eXtensions - Sunday 28 June 2020


Sunday Diversion: Reflections on WWDC; Surprises we all Hoped were Coming

By Graham K. Rogers


Comments on some of the changes that WWDC announcements may bring about. Despite the lack of an audience, the overall feeling is that the event was a success and users have much to look forward to, including new Macs with Apple Silicon. iOS 14 security catches TikTok out.

Last Monday Apple's World Wide Developers Conference began as it always does with the Keynote presentation. I have been to a number of these events in San Francisco. The crowds waiting outside for the doors to open, and then the audience enthusiasm as each new product development is announced are part of the vibrancy that such a gathering feeds off. This year was different.

Early in the year, it was obvious the live conference was impossible, but what Apple came up with was a worthy replacement. With a good team from Apple, especially Craig Federighi who was everywhere - as well as the back-up presentations each dealing with a specific aspect of the new technologies introduced - the effect was professional. I was left feeling rather satisfied, although some of that was due to what was announced. Perhaps the only time I missed the audience was after the trailer for Asimov's Foundation, that is being prepared for Apple TV+. The silence emphasised the power of the trailer and what is to come.

Tim Cook began the presentation, then stepped back, perhaps more than usual this year, with the structure. Major points which are well covered by other sources are iOS 14, WatchOS, macOS Big Sur, and the move from Intel chips to AppleSilicon. They were careful not to use ARM when describing this development.

Apple Silicon
Apple Silicon - Image courtesy of Apple

The move to the new chips was not a surprise really, because Apple does this. If it is time to move on, that is what happens. I first started using Macs that had Motorola RISC chips and Apple moved smoothly to PowerPC chips. Around the same time, there was the switch from the older Apple System 9 to OS X. That terrified me to start with, but within a short while I was immersed in the new OS, running initially G3 then G4 processors.

In the days of the PowerPC, while the G5 was performing respectably in desktop machines, the need for it to have decent power output and at low temperatures for notebooks just was not viable. That was when Apple apparently began to look at Intel. Eventually the switch was made although there were comments that OS X had been running on Intel for a few years: prepared early. It had a feature called Rosetta that enabled users to run PowerPC software on the new operating system.

Now we are in a situation when Skylake, for example, is just not reaching the quality that was required and that affects Apple down stream. Joe Wituschek (iMore) reports on the comments from François Piednoël, the former principal engineer at Intel, that Skylake was to blame and quality assurance problems may have been the "inflection point".

There has been pressure for number of years from users - and a lot of wishful thinking - to go for ARM chips with some even suggesting dropping the Macs entirely, but that sort of input is usually ignored by Apple. There are some useful comments on this and the new development, by hoakley on the Eclectic Light Company: "More pieces in Apple's Jigsaw Puzzle". However, like the move to Intel, they probably had been working on these things for years.

One surprise for me came almost at the end after Johnny Srouji had made his technical explanation of the development of the new silicon. Craig Federighi popped up again in the lab (although I had noticed him when the camera entered), and tied up some loose ends, then dropped the "by the way" comment that our introduction to Big Sur was all presented on these Apple Silicon machines: running, stable, undramatic. Not only that, a few minutes later we were told that the developer kit included a Mac mini body with A12Z Bionic chips: available that day for the seemingly low price of $500, including all the necessary developer tools. With the performance that we saw at WWDC the problems were either not great or were easily solved - with one exception: Boot Camp and Windows.

While Microsoft is on board already, along with Adobe, so their major software suites will be running without the need for Rosetta 2 (that will allow software developed for the Intel chips to run on Apple Silicon from day 1). Each year John Gruber hosts a live episode of his "The Talk Show podcast" but the situation needed some changes with the format according to Eric Slivka (MacRumors). However, in the live telecast Craig Federighi and Greg Joswiak chatted with Gruber who asked about a number of things, including the lack of Boot Camp. While it is not possible to boot directly into Intel-based systems, "Federighi made [it] clear that Apple is well aware of the situation, without tipping his hand on what developments may appear on that front in the coming months." This is clearly being worked on. The MacRumors page has a link to the YouTube video of the Gruber videocast.

Apple Silicon
Apple Silicon - Image courtesy of Apple

As well as dissatisfaction with Intel products, there is the aspect of vulnerabilities to factor in. A number in the last year or two have specifically affected Intel architecture, including Apple devices. In a couple of cases there is no magic firmware cure. Any decision to move to Apple Silicon would probably have been made more than two years ago, although that is speculation. These new chips will be immune to such attacks aimed at x86 hardware, but as I commented back when the A5 was released, Apple now has the capability to add features that will be unavailable to any other manufacturer.

We have already seen its other lines of silicon including the T and U chips (with the W chip for the Apple Watch), and the iPhone's Secure Enclave but the new Mac chips will allow complexities that others, tied to Intel, may never have. Tyler Charboneau in All About Circuits has an accessible technical discussion on the developments with the potential for the future. But what of the desktop Pro computers with their multicore Xeon chips?

Lest we forget the other announcements, one nice touch with the next version of WatchOS is that it will be able to monitor that we are all washing our hands properly. Not to treat this lightly, as it is important, but what other sensing is to be possible?

One useful addition to iOS 14 is the opening up of the Find My app to third parties and in the MacDaily News item there is specific mention of Tile, a company that makes useful tags that can be affixed to items (bags, cases) and allows users to track them. The company had been grumbling for a while about the ways Apple works and there is also concern that Cupertino is going to produce its own Tile-like device and sink the company. As Tile's own networking system is limited by the numbers of users in any specific location, adding iOS to that mix will help them considerably. Of course, maybe Apple is fattening them up for later acquisition, although this is also going to help others.

Some notes from Bryan M. Wolfe (iMore) indicated that a new Battery preference panel that seems to replace Energy Saver is now available in the beta of Big Sur, but that for the first release of this, Network Utility is missing: deprecated. Apple suggests Terminal: Unix if you must. As the article points out, this is only the first beta - I use Network Utility a lot.

Those analysts are at it again. Just when Apple was hitting highs, the chcikens in the barrel drag it down again. One widely repeated item was that the next iPhone will have a 20 Watt charger (the current one is 15W), but then news from a well-known analyst suggested there would be no charger and that Apple will leave out the earphones from the next iPhone too. Much doubt was expressed about these two items. I cannot help but think this was an attempt to blow smoke over what has been a surprisingly successful WWDC and ease the rising share prices down a little to allow profits when it eases back up again.

After WWDC Apple sent me a couple of invitations to the beta parties. The oddest one was for the HomePod beta as Thailand is one of the countries that this product is not sold in, even though I have the money in a pot waiting for Tim to give the nod. I mentioned this in reply to a Tweet about the beta availability, and within a few minutes had a message: as I am not using this, can I pass the invitation on to the message sender. I am not sure if such an invite would work for another person, but this was something I was ethically unwilling to do.

And a useful endnote on iOS 14 security. TikTok has been criticised for the company's relationship to China although it has denied this and then cleaned up its connections round April this year to keep users (and Apple) happy. Zak Doffman (Forbes) reports that the new security features in iOS 14 show clearly that the clipboard is being used in "in a quite extraordinary way" and "it seems that TikTok didn't stop this invasive practice back in April as promised after all". What they are now telling Doffman is changing and he is not totally convinced of the veracity, or the security as Apple has caught them red-handed.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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