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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

WWDC 2020 Wednesday: Session Impressions

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

How is it only Wednesday? It turns out that the WWDC time warp even happens when all of us are at our homes. Anyway, I watched a bunch more WWDC sessions today, and here are some observations from today’s binge. (Side note: Did Apple provide hairstylists for all of their presenters? Lucky ducks.)

Design With iOS Pickers, Menus and Actions

The old look (left) makes way for the newer, more compact menu (right).

In iOS and iPadOS 14, Apple is rethinking some of its previous design decisions—and in doing so, it’s introducing interface elements that might seem a bit more familiar to Mac users. This is, at least in part, because a lot of those decisions were made when iPhones were really small—and they’re not anymore.

So Apple’s rolling out drop-down menus that appear next to where you tapped to bring them up (often a round button with three ellipsis dots inside), rather than sliding up a modal list at the bottom of the screen. That way, your finger doesn’t have to move as far to finish the thought and complete an action. These menus behave very much like Mac menus do: if you tap and hold, and slide your finger, then lifting your finger will select an item. If you tap and lift your finger, the menu remains open until you tap on an item within the menu. Tapping outside of the menu dismisses it. The menu items themselves are also a lot more compact than the old slide-up options were, and feature not just text, but icons.

These menus can also be used to ask the user for more specific information. For example, the plus icon in Photos means to add something, obviously—but if you tap on it, you’ll be asked specifically what you want to add, in the form of a menu. When you tap to add an image in notes, a menu appears so you can choose exactly what kind of image you want to add. They can also be used for navigation: In Safari, tapping and hold the back button will reveal a list of previously browsed pages, and in iOS 14 this uses the new menu design.

One of Apple’s big goals is to reduce the density of elements on the visible part of the app interface by hiding those items—generally actions that must be offered but aren’t important enough to be displayed prominently—in a menu hidden behind one of those white three-dot more buttons.

Speaking of design decisions that haven’t worn that well, you won’t have the iOS spinning date and time picker to kick around anymore—or at least not nearly as much as you have up until now. The wheels have been replaced by new pickers that display a calendar with a month worth of dates. Tap to select a different month or year, and yes, the wheels will reappear—until you choose the new month and year, at which point the month view will return. Entering a time doesn’t require you to spin your wheels at all—you just type it in.

Finally, rejoice at the sight of the first unified color picker for iOS. You can choose a few different color-picking methods, sample images right from elsewhere on your device’s screen, and save colors to a palette that is consistent across all apps on your device.

Of course, iOS apps will need to be updated to take advantages of these new features. Users should expect to see them begin to appear when iOS 14 ships this fall.

Explore the New System Architecture of Apple Silicon Macs

Apple silicon: Fast-truck (performance) cores and slow-truck (efficiency) cores.

I covered a lot of this interesting session about what Macs will look like when they’re running Apple-designed processors in an earlier piece, but the session was so jam-packed that I focused on the new boot system and left the rest of it on the cutting room floor.

Among the additional benefits of switching to an Apple-designed System on a Chip (SoC) is a unified memory architecture, shared across the CPU and the GPU. This means that graphics resources can be shared without any overhead—there’s no need to copy anything across the PCIe bus, because the CPU and GPU are pulling from the same memory. The SoC also picks up a bunch of other features that have been around on iPad and iPhone for a while, but will be new to the Mac: dedicated video encoding and decoding1, and support for fast machine-learning via the Neural Engine.

One of the biggest changes in the new Mac architecture, though, is asymmetric multiprocessing, or AMP. Mac software developers will need to set a “quality of service” property for the work that they’re dispatching to the processors, suggesting how that work should be prioritized. Does it need to be done as fast as possible, or is it okay to slow it down and keep things power efficient? Modern Apple-designed processors have separate performance-focused and efficiency-focused cores, so different cores will be better for different jobs.

The session provided a bit more detail about how Rosetta, the technology that translates code meant for Intel processors into instructions that Apple’s processors will understand, works. When you download an Intel-only app from the Mac App Store or install it using Apple’s Installer utility, Rosetta will automatically be triggered and will do the work up front of translating the app’s code. If the app gets on your system by a different means, the translation happens when you first launch the app—which means it’ll launch slowly the first time. (Also, operating-system updates can affect Rosetta, so Rosetta’s translations will be refreshed when the operating system is updated.)

And just as Macs with T2 processors have all had always-on encryption of their disks, so too will Macs with Apple-designed processors. But there is one added security bonus: secure hibernation. When one of these Macs goes into a deep sleep, all the contents of memory—not just disk—are protected.

Meet the New Photos Picker and Handle the Limited Photos Library in Your App

The Radar mascot, Anika the Aardvark, makes a cameo.

Some apps are nosy. We all know it. No matter what App Store rules exist, no matter how many scandals emerge from apps abusing user data, there are still places where your personal information can leak out and an unscrupulous app can do something with it without us knowing.

