What iOS Developers Should Expect at WWDC 2017

Apple’s biggest developer conference of the year is nearly upon us, and the next generations of iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS are set to make their debut. Every year, WWDC offers a glimpse into the high-level initiatives that are driving Apple, with hints at subtle enhancements to iOS that will become the defining features of its future hardware products.1

As ever, the rumor mill is swirling about what Apple will showcase next week, with an unusual number of hardware announcements suspected than the typical WWDC lineup. But there are a few overarching themes that will impact every third-party iOS developer following the conference, and these will fundamentally change how developers build apps for Apple’s platforms for years to come.

iOS 11 gets an inter-face-lift, and not for the reasons Apple says

In every new app for iOS 10—including the redesigned Apple Music, the all-new Home app, and the TV app launched with iOS 10.2—Apple’s designers adopted a new UI aesthetic marked by bold, large fonts and the removal of the top navigation bar common in previous stock iOS apps.2 This design style has been recognized as being much more accessibility-friendly, increasing contrast ratios and adding intuitive shapes around text-based buttons throughout the OS, but also implies something larger happening with how Apple’s user interfaces operate within their devices’ physical displays.

The removal of the navigation bar—the top bar that typically houses common controls, back buttons, and a title for the current view in traditional iOS apps like Messages or Mail—speaks volumes about the direction Apple hardware design is going. Eliminating out-of-reach buttons and controls in favor of a bottom tab bar is an accessibility win, but also implies that future iPhone displays might not allow room for these elements up top. Rumors surrounding September’s iPhones suggest that the next-generation hardware could feature an edge-to-edge display, perhaps even with a rounded top corners. This rounded edge would render certain UI conventions impossible, and it stands to reason that what Apple will bill as a “modern redesign” of its flagship OS will really be a practical shift to support the iPhone 8.

What Apple will bill as a “modern redesign” of iOS might really be a practical shift to better support iPhone 8.3

For iOS developers and UX designers, this could represent a major shift in how iOS apps are designed and built. These updates to the iOS design aesthetic will doubtless be reflected in a new version of UIKit, meaning many developers will be able to shift their apps’ layouts with minimal effort. But for designers, and for developers whose app designs deviate from common UIKit conventions, these changes will require a UX overhaul of common buttons, actions, and navigation elements. Like the changeover to iOS 7, this new generation of iOS promises to reshape every aspect of how users and developers interact with their apps.

AR becomes Actually Relevant

One of the biggest expected trends in iOS 11 is a new commitment to augmented reality, with first-party features and APIs for third-party developers that could bring AR functionality to many more apps and users. Based on some comments from Apple CEO Tim Cook, alleging that virtual reality was in its infancy but that Apple saw the immediate value of augmented reality features, Apple pundits have speculated what form Apple’s “interest” in AR will take in iOS 11.

To date, AR–powered apps have been predominantly games and social utilities, allowing Snapchat users to annotate their selfies with dog ears and animated tongues. But this category of features promises to be much more useful and relevant in a broader context across Apple’s OS, from Maps to the stock Camera app, allowing users to better understand their physical contexts and surroundings through a harmonious marriage of the iPhone’s existing GPS antenna, gyroscope, and iSight camera. Coupled with Apple’s burgeoning commitment to on-device AI computing, opening up APIs for third-party developers to join in could make iOS the de facto AR platform of the future.

Opening up comprehensive augmented reality APIs to third-party iOS developers could make Apple the de facto AR leader of the future.

In fairness, it’s just as likely that Apple waits to debut its flagship AR features until it has a new iPhone to show it off on, but the company would benefit from getting developers at WWDC on board with its new initiatives quickly. Apple has a vested interest in populating its App Store with best-in-class augmented reality apps on day one, and so expect a number of enhancements to iOS’s foundational SDKs and to Xcode to support iOS developers in their AR endeavors.

Look Who’s Talking: A Speaker, Apparently

Amazon Echo and Google Home have proven out the utility and surprise market viability for smart speaker systems, which live in the home and allow users to interact with virtual assistants, stream music, and control their connected home products just with their voice. These functional areas intersect perfectly with Apple’s biggest initiatives in recent years—bolstering Siri functionality with SiriKit, aggressively promoting Apple Music, and seeking to dominate the internet of things with HomeKit—and so it should come as no surprise that Apple is expected to launch a product that leverages all of the above.

A theoretical “Siri Speaker” would intersect perfectly with Apple’s biggest initiatives in recent years, including SiriKit, HomeKit, and Apple Music.

Ubiquitous rumors suggest that Apple is prepping a Siri Speaker product that will enable users to chat with Siri, stream Apple Music, and control HomeKit devices with the sound of their voice. It’s pretty straightforward from a consumer perspective, given that smart speakers have been commonplace for a few years, but suggests a possible shift in Apple’s relationship with the third-party developer community—and perhaps its users.

When Apple launched SiriKit with iOS 10, the SDK supported a limited handful of interaction types—sending messages through chat apps, hailing a ride share vehicle, making a peer-to-peer payment. This restraint was partly a function of Apple’s typical closed-off nature, but also the result of the company’s limited training data for AI virtual assistants. Whereas Google can collect data and learn from the full volume of Google Assistant and Android users the world over, Apple’s emphasis on privacy prevents it from similarly training its machine learning systems with gobs of user data.

