WWDC 21: This year, Apple puts the spotlight on its ecosystem and the wonders of its ‘walled garden’

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WWDC 21 got off to a grand start with Apple’s keynote on Monday, June 7. We saw all of the latest platforms, with updates ranging from ‘awesome’ to ‘boring’. But when you take a step back and really look at the announcements Apple made, it’s worth noting that 2021 was not about individual platforms, but rather blurring the lines between them.

Over the years, Apple has introduced a variety of cross-platform features from iCloud, to Handoff, and Continuity to Universal Clipboard. If you own just one Apple device these might not mean much, but like me, if you own a couple, these features are truly revolutionary. I do not say this lightly, of late I’ve found myself gravitating towards Android, especially on the Google Pixel, but I can safely say Apple has won me back this year.

The features Apple announced are a strong indication of its ‘walled garden’ approach, that despite what developers may argue against, are truly beneficial for consumers. And that’s what this year is all about. Amidst the contentious trial with Epic, Apple has proven that it’s system is better because it “just works”. 

Now keep in mind that all of these features will require the latest devices to work, but even if you have a 2-3 year old device, you should be able to take full advantage of everything announced at WWDC 21. Here’s a breakdown of everything coming this fall, and what it means for you. 

FaceTime finally become useful with SharePlay

For years, FaceTime and iMessage have languished as bare competitors to WhatsApp, Messenger, Google Meets, and lately Zoom. Of course, that’s not entirely Apple’s fault, but it is the result of a walled garden approach. But all that’s changing with iOS 15. This year, Apple finally made FaceTime useful, and most importantly global. It starts with SharePlay on FaceTime, which is no doubt the highlight of WWDC for me. 

Essentially, SharePlay will allow users to share movies, music and their screens over a FaceTime call, but it’s far more than your routine sharing. Apple has tapped into Apple TV+ and Apple Music to make SharePlay truly useful, giving users the ability to consume media as a group. In a year of Netflix Parties, this is actually groundbreaking. With SharePlay, everyone on a FaceTime call can listen to the same music, create a playlist in real time, edit the playlist and even skip songs.

The biggest advantage of SharePlay is that it’s not just limited to Apple’s services, it’s an API that any developer can take advantage of. At launch, SharePlay will support Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Twitch and even TikTok. Unfortunately there’s no Netflix or Prime just yet, but no doubt it’ll be here soon. This is actually a direct response to the Epic case, as it allows Apple to say it does open up its OS to developers. For consumers, it opens up FaceTime to a whole new world of options. 

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Better yet, Apple is finally bringing FaceTime to Android and Windows (sort of). If you have an friend who doesn’t own an iPhone or Mac, you can now create and share a link with them to join the FaceTime call. This is pretty much Zoom, but it’s a neat addition. With SharePlay, no doubt FaceTime will present itself as the superior alternative for group calls, and I think that’s a good place to start. Hopefully next year Apple will bring the FaceTime app itself to Android/Windows, but for now this is a workaround I’ll accept, albeit grudgingly from WWDC 21. 

SharePlay in iOS 15 allows users to share music, movies and their screens. (Apple)

Health becomes a family affair

On the health side of things, Apple’s announcements at WWDC 21 weren’t as important, mostly it was Tim Cook and co blowing their own trumpets, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a useful update. If you use the Health app a lot, you’ll be pleased to know that family members can now share their health metrics with each other.

This isn’t like Activity Sharing on Apple Watch, it goes much deeper. Anyone can share any metric they want, such as heart rate, mobility data, or even sleep data with people they want to. You get granular control over who sees what, which is to be expected. You can also be set up to get alerts when a metric isn’t normal, which is no doubt going to be a huge boon for those with elderly parents.

While Apple marketed the feature solely towards those with elderly parents, I see this as an absolutely vital way for families to better understand each other’s health. It’s a great way for parents to monitor (and encourage) their kids to move more, or sit less. It also allows you to ensure everyone is getting ample sleep, and maybe even check things like weight/height. 

