WWDC 2017: What to Expect for Actual Developers!

Oh boy oh boy! Only one week until Christmas in June! That magical week where Apple will momentarily emerge from the shadows, dump a hilariously massive pile of software on all of us, and then immediately disappear once more!

It’s a fantastic week. Developers from around the world will descend on California with fevered excitement in anticipation on what new shiny awesomeness awaits. It’s a time of meeting old friends, making new friends, and generally having a great time while celebrating the platforms we work with every day.

There will be cheering. There will probably be crying. And invariably, depending on how much new work the announcements create for us developers, there will most definitely be a lot of profanity.

I spend a lot of time on the internet, and I read a lot of the rumor sites on what awesomeness Apple is planning to sprinkle on us, but most of them are aimed at consumer fanboys. What should us actual developers expect? What about all the extra work it will produce for us? What kinds of loops will we be thrown through, or unexpected features treated to?

Here’s my take on how I think WWDC is going to pan out this year.

10 Years

2017 is a particularly important year. It’s now been 10 years since good ol’ Steve got up on stage, announced the iPhone, and then trolled the world with a picture with a rotary dial superglued to an iPod.

Steve Jobs at MacWorld 2007

That entire keynote has gone down in history as a crossroad of when an entirely new industry was established. While the features announced then seem mundane by today’s standards, it was absolute magic at a time when the concept of browsing full web pages on a mobile device seemed like the dream of a crazed madman.

It’s been 10 years now, and Apple has already issued a press release earlier in the year marking that event, so they’re clearly both very aware and very excited of the fact. It would be very strange if this 10 year anniversary wasn’t acknowledged in the keynote and at least some kind of thing isn’t announced to commemorate it.

New Hardware

In my personal opinion, WWDC is the absolute best time of the year for Apple to announce new hardware. New hardware invariably means new software features which means new APIs. Perfect material in the line-up for the week of developer sessions; which is more often than not the only time in the year where you can hear it directly from Apple employees.

Apple used to announce hardware at WWDC all the time in the past. In 2010, Steve announced (for the second time. Admittedly.) the iPhone 4 with its crisp Retina display, and Phil announced the Retina MacBook Pro in 2012. Both were wildly new hardware features for the time, and so it was great that developers could then attend sessions that both introduced the core concepts, and then discussed best practices.

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In recent years… not so much. Sure, in 2013 Phil announced the “can’t innovate anymore my ass” Mac Pro at WWDC, (and a new AirPort to boot) but since then, that’s really been the end of it.

And lately, it’s been a particularly dry spell of hardware updates for Apple. Ostensibly, the latest “new” hardware (i.e. something that wasn’t a rehash of previously announced products) was the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar which was announced in October 2016. No new iPad Pro models, and no new desktop-class Macs for literally years at this point.

As a result, I’d say it’s reasonably safe to say that we’ll get something hardware-related at this conference. There’s no way Apple will be passing this opportunity up. I’m thinking possibly at least one of these:

Siri Smart Speaker

With Amazon Echo a household name, and Google poised to launch Google Home worldwide, it seems like Apple is definitely missing out by not having a similar household smart device. Siri is arguably the first intelligent assistant that was made available to the masses, so it feels a little sad that it’s starting to look like it’s losing out to the others.

There’s been a lot of rumors for a while now about a theortical Siri speaker; a standalone household device running some ‘flavor’ of iOS with full Siri integration. Definitely enough rumors to the point that it seems like this is certainly a thing that might actually happen. Since Siri support was opened up to developers last year, now sounds like the best time to launch such a device.

Although if Apple did allow third party integration into such a speaker, I’d be curious how they’d do it. Similar to the AirPort base stations, I would suspect they’d need to write accompanying Mac and iOS apps to let customers customize their devices. It’d be curious if developers could write their own standalone Siri integrations for a ‘Siri App Store’ (Since the Messages App Store last year, it seems like new App Stores each year could be a thing!), or if they’d need to be extensions of an iOS/tvOS app.

In any case, if Apple was going to announce ostenisbly another ‘new platform’ device like this, WWDC would be the best time to do it. A whole new platform would have a lot of topics to cover, so WWDC would be the best time.

Granted, they DID pass up WWDC 2015 to release the new Apple TV later in the year, so it’s definitely not a gauarantee…

iPad Pro mini

One interesting rumor I keep hearing about is a potentially whole new class of iPad. An iPad with the same number of pixels as the 12.9” iPad Pro (which I like to call the jumbo iPad!), but with the pixels themselves being the same physical size as the iPad mini. Ostensibly, a miniature version of the iPad Pro, at the same form factor size as the standard size iPad.

