Things to Watch for at WWDC 2017

Every year there are several traditions that happen around early June. Someone will say Apple is doomed. Someone else will say Apple didn’t make any new innovations, because they didn’t announce any new hardware. Both are a misreading of another June tradition.

In early to mid June is Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference, which is really a early warning to developers what will change when new hardware ships in the fall. Apple will change Xcode, iOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS to reflect those hardware changes and add a few new API’s and update old ones. With that one sentence I’ve really told you everything you need to know about WWDC2017, yet it gets more interesting once you start to explore that. The press, ever eager to either find what new miracle Apple will pull out of its orchard or alternatively find some reason to say Apple is doomed, will listen carefully to the Keynote on June 5th to find a reason to back their view of Apple. Developers and Apple devotees will listen and watch what new features will appear in the new version of the OS of their choice.

My own tradition is to do a predictive preview of what will happen at the keynote June 5th and the days afterwards. There’s trends at Apple and I try to follow them as close as I can. As a developer of iOS training materials and author of both LinkedIn Learning and my own books, I tend to look at this a bit differently than the tech and business press and hit on things they are usually blind to. I also look with an bit of apprehension on how many things will change in my work due to those changes in WWDC17. This year there are a few themes to watch for at WWDC17 that aren’t the trite predictions about iOS11 or the iPhone8.

Healthcare, POC and Wellness Devices

Of most interest is the healthcare realm. In previous years, I mentioned this is where Apple plans to disrupt the world next. Last month, Tim Cook was testing and talking about one of the most disruptive of those devices: non-invasive blood sugar monitoring, possibly in an Apple Watch. Apple scooped up most of the resources and knowledge of a failed company working on this technology several years ago.

The biggest challenges to such a device are regulatory, yet that has an ever growing loophole. A glucometer used by diabetics daily is an approved medical device. US FDA and its sister organizations internationally have stringent regulations for designing, producing and testing such devices. This is a barrier to development of new devices. However FDA last year published guidance that creates a category of devices that are exempt from regulations:

A general wellness product, for the purposes of this guidance, has (1) an intended use that relates to maintaining or encouraging a general state of health or a healthy activity, or (2) an intended use that relates the role of healthy lifestyle with helping to reduce the risk or impact of certain chronic diseases or conditions and where it is well understood and accepted that healthy lifestyle choices may play an important role in health outcomes for the disease or condition.( General Wellness: Policy for Low Risk Devices)

This is the category that Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and Pulse already use for heart rate monitors. They are exempt from the regs if the product helps a healthy lifestyle. Apple already is talking about blood sugar in terms of diet, not diabetes. A wellness device can be fallible, and indeed I’ve had more than a few odd readings from my Apple Watch heart monitor. If the data from the wellness device start to look fishy, a user would go to an approved medical device. Besides blood, pulse oximetry may not be difficult to get from the watch optical sensors either. Many vitals might come directly from the watch for the user to decide what is a healthy choice for them.

Apple’s ResearchKit and data from wearables point to new ways of looking at the health of both individuals and groups not ever before possible. research with thousands of subjects and thousands of time-linked data points automatically gathered could give a clearer picture of human health. While limited to those who can afford an Apple Watch, there’s some evidence even that won’t always be the situation. One of my speculations from last year’s predictions about this looks like it is coming true. Aetna began subsidizing Apple watches to select large employers and individual customers late last year. While they do not mention anything directly about health monitoring, one of the big frontiers in health insurance is a change in how insurance gets priced. In my understanding, health insurance prices now is based on risk for a demographic, not an individual. With the huge data sets and monitoring of individuals, Insurance companies could monitor individuals, and give price breaks for healthy living and price increases for unhealthy living — on a monthly basis. While some of that data such as heart rate requires a watch some such as movement and exercise data is collected by the phone on a regular basis through the CoreMotion framework and HealthKit.

Of course the HIIPA in the room is patient privacy. ResearchKit has been the experimental platform about giving consent for health data to others. Most of the legal bugs will have been worked out by the time insurance companies move to a sliding scale of premiums.

Swift Playgrounds

The people in Starbuck’s must have thought I was insane dancing in my chair while I was watching the WWDC2016 keynote. I was ecstatic when Apple introduced Swift Playgrounds for iPad. I’ve wanted a mobile development environment for quite a while. Many developers kept thinking “Xcode for iPad” is a joke of something that Apple can’t deliver. The beginnings of it are here. I wrote a review of playgrounds last October in its educational uniform. Since then, I’ve done a lot more work with playgrounds. Apple has improved compatibility between Xcode playgrounds and iPad playgrounds. Now you can switch back and forth from each, running a playground on your iPad or Mac from a Playgrounds folder in iCloud. There are more frameworks available for playgrounds than ever before(for a full list see here) including some heavy hitters such as Metal, MapKit, CoreData and AVFoundation.

