WWDC Apple on Monday opened its 2021 Worldwide Developer Conference by promising a raft of operating system and privacy improvements – including a relay system to anonymize Safari connections, and randomized email addresses for online account signups.
Expectations were lower than those at last year's event, which heralded a major platform architecture shift from Intel processors to Arm-compatible chips dubbed Apple Silicon. Apple pundits had anticipated an Arm-based MacBook Pro, yet no word of next-generation Apple Silicon machines surfaced.
Before a virtual audience, like last year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, CEO Tim Cook presided over a tag team of executives, engineers, and product managers extolling the virtues of Apple software, hardware, and services. They brought news of iOS 15, iPadOS 15, watchOS 8, macOS 12 (Monterey), health app enhancements and assorted developer tooling changes.
You'll fall for iOS
When iOS 15 arrives this fall, it will include: improved FaceTime audio options, in the form of spatial audio, voice isolation and wide spectrum filtering; Android and Windows support for FaceTime in Chrome or Edge browsers; and Share Play – a way to share audio, video, and your screen during FaceTime calls that will also be accessible for third-party apps via an API.
iOS 15 will also bring enhancements to Apple's Messages app, making it capable of sharing content like photos, news articles, and playlists in conjunction with other iOS apps like Photos, News, and Music.
The Notification system in iOS 15 has been redesigned so notification messages can be viewed in summary mode. There's a new feature called Focus that allows users to filter notifications and apps to minimize distractions. Users, for example, can create Focus configurations for specific contexts, like work or family time, that make only certain notifications and apps available.
Apple, long a laggard in AI, has brought text and image recognition tech to its Camera app and Spotlight search service. iOS 15 users will be able to search for text in images via a feature called Live Text and query recognized objects in pictures using Visual Look Up.
Photos meanwhile will see its auto-composition feature called Memories improved and integrated – like it or not – with Apple Music to provide a soundtrack for photo-montage presentations. And Safari is getting an interface redesign that rearranges the tab bar and lets Tab Groups be saved and shared across your iPhone, iPad, and Mac.
The most significant news about Safari, however, came during a portion of the presentation focused on developers. Safari browser extensions, after the forthcoming software releases, will function on iOS-based mobile devices – opening the door to content blocking and privacy extensions that operated previously only on macOS. These extensions will even function in Apple's Mail app.
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iOS 15 expands compatibility with digital keys for vehicles and hotel rooms and later this year will add support for government IDs in Apple Wallet.
"This fall, you'll just scan your driver's license or state ID in participating US states," said Jennifer Bailey, VP of internet services and Apple Pay, during the keynote. "It's that easy. Your ID information is now in Wallet, encrypted and safely stored in the Secure Element, the same hardware technology that makes Apple Pay private and secure."
The first place this will be usable, said Bailey will be at TSA checkpoints. There is another way to look at this...
Oh, hey, an Apple event! Looks like Apple Wallet is adding the ability to unlock doors and hold your government ID, realizing my dream of only having to lose a single device to lock myself out of my hotel, home, and office and put myself on a no fly list.— Pinboard (@Pinboard) June 7, 2021
Privacy for some
iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8 also boast various privacy improvements. For instance, a feature called Hide My Email allows a user to generate random @icloud.com email addresses, and have these forward to their main iCloud inbox. These random addresses can be used for account sign-ups so that if said addresses leak to spammers or are misused, your actual email address is kept a secret and safeguarded, and the spam can be filtered out.
"Built directly into Safari, iCloud settings, and Mail, Hide My Email also enables users to create and delete as many addresses as needed at any time, helping give users control of who is able to contact them," Apple added in the above link.
Then there's the Private Relay system, which encrypts and bounces your Safari connections between relays in Apple's iCloud so that your traffic appears from a public IP address that isn't your own. This should anonymize you as far as any website is concerned, until you identify yourself to that site, of course. It all sounds a bit like Tor except that Apple controls all the nodes, which means in theory it could deanonymize you if it wanted through various analysis. Yet, Apple swears it can't do this when you use Private Relay. It remains to be seen if this is a viable Tor alternative or just a fancy VPN.