I love my jumbo iPad, and I use it all the time. I really like having a screen that size for the videos and comics I like to consume. Comics are especially useful since it means that it’s much easier to have two pages on screen at the same time. Really, the only real downside to that size of device is that I’ve been yelled at by flight attendants to put it away during take off and landing when travelling before.

A “normal-size jumbo iPad” would be the best of both worlds. It would still be possible to take full advantage of the extra screen space, but the physical size would also make it much easier to carry around (And wouldn’t offend flight attendants too!).

On a side-note, I really hope those other rumors of Apple planning to kill the real iPad mini aren’t true. It sounds like the shotgun response to that is ‘Just buy an iPhone 7 Plus’, but a lot of people I’ve heard from said that that isn’t an option for them.

Macs…?

We already heard this year that the Mac Pro will finally be getting some proper love, but not for a looong time (Hackintosh time? Anyone?). But that doesn’t mean we might still not see any awesome new Mac refreshes this year. Now that Intel’s Skylake chips have hit a sufficient enough yield to start shipping in the MacBook Pro, we could very realistically see a refresh of iMacs and Mac minis with Skylake chips too. Considering the Mac mini hasn’t been updated since 2014, and only has dual-core offerings to boot since then, THIS WOULD BE A VERY WELCOME THING.

A Touch Bar Magic Keyboard

One of the problems when Apple announces a new hardware feature on singular device is that it’ll take literally years for it to become a mainstream feature, to the point where developers will start investing serious development time into it. At the moment, only a very small section of the Mac install base has access to one with the Touch Bar. A rumor has been floating around that Apple might actually release a new model of Magic Keyboard, one with its own Touch Bar replacing the function keys along the top. This would then allow the feature to be backported to older Mac models, substantially increasing the uptick of users who can actually take advantage of it.

The Touch Bar came with a rich set of APIs in order for developers to interact with it. So I will definitely be surprised if it isn’t a hot topic at WWDC this year.

iOS

As mentioned above, iOS is now officially 10 years old. Wow, time flies when you’re having fun! With the success of the iPhone, iOS is arguably the most important piece of software belonging to Apple at this point, and so every change made to it is non-trivial.

The more recent versions of iOS, including 9 and 10 haven’t broken the mold to any extent big enough to have third party developers start panicking (Although, size classes in iOS 8 might have done that slightly!), but the ways iOS 11 sounds like it’s shaping up, it may very well be an extremely interesting release.

New Design

We haven’t seen a release of iOS that completely threw the developer community for a loop since iOS 7 and the death of skeuomorphism (RIP in Peace Mr Forstall). But as this IS the 10 year anniversary of the platform, now would be JUST the right time for Apple to drop a significant design change on all of us.

A new design trend that seems to be emerging in mobile software design right now is the concept of ‘complexion reduction’: taking interfaces and making them even more simple than before. This includes removing color from UI controls, bolder titles, and bigger focus on user-generated content. The best example of this I’d say is the Instagram app redesign:

Instagram New Look in 2016

We’ve already seen several of the stock apps on iOS 10 adopt a new UI design pattern indicative of complexion reduction. The iOS 10 redesign of Apple Music, as well as the introduction of the TV app seem to imply Apple is heading in a new design direction for iOS.

The iOS 10 Music App Design

I would definitely bet we’ll see the rest of the system apps on iOS adopt this new bolder design scheme in iOS 11, and maybe even the default behavior of certain UI controls changing as well.

Dark Mode: Black is the new Black?

This is something I’m very excited about. The concept being a system-level switch for alternating between light and dark UI styles for all apps at the app level. Apparently this was slated for release in iOS 10, but slipped at the last second. Nevertheless, some enterprising developers managed to enable it in the iOS Simulator already.

The code and APIs for this sort of feature are already exposed. Dark mode WAS announced for tvOS last year and so the APIs are already all in place; they’re just only enabled for tvOS builds at the moment.

I can’t emphasize enough how excited I am for dark mode. Trying to implement something like this on your own is quite complex and time consuming. As a result, only the most well-crafted apps on iOS, like Tweetbot and Overcast offer it as a feature right now.

In case you haven’t heard much about it yet, dark mode is exposed to apps via the userInterfaceStyle property of UITraitCollection, meaning it will be an implicitly available value to all system UI elements, and can even subscribe to when a system event will cause a transition between the two modes.

Supposedly, if your app uses only standard Apple UIKit controls, you won’t have to do much at all in order to automatically enable dark mode. However if you do have a lot of custom UI controls, these will need to be updated to handle the potential transition between modes.

