets to attend the conference, this wasn’t a wholly inspiring keynote, and for Apple device users, it wasn’t so much “exciting” as reassuring. But at least ticket holders got Levi’s jackets and Apple pins to take home.