Apple knows it, too, and it keeps tightening the screws where it can. This year it’s making a big move when it comes to access to your photo library. The new Photos Picker interface is meant to be used by most apps who need you to pick a photo or three from your library for use within the app. It runs in an entire separate process, and the app requesting can’t see anything about your photo library. While you’re in the photo picker, you can select multiple photos and even search your library. When you’ve selected what you want, then those items are passed to the app—and nothing more. A sneaky app can’t even take a screen shot of the contents of that picker and use that later. Sneaky.

If an app really does need access to the photo library, there’s a new set of permissions for that. Apple’s introducing a new “limited mode.” When an app asks a user for permission to read the photo library, you can choose full access or a limited mode—where you pick the photos you want to share, and that’s it. Those photos are all the app can see, until you go to the security settings and make a change.

Or as the presenter in one of these sessions put it to developers, “Consider if your app even needs library access.” The fact is, most apps don’t. The new photos picker is functional enough to do the job—and keep an app from being able to snoop on every single item in your library.

Introducing Car Keys

Just a small example of the delicate, invisible dance that makes Car Key work.

It’s only a matter of time before our phones replace car keys. Given the pace in automotive innovation and the rate at which I replace my cars, it will probably be a while for me—but I’ll be happy when it finally happens.

With its announcement of Car Keys, Apple is now on the path—that leads to a parking lot where you can unlock your car with an iPhone. This WWDC session was directed at auto manufacturers, but I found it pretty interesting in terms of some details of how Car Key works.

First off, it’s meant to be a radio-technology-agnostic technology. The first cars to use this tech, as announced, will use the same NFC technology you find in Apple Pay. This requires you to get very close to the reader—essentially, you’ll need to tap your phone on the door to open it. The NFC implementation actually requires two separate NFC readers—one to unlock the door, and one to start the car. The car will only start when a phone containing CarKey is laying on the NFC reader in the dash.

Things get more interesting with the second wave of Car Key tech, which uses Ultra Wideband and the U1 chip introduced in the iPhone 11. Ultra Wideband will be the best possible solution for using your phone as a car key, because its precise positioning capability and solid range will allow you to use it with your iPhone in a bag or pocket. The current Car Connectivity Consortium standard, version 2.0, covers NFC—which is why it’ll be first. But version 3.0 is on the horizon, and it’s the one that brings in the extra flexibility of Ultra Wideband.

Behind the scenes, CarKey works through a complex series of cryptographic transactions that authenticate your ownership of the car, allow the iPhone to securely pair with your car, and then allow you as the owner to distribute keys to other people. The initial setup requires Internet connectivity to the back-end systems of the car dealer and to Apple, but once a key is set up on your phone, no connectivity is required and Apple has no awareness of how you use your key—it’s all stored in the iPhone’s Secure Element, locked up tight. (And it works even if your phone runs out of battery, because it works with the trace amount of power left in the battery in Power Reserve mode.)

To share a key with a friend, you use Messages to send them a pass. From the perspective of the people making the key exchange, it’s a simple transaction. Behind the scenes, however, the two phones are doing a careful cryptographic dance that ends up with the friend’s phone having both a key and an “attestation”—basically a signed document that indicates the owner of the car vouches for them as a valid user of the car. If you lose your phone and put it in “lost mode”, the keys are suspended temporarily, and you can revoke a key from your iPhone or from the car’s own interface.

Depending on the implementation by the car maker, keys can potentially be limited. For example, you could let your kids drive the car, but not exceed a certain speed. But that’s all on a per-car basis, and many cars probably won’t provide that level of granularity.

Car Keys are stored in the Wallet app, and since they’re part of Apple’s enhanced contactless protocol (the same one used on some transit systems), you don’t need to authenticate to use them. Tap, and it works. (This also means that while your automaker may want you to download their app, it won’t actually be necessary for Car Key—all the important data is in Wallet.)

What’s New in watchOS Design

Tap on this button (which feels awfully nostalgic, for some reason) on the Apple Watch to see more options.

This is turning into the cycle of sweeping out old design notions that Apple’s now regretting. For Apple Watch, it’s the entire concept of Force Touch—pressing down hard on the watch in order to generate a contextual menu. Apple has decided that it’s too hidden a gesture to be of much use—and presumably also engineered the next Apple Watch to eliminate the feature in order to save space, just as it did with the iPhone 11 series.

So it’s out with Force Touch and in with more hierarchical navigation elements at the top of the screen, buttons at the top and bottom of menus, and swipe actions (where you swipe on an element to reveal a delete button, for example)—common on the iPhone and iPad, less so up until now on the Apple Watch. You’ll also see more floating buttons, indicating that you can tap to see more options.

It seems like after five years, Apple is ready to throw a bunch of Apple Watch interface assumptions in the bin and double down on the ones that actually work.

  1. I believe the iMac Pro and Mac Pro are already using this feature via their Apple-designed T2 chips, because Intel’s Xeon chips lack some built-in video encode/decode features. 

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