I build a lot of open source UI components for iOS, and I’ve already started incorporating both dark and light modes for some of the controls I’ve built (For an example TOSearchBar). If you’re a developer who builds a lot of UI controls, I’d definitrely recommend you start thinking about having initial themes for your controls for both light and dark modes. As long as you plan it up front, it SHOULDN’T be that much more work.

Better Siri Integration

Last year was really exciting in that Siri was opened up to third party developers for the first time ever. And while the number of types of apps it would support were quite minimal (ride-sharing, payments, VoIP etc), Apple promised to add more integrations over time.

If the rumors of the Siri device are true, 2017 should be a huge year for Siri, so we’ll hopefully see a lot more third party integrations for it.

watchOS

I actually haven’t heard much about watchOS. Personally, I mainly use it for activity tracking, and I recently bought a Series 2 model over in Japan for the Suica capability.

While not specifically watchOS 4 related, there’s a few things I want for the watch:

CUSTOM WATCH-FACES PLEASE

Even since the beginning, other smartwatch platforms, like Pebble (RIP :( ) have had the ability for third party developers to design and develop custom watch faces.

Given the uptick of stickers for iMessage and the Stickers App Store, it seems like this is an extremely glaring oversight on Apple’s behalf that developers can’t add custom watch faces to watchOS yet.

Admittedly, it’s understandable that watchOS faces are quite complex, needing integration with the various complications, but I’m sure even this could be solved with some well-thought out API design.

This is one I’m hanging out for every year.

Even More Developer Access

With each version of watchOS, more and more of the Apple Watch’s capabilities are opened up to third party developers. But even still, watchOS is still no where on the same level as iOS. You’re never truly in control of the UI on watchOS, more you tell it what you ‘want’ it to display, and the system itself will go ahead and layout all of the content.

Apple is obviously being very cautious about how much freedom they give developers over time. With a small screen, and limited battery life, it’s definitely much easier for third party developers to degrade the experience of the watch if they’re not careful.

watchOS 2 brought with it the ability to run third party apps on the watch, and watchOS 3 sped up performance significantly with in-memory optimizations. Hopefully watchOS 4 will continue that trend and bring even more user experience refinements to the platform.

tvOS

Admittedly, I’m a really bad person to ask about the Apple TV. I unplugged mine from my TV to free up HDMI ports after I found out all of the apps I use (Well. Mainly just Netflix and AnimeLab) were also available on my PlayStation 4. (Don’t worry though! It’s gone to a really good home for the time being.)

Some interesting things of note:

An Official Streaming Service

With the plethora of other streaming companies out there, coupled with the new TV app, and the fact Apple is now producing its own TV shows (for better or for worse) seems to all but confirm that Apple might be about to offer its own streaming service.

As someone who travels between Australian and the U.S a lot, I’m always on the fence about the announcment of new streaming services, since it usually takes years for them to come to Australia. But if there’s any company that could negotiate a worldwide licensing strategy for its platform off the bat, it would be Apple.

3D Touch…?

The Apple TV is an interesting piece of hardware in that the input devices are completely separate. Releasing a new iteration of the Siri remote with 3D Touch capability would be warmly welcomed.

macOS

Saving the best for last. OS X already had a pretty major shakeup last year when it was finally renamed to macOS, so it might be hard to top that this year.

But that being said, now that macOS has moved away from the ‘OS 10’ nomenclature, perhaps it’s time to finally increment the version number as well. Now that iOS and tvOS will be hitting version 11.0 bumping macOS from 10.12 to 11.0 would line things up incredibly nicely.

All in all, aside from the current situation with Mac hardware, macOS is in a really nice spot at the moment. It will be interesting to see what new features they’ll bring to it.

Touch Bar Integration

As the Touch Bar for MacBook Pro was announced since the last WWDC, it’s definitely safe to say there will be sessions about it. From design to best practices, I’m very interested to see what sorts of cool new features the Touch Bar enables on these Macs.

Conclusion

All in all, it’s going to be a fantastic week. I think it’s fair to say that literally everyone who got a ticket can no longer wait at this point. From the announcements, to the sessions to the parties after hours, I’m expecting to get very little sleep all week.

If you see me, feel free to say hi! Hope to see you there!

Next Up: Realm Events at WWDC 2017

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Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver hails from Perth, Australia! He has been an iOS developer for 6 years, and recently joined Realm in March 2015. Tim has a cool app called iComics and he loves karaoke! He does, in fact, also sometimes have the problem of too many kangaroos in his backyard.