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A Designer's Guide To Apple's WWDC

A smarter Siri. A radically different App Store. The first redesigned iOS home screen ever. It could all be in the cards at WWDC 2016.

A Designer's Guide To Apple's WWDC

On Monday, Apple will be holding its Worldwide Developer Conference, an annual gathering in which Cupertino traditionally announces all of the major changes coming to its mobile operating systems—as well as a new product or two, usually. That makes it a huge day for designers and design-lovers—not just those working within Apple's ecosystems, but those who want to stay up to speed on the company that made "Design is law" a commandment in Silicon Valley.

Until Tim Cook gets on stage on Monday, we can't know for certain about what Apple will announce. In the meantime, here are the main design topics we expect Apple to focus on at WWDC.

Siri Gets Smarter

Conversational interfaces are an important topic right now. Yet compared to the likes of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, Siri—the conversational interface that started it all—is hopelessly underpowered. Siri has none of Google's Knowledge Graph or contextual smarts, and unlike Alexa (which gets new features every week thanks in part to smart Amazon partnerships), Siri gets smarter at a glacial pace.

To put this in perspective, if you asked either Google Assistant or Alexa to order you an Uber, one would show up at your doorstep in just a few minutes. Siri, on the other hand? She probably wouldn't even transcribe the question correctly.

Next Monday, Apple is expected to take steps to finally make Siri competitive with her peers. It's believed that Cupertino will open up the Siri SDK to App Store developers, letting them tap into Siri's voice recognition engine for the first time. That would allow any app installed on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch to be controllable by voice (as long as developers supported the functionality).

Considering that there are currently over 1 billion iOS devices in use around the world, and almost 3 million apps in the App Store, it could be a huge move in taking conversational interfaces mainstream. And it's not entirely unprecedented: On the new Apple TV, Apple has already opened up Siri to third parties, so users can use Siri's voice search feature on TVs.

It's also important for Apple to try to supercharge Siri now, before it's too late. Not only are conversational interfaces the key to controlling tomorrow's smart homes and wearables, but they're also the most natural way to interact with smart automobiles, like the much-rumored Project Titan Apple Car.

The Apple Watch Stops Sucking

Okay, okay. The Apple Watch is a flop. But that doesn't mean that Apple is going to give up on the Apple Watch. And at WWDC, Apple will likely tip its hand with regards to the Apple Watch's future direction as part of an announcement on the watchOS 3 beta.

So far, we don't know what Apple intends for watchOS 3. But it's easy to guess: As far back as last June, Apple made it mandatory for apps to be able to run natively on the Apple Watch without being connected to an iPhone. Since the Apple Watch doesn't actually have a cellular radio, that functionality ended up being pretty limited for any app that requires the Internet to work.

But now, we're starting to see smartwatch chipsets with integrated 4G or LTE radios hit the market. Google's Android Wear 2, in fact, added support for cellular radio connections back in May. It seems insane that Apple wouldn't do the same thing, heralding the debut of an Apple Watch 2 in the fall that would finally exist as something besides a mere parasite device to the iPhone.

What does this mean for developers or designers? Simply put: The Apple Watch might soon be a self-contained ecosystem that doesn't require an iPhone within range to be useful. If anything's going to make the Apple Watch a viable platform, this is going to be it.

A Whole New App Store

This one isn't a rumor, or a speculation. In an extremely rare move, Apple has flat out told developers before WWDC that the App Store is going to be making changes to the way it allows developers to monetize their apps. And since design doesn't exist outside of an economic bubble, this news is potentially huge for any designer who does business on iOS.

The major change is this: Previously, Apple only allowed certain kinds of apps to offer in-app subscriptions—publications, for example, or streaming services. Now, Apple's going to let anyone monetize their app through subscriptions. And while previously, Apple took 30% off the top of all App Store transactions, it's now making subscriptions more lucrative for developers. After the first year, Apple's cut of the subscription fee will drop down to 15%.

These sound, at first, like mere bookkeeping changes. But it's likely that they will have real design ramifications. Up until now, most developers have pursued small, single-serving apps on iOS—because that's what the App Store's monetization structure has supported. The result was a race to the bottom, in which the vast, vast majority of iOS apps are free. It's hard enough to monetize great app design, even when things aren't free.

If Apple allows developers to offer subscriptions to their iOS apps, things could get interesting. It incentivizes apps that keep on updating with new features, and keeps users engaged for more than a year. How developers will respond to these changes remains to be seen. But it could result in an App Store that is balanced toward more substantive apps with rapidly evolving feature sets.

iTunes Gets Overhauled

iTunes has been a design disaster for the better part of a decade. In fact, two years ago, we declared it so behind the times as to be totally irrelevant. Word has it, though, that iTunes will get yet another overhaul this year, to be announced at WWDC.

It's doubtful that it will solve any of the long-lasting design issues with iTunes, most of which deal with the fact that iTunes simply must have more functionality than is reasonable to build into a single UI: buy media, play local songs, stream media, sync connected devices, and so on. But tweaks are expected, which will also hopefully put Apple Music, its Spotify competitor, on the Mac for the first time ever. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how Apple's design team tackles this thorny challenge.

New MacBook Pros

The last major update to the MacBook Pro came almost four years ago, when Apple updated its top-of-the-line laptop to a Retina display. Since then, except for spec bumps, the MacBook Pro has kept the same industrial design, even as Cupertino's computer line has gone in a radically different direction—toward crazy thin MacBooks that can be charged over USB power and boast a minimum of ports.

The new MacBook Pro may be unveiled at WWDC, and like the new 12-inch Retina MacBook, will abandon its old USB-A, ThunderBolt 2, and MagSafe 2 ports in favor of thinner, lighter USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports. It's also believed that the new MacBook Pro will abandon its physical function keys for a context-aware OLED touch screen, which will allow app developers to reprogram the MacBook Pro's keyboard with the most relevant shortcuts—complete with custom icons.

A New iOS Home Screen?

There isn't much information about what design changes will occur in the next iteration of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 10. Or the next version of OS X, which all evidence indicates will be rechristened macOS this year to match Apple's branding schemes for iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. That's not to say they aren't coming! Just that the rumor mill hasn't caught onto them yet—and they don't appear to involve drastic refreshes, like previous years.

That said, at least a few of Apple rumor sites have a likely hypothesis: that iOS 10 will be custom-tailored to better support the iPad Pro. For example, the default iOS home screen—which has gone virtually unchanged since the original iPhone was released in 2007—just isn't a good UI anymore, especially for giant screens like the iPad Pro, where most of the home screen ends up just being empty space.

Could Apple change how the iOS home screen works this year, at least on the iPad Pro? For example, by allowing Notification Center widgets to run on the home screen, like in Android? Unknown, but it seems possible, and if that happens, expect those changes to eventually filter down to other iPhones and iPads.

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