The iGiant's marketing blurb reads:
When browsing with Safari, Private Relay ensures all traffic leaving a user’s device is encrypted, so no one between the user and the website they are visiting can access and read it, not even Apple or the user’s network provider. All the user’s requests are then sent through two separate internet relays. The first assigns the user an anonymous IP address that maps to their region but not their actual location. The second decrypts the web address they want to visit and forwards them to their destination.
This separation of information protects the user’s privacy because no single entity can identify both who a user is and which sites they visit.
"We are introducing a new service called Private Relay," explained Apple engineer Mike Abbott. "It lets you browse with Safari in an even more secure and private way. And the way it works is really cool.
"The traffic leaving your device is encrypted, so no one can intercept and read it. Then all the requests are sent through two separate internet relays. It's designed so that no one, including Apple, can see both who you are and what sites you're visiting, and it does all this without compromising performance."
Though we note Private Relay won’t work in Belarus, Colombia, China, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda, nor the Philippines.
Apple says these "premium" features – Hide My Email, Private Relay, and more, such as an expanded HomeKit Secure Video support – are part of its new iCloud+ service, which does't cost anything extra though you will need to have an iPhone or iPad with an A12 chip or better, or a Mac made in 2018 or later.
The mobile operating systems will also include App Privacy Reports that document how apps utilize user-granted permissions like location and microphone access, and will specify network addresses used by apps. This will make privacy-invading SDKs in apps much more visible.
The update includes assorted app improvements, to Maps, Weather, Notes, and Translate, and to various Accessibility features.
iPadOS 15 brings various features for better integrating workflows across iPhones, iPads, and Macs. The Universal Control feature, for example, lets a single keyboard-mouse set work across a Mac and iPad. And Widgets can be installed alongside apps on Home Screen pages.
And watchOS 8 will add several improvements from Apple's other platforms, like integration with Messages, the Contacts app, and the Focus distraction management system.
macOS 12, dubbed Monterey, will benefit from enhancements to Messages, Notes, Safari, and FaceTime, and the introduction of SharePlay and Focus. It will also inherit the Shortcuts low-code automation system used by iOS devices.
Craig Federighi, Apple's SVP of software engineering, said that Apple has a long history of automation, including command line shell scripts, Apple Script, and Automator, and now Shortcuts.
"Shortcuts is the future of automation on Mac, and this is just the start of a multi-year transition," he said. "Automator will continue to be supported, and you can import Automator workflows into Shortcuts, beginning day one."
Developers using Apple technologies will finally get a cloud build system. Xcode Cloud will provide CI/CD for programmers.
"When you commit a change to your code, Xcode cloud can automatically build the app," explained Susan Prescott, Apple's VP of Worldwide Developer Relations. "Because it's built in the cloud, your Mac is free for other tests. And for teams, everyone can see if the change introduces errors so everyone can find and fix issues faster."
"Then Xcode cloud runs your automated tests in parallel, so they complete in a fraction of the time, even as they simulate running on every kind of Apple device and platform," she explained. "And the test results are displayed in Xcode, so you can easily see what worked and fix what didn't. Finally, once the app passes all its tests, Xcode cloud can automatically distribute it to the testers on your team, and even external beta testers, with TestFlight."
Developers can also look forward to Custom Product Pages in the App Store to show off different aspects of apps, as well as revised guidelines on developer identity requirements, manipulation of ratings and reviews, and new appeals options for challenging an app rejection on grounds of bias, alongside an option to report apps suspected of safety or trust violations.
Jeff Johnson, a developer who runs app development biz Lapcat Software, said the announcements were exciting. "For me personally, a couple of things stand out," he said in an email to The Register.
"I think Safari extensions for iOS are a game changer, a fantastic improvement for both developers and users. And as a Mac developer, I'm happy to finally see TestFlight for Mac, which we've wanted for many years."
"The keynote didn't do anything to address the business concerns of third party developers, but I wasn't expecting that it would," he added. "This will all have to play out in the legal system. But as far as the technology announcements are concerned, I'm optimistic so far." ®