Surprise! Apple launches iOS 14 today, and developers were given just 24 hours' notice

Plenty of time to get your apps through Cupertino's rigorous testing

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Apple is expected to release the 14th version of its iOS mobile operating system later today, alongside major system updates for the iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV.

For iPhone users, iOS 14 brings improved multitasking and significant aesthetic changes. Incoming calls, for example, are now indicated in a small window, and no longer consume the entire display.

Meanwhile, the Picture-in-Picture feature allows users to watch videos and place voice calls while using other applications. Android devices have had this for some time and it must be implemented by developers on an app-by-app basis. It's therefore conceivable that your preferred streaming service may not support it on launch. Obviously, both Safari and Apple TV will offer it from the get-go.

Moving on, there's also a new translation app, which supports real-time AI-powered translations, including written text and spoken word. In addition to most major Western European languages, this also offers support for Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Russian, and Arabic.

Again, this is hardly groundbreaking. Google Translate has done the same thing since 2015, thanks to a 2014 acquisition of startup Word Lens. The Chocolate Factory later expanded upon that with Assistant's Interpreter mode. Separately, there are a bevy of third-party hardware devices that do the same thing, including the PocketTalk and Vasco Translator.

Arguably the biggest change is something called App Clips, which is faintly reminiscent of Huawei's Quick Apps. These are effectively pared-down applications designed to launch quickly and perform a limited set of tasks. Purchases are performed over Apple Pay (of course), and Clips can be shared via QR Code, NFC, or over iMessage.

Other updates are fairly minor. iOS 14 makes it simpler to switch AirPods between devices. And the software will eventually allow you to use your phone as a digital car key, with the feature initially launching on the 2021 BMW 5 Series before rolling out to other vendors.

To Apple's credit, device support for iOS 14 is excellent, and the software is coming to phones as old as the iPhone 6s and the iPhone SE, released in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Apple's phones tend to have a longer shelf life, with the iPhone 6s only discontinued in late 2018. Still, it's nonetheless remarkable when you consider that Android devices get, at best, around three years of security updates.

The rest

iPadOS 14 carries over some of the features found on the iPhone variant, including support for smaller call notifications. Widgets have been moved directly onto the home screen, while apps are tweaked to make better use of the larger screen real estate. There's also support for Newton-style handwriting recognition (obligatory Simpsons reference), making it possible to copy and paste your various scribbles.

watchOS 7 has also received some attention. There's a new fitness app, which ties into Cupertino's new fitness subscription service. Sleep tracking is also improved, with the Apple Watch using its built-in accelerometer to detect when you're sleeping, with the results visualised on its display. There's also a "wind down mode" designed to improve sleep hygiene. This allows you to silence notifications, open a playlist or meditation app, or automatically trigger your smart home devices.

Because there also has to be a coronavirus angle, watchOS 7 comes with a handwashing mode that'll tell you whether you've done your full 20 seconds, or if you're skimping.

The most iterative updates are found in tvOS 14, which doesn't really add any new functionality, but rather expands upon previous changes. Multi-user support is expanded, with the software better able to track individual progress in games. There's also support for two new Xbox controllers – the Elite Series 2 and Xbox Adaptive Controller – as well as the aforementioned Picture-in-Picture mode.

Developers caught by surprise

The absence of any new iPhone or Mac models in yesterday's event reinforces what we already know: coronavirus has majorly disrupted Apple's release plans. It's usually around this time when we can expect a fresh crop of iPhones.

While it's not definitively known whether this has had a knock-on effect on the Apple developer community, the immediacy of the iOS 14 launch caught many by surprise, with less than 24 hours' notice that a new version was coming. Apple only released the Golden Master (GM, effectively a production-ready release candidate) last night.

That matters because developers are only able to submit iOS 14 applications to the App Store once that Golden Master is available. Each app must undergo Cupertino's rigorous software and human-driven testing to ensure it complies with the App Store rules. This can take anywhere between several hours to several weeks.

Predictably, devs are nonplussed, and Twitter has been filled with the usual caterwauling. One suggested Apple was exhibiting "some kind of performative dominance signaling towards developers", while another bleakly said: "Apple really really hates developers." ®

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