Okay, so, first and foremost, this is going to be a weird one. Mostly because it’s 2020 and everything is just weird now and we have to deal with that until the next, weirder thing comes along. But while an online-only World Wide Developer Conference is certainly unprecedented for Apple, there’s some recent online precedent from the competition that should give us a preview of what’s to come.
Microsoft’s Build was something of a mixed bag as the bellwether for company-hosted online-only developer conferences (Google notably skipped I/O altogether). CEO Satya Nadella’s bits were pretty much what they should have been: straightforward developer news delivered in a straightforward manner. The event was awkwardly anchored by a pair of employees serving as a kind of throughline for the multi-day show. Goofy developer humor was sprinkled in. It was sometimes painful, but largely benign.
Celebrity video cameos have become a kind of staple for Apple’s events in recent years, so it seems likely to expect that they’ll remain here. In fact, between the launch of Apple TV+ and a general impulse to break up the monotony of a pre-packaged event, the company may lean into that content even further.
Truth is, the thing is going to feel weird regardless. Between staffers and developers, these sorts of things are designed to be an annual bit of cheerleading. Things will feel strange without an audience. Go back and watch later episodes of MASH on Netflix. There’s a weird transition as the producers began tamping down the laugh track slowly overtime. It’s not about one method being better than the other, it’s just difficult for our brains to process these sorts of transitions.
Of course, the opening of Apple’s event is even more tailored to consumers than Microsoft’s. Before venturing into the weeds, the company uses Tim Cook’s keynote as one of a handful of key platforms for announcing new products. As a rule, the news generally revolves around updates to Apple’s various operating systems (this is still a developer conference, mind), but more often than not, hardware has a way of sneaking in there as well. Given a recent update to the 16-inch MacBook Pro and a new system for upgrading Mac Pro’s storage, there’s a decent chance that Apple is making room for bigger announcements at the event.
I’m a hardware guy, so I’m going to start there. The biggest rumor leading up to the event so far is the long-rumored shift to its own in-house ARM processors, making a shift away from a decade+ dependence on Intel chips. The move to a Mac ARM (not to be confused with Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm) would mark another key move toward silicon independence for the company, which has made great strides on that front over on the mobile side.
Beyond letting Apple own a bigger slice of the stack (and all that entails), the new chips have some decided benefits, including better power efficiency and thinner and lighter laptops. Notably, the actual arrival of such ARM-based Macs isn’t likely to happen until next year. Rather, the intent here is to outline the roadmap in order to give developers in attendance a chance to begin tailoring software for their imminent arrival.
Other rumored hardware includes a redesigned version of Apple’s popular all-in-one desktop. An update is certainly long overdue on this front. The iMac’s design language has been largely unchanged since 2012 (which was a relatively minor change over earlier unibody designs). Aesthetically, the redesigned system is expected to be more in line with the iPad Pro up top, coupled with much thinner bezels (the desktop is one of the last vestiges of Apple’s bezel-friendly past). The T2 chip is said to finally be making its way into the line, as well.
Other feasible hardware rumors include the arrival of Apple’s Tile-style hardware tracker, AirTags. That one’s reportedly been in the works for a while, though things have been heating up lately, courtesy of leaks and Tile’s complaints to the EU about alleged anticompetitive action from Apple. Another rumor that’s been bubbling up quite a bit: AirPods Studio. Apple will reportedly launch over-ear competitors to its own successful Beats brand. High-end noise cancellation premium sound is on the docket, along with modular, magnetic components. Also potentially on the list are refreshes to a couple of iPads, as well as a long-awaited update to the HomePod, or possibly the addition of a smaller, cheaper version of the smart speaker.
As for those ever-important operating systems, it’s a no-brainer that we’ll get a good look at iOS 14/iPadOS 14. Key updates include a new automatically sortable home screen, including a list view that makes it possible to sort alphabetically, by unread notifications and a number other different methods. Other rumors for the operating system include the adoption of iPad-style multitasking. Obviously the smaller screen size makes execution trickier than it would on a tablet, but a similar feature has already been demonstrated on Android devices. Also rumored to be on the docket are new augmented reality and fitness apps.
In addition, macOS is shaping up to be a relatively light update to 10.16 — at least if the rumors are correct. Top of the list here are more ported iOS apps, courtesy of the catalyst program, along with developer customizable Siri (which would also be an iOS update, mind). Car Key, meanwhile, could be coming to both watchOS in addition to iOS, bringing with it the ability to unlock a car door via Apple hardware. A kid-friendly mode and improved sleep tracking are also rumored to be in the works.
The keynote kicks off June 22 at 10AM ET/1PM PT. Online events will follow for the rest of the week. It’s going to be different than any years prior — and there’s a decent chance Apple will never embrace it exactly the same way again. Enjoy the weirdness.