I know someone with diabetes, and sharing health metrics is a great way for her parents to keep tabs on her sugar levels, without having to call/message. It’s an efficient update, if used in the right way. This might not be big for a lot of non-US users, but I think it can be, especially in a post-COVID world. 

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Health sharing in iOS 15 allows you to keep tabs on your loved one’s key metrics. (Apple)

One keyboard to rule them all

With macOS 12, Apple is bringing an absolutely mindblowing feature called Universal Control. Essentially, it allows you to use a single keyboard and mouse for a Mac and iPad. One of my biggest annoyances with external keyboards has been the fact you always have to pair them, when you switch devices. Thankfully, some brands like Logitech have made it easier. Now Apple is itself providing the feature, which in typical Apple fashion “just works”.

This will work with the built-in Mac keyboard, and and should work with any Magic accessories as well (not yet confirmed).With it, you’ll be able to seamlessly drag and drop files, photos and other stuff from your iPad to your Mac. As The Verge put it, “Apple may have done the coolest drag and drop demo ever”. And I agree! It was amazing to see Craig Federighi drag a photo from an iPad, move it across his MacBook and drop it into a Final Cut Pro timeline on his iMac at WWDC 21. 

Of course, this is one of those things that won’t “just work”, there are a ton of caveats. For one, it only works with iPads and Macs, not iPhones. You’ll also need a 2016 Mac or later (27” late 2015 iMac supported) and a relatively newer iPad to take advantage of this. It also works on just 3 devices, which seems like quite a lot. 

Another issue is that Universal Control only works one way – from your iPad to Mac. While you can switch devices at will, you won’t be able to drag and drop content from a Mac to an iPad. That’s a bit disappointing, and I hope Apple does bring that support in the future. The demo was far too smooth, so I doubt if this feature will work as seamlessly in the actual world. My device often has trouble with Universal Clipboard, so I am not too sure about this working as Craig demoed it, but if it does, it could massively change how we work across devices.

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PcKvaW5jzw&w=560&h=315]

Smart home updates

Smart home products are becoming increasingly popular, and fragmented. It’s quite hard to find the right product that works for your platform, especially if you are like me and can’t drop $100 on a HomePod Mini when cheaper alternatives exist. While I’ve always been willing to pay a premium for my phones and laptops, I don’t see the advantage of HomePod over an Amazon Echo, or Apple TV over FireStick. 

But if you aren’t like me, and own an Apple TV and/or a HomePod, then there are some pretty interesting updates announced at WWDC 21. Firstly, the HomePod can now support commands for the Apple TV, so you can ask Siri to play Ted Lasso without needing that pesky remote. But that’s not all. 

You can now view multiple camera feeds on your Apple TV, and control accessories in a particular room. That’s nifty, if you own a lot of smart home devices. The intercom feature introduced last year is now supported by the Apple Watch, but again, you’ll need a HomePod to take advantage of that. Another interesting update is that you can now view video feeds right on your wrist, and control accessories. 

The biggest news in this space is that Apple will finally allow manufacturers to build Siri into third party devices, no HomePod or Apple TV needed. When it launches, you’ll be able to directly talk to Siri and control your smart home kit, without relaying that via another device. It’s a start, and I am glad Apple is willing to put Siri on more devices out there. It’s unclear how many devices will support Siri or when they will launch, but don’t expect them before September/October when the HomeKit updates launch. 

The Home app in watchOS 8 has been redesigned with new features. (Apple)

In conclusion, this is a big year for Apple’s ecosystem. If you own two or more devices, you’ll find the updates to be fantastic for most part, but that really depends on what you use and have. If you don’t use Health, pretty sure iOS 15 won’t push you to get started. Likewise, Universal Control is severely limited in its capabilities, so it’s something most of us won’t ever see in action. FaceTime seems to be the highlight of the event, and I am glad Apple is starting to open it up in more ways. Now, if only they could get iMessage on Android. 

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