One suggested solution to this data gap is to synchronize users’ personal Siri instances with iCloud, à la Microsoft’s Cortana, increasing the interaction and voice training data from one device to as many as the user owns. Another is to anonymize user voice data through differential privacy, a new approach Apple championed when announcing its autocorrect training system at WWDC last year. Either way, Apple seems aware of its machine learning limitations, and will need to find a solution to make its Siri Speaker competitive with the likes of Google Home and Amazon Echo.

For third-party developers, this might also mean a drastic expansion of SiriKit functionality, putting the theoretical Speaker product on par with Amazon’s Alexa Skills framework in terms of developer capabilities and support. Building a full chatbot ecosystem into Siri would have a halo effect across all of Apple’s product lines, but would also give developers a new, smarter-than-ever conduit into users’ everyday lives. SiriKit was a fledgling solution hobbled by Apple’s hesitant nature and market position. siriOS might be the solution developers and customers have been waiting for.

SiriKit was a half measure hobbled by Apple’s relative data gap. siriOS might be their next step to introduce exactly what developers and customers have been clamoring for.

iPad Pro Finally Earns its Surname

Apple’s most capable product in the iPad genus is the iPad Pro, a set of two tablets boasting advanced (and enormous) color-correcting displays, a range of professional-focused keyboard and stylus accessories, and the most powerful processors ever shipped in an iOS product. But these devices are still held back by the capabilities of iOS, an operating system that is in many cases better suited to the needs of a mobile handset than a professional-grade computing machine. The inclusion of side-by-side multitasking in iOS 9 was a welcome addition, but real professionals need more than a Smart Keyboard and Microsoft Word support to abandon their MacBooks.

If rumors are to be believed, Apple will unveil a new range of 10- and 12-inch iPad Pro hardware at this year’s WWDC, a change from the historically software-focused event, that feature a new thinner bezel design and likely another alarmingly fast next-generation chipset. But more exciting than the hardware design are the rumored software capabilities that will accompany them, targeting professionals and intended to make living and working with an iPad Pro as seamless and capable as running macOS.

More robust multitasking support could include drag-and-drop between side-by-side apps, as well as a more comprehensive system-wide clipboard feature that would allow for saving images, links, or snippets of text between apps. Another, more adventurous, rumor suggests that Apple will somehow add trackpad support to iOS, alongside a new Smart Keyboard that expands to resemble an ultra thin, miniature MacBook. Whether this addition means cursor support within iOS4 or some implementation of tvOS’s Focus Engine5, trackpad support could allow for more granular control in video- and photo-editing apps, as well as more artistic possibilities within sketching and design apps.6

User support for you, and you, and you

Finally, the next generation of Apple’s tvOS set-top box software is rumored to support multiple user accounts, allowing every member of the family to have her own home screen, favorite apps, watchlist for TV and movies, and more. For products like Apple TV, which by definition have multiple users more often than not, this functionality is a no-brainer. But for products like iPad, which are just as often shared between multiple users in the home, adding multi-account support would be revolutionary.

Apple has, in a way, dipped its toe into the multiple user pool with its Classroom app, announced last year as a way for teachers and school administrators to share iPad devices between dozens of students in their classes. Classroom allows each pupil to sign in and access his or her own preferences, apps, and documents, and allows teachers or administrators to monitor and guide their behaviors and browsing. Classroom is, as the name implies, limited to the schoolhouse today, but many of the user interface and technical challenges seem to have been solved, and could expand to the full gamut of iOS users.

On its latest-generation MacBook Pros with Touch Bar, Apple included a Touch ID sensor that recognized distinct fingerprints from each of the Mac’s various user accounts, automatically signing them into their unique desktop. Adding a similar multi-user implementation to iOS might portend a next-generation Touch ID system7, and iOS developers will likely have new access to understand the various users on each device in order to organize and present their distinct files and preferences in-app.

Looking Ahead

This fall, when the company traditionally hosts its iPhone hardware event, many of the seeds Apple will plant at WWDC will begin to bear fruit. Its confirmed AR initiatives will likely be showcased with a new iPhone camera, its commitment to on-device machine learning and AI might be demoed on next-generation silicon, and its interface language will flex its muscles on a new and different iPhone display. Until then, iOS developers can only read between the lines of Apple’s WWDC marketing copy to understand what comes next, and how their apps might need to evolve to prepare for it. That, or they can continue to cringe at what is perhaps Apple’s oldest tradition: executives dancing on stage and cracking dad jokes.

  1. One big example is size classes and Auto Layout introduced with iOS 8, which enabled the larger display sizes for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus months later. ↩︎
  2. Other notable examples include the redesigned Apple News app, as well as the interface vocabulary on the new master TV app on tvOS. ↩︎
  3. For what it’s worth, “iPhone Pro” is a much more likely nomenclature than “iPhone 8.” ↩︎
  4. Yikes. ↩︎
  5. Double yikes. ↩︎
  6. Now if only Apple would add more comprehensive font support to iOS, then this professional could finally jump ship to an iPad. ↩︎
  7. Namely, the Secure Element would likely need to support greater than five distinct fingerprints. ↩︎