As I’ll talk about in my session at iDEv360 this August, playgrounds have the potential of being the ultimate prototyping tool. There’s a few features its missing to get there though. The most aggravating of all is the lack of Interface Builder. All views must be coded, not dragged and dropped. As the liveView for the iPad and Xcode are different sizes, this means auto layout, and a lot of extra code if wanting to run on both. For both the educational market and the developers who will use playgrounds as a prototyping tool, this is still an essential element. Hopefully this will be the big improvement to playgrounds in Xcode 9 and the iOS 11 version for the iPAd.

The second drawback is the lack of a Xcode template to build playground books. Playground books are playgrounds of multiple pages, each running a separate set of code. Different modules can be tested and developed on different pages of the book, or each page could be a new lesson for an educational book. For most applications in Xcode, you have a few buttons to press and you are ready to go. For playgrounds in Xcode, you have to import and modify a starter file in Finder before you start adding code to the book in Xcode, and then running that book on the iPad. This needs to be a lot easier, since even most computer science teachers don’t have the time to do all that file organizing and hand coding of property lists necessary to build a book. There should be a template which asks how many chapters, and how many pages in each chapter, and generates the files for the developer. Once again this is something to watch for at WWDC, as it would improve apple’s position to make playgrounds the gateway to a Swift filled world.

The third drawback of Playgrounds is the price. While the app is free, the iPad you need to use it isn’t — they can be very expensive. Actually iPads are beyond the reach of many educational institutions financially. Its one of the reasons Chromebooks are dominant in the classroom You can get four Chromebooks for one iPad. Apple seems to have addressed the educational market with iPad playgrounds, but still doesn’t have a good, cost effective platform for iPads. I have one idea where that can come from, and that my next thing to watch.

Apple TV Needs iOS

tvOS seems to be the least talked about from the developer’s perspective. From the very few times I’ve worked with it I find it a hassle and a bit alien to work with compared to the other Apple OS’s. Even Using the Apple tv is a pain and a big departure from iOS, macOS and watchOS, which all share features. As more people watch video on their iPads than on their televisions, tvOS needs to assimilate into iOS as a framework, and AppleTV needs to be another iOS product. This has two advantages. AppleTV becomes Apple’s low-cost desktop equivalent to an iPad, targeting the educational market they are losing to lower costing competitors. Secondly, all of the apps available for iPad is now available for the TV, meaning developers by default develop for the TV. AppleTV becomes part of the full Apple ecosystem instead of the black sheep-brick it appears to be.

There are challenges with this approach. Most of all, the input devices for the TV are different than the iPad. Creating pointing devices that work on non touchscreen displays may be a challenge, but nothing that an Apple Mouse or even the current trackpad remote and a keyboard couldn’t handle.

Properties in WatchKit

Apple in watchOS3 took the Apple Watch in the direction it needed to go: the watch can be completely independent of the phone. For iOS developers, the learning curve to watchOS is not steep. I’m biased about saying that since I authored a course on WatchOS3. There are some weaknesses in WatchKit that make it difficult for iOS developers to include watchOS as part of their phone apps. The biggest is unlike UIKit, which lets you change properties of views in code, WatchKit lets you change attributes on the storyboard only. Even finding the title on your button requires storage of the title in a variable. this can bulk up a watch application with clunky code. If not at WWDC2017 in some coming iteration of watchOS, look for this to change.

While Apple keeps making the watch more independent of the paired iPhone, it also needs the opposite: the ability to communicate with iPads, Macs and Apple TV’s. There a perfectly good motion sensor sitting on the wrist of every Apple watch owner. If the watch could talk to other devices, the libraries are there to make the watch into a game controller or 3d gesture sensor.

There will be a “Oh, yeah one more thing”

Apple’s last serious jaw dropper was Swift. No one saw it coming. With leaks and beta versions everywhere it harder to surprise anyone these days. We haven’t had the look of delight on some and the look of terror from others like we did at the June 2014 WWDC keynote announcing Swift. I have nothing to base this prediction on but a feeling that things are a little too quiet, and something mind-blowing is about to happen.

I Have No Crystal Ball

As a developer and author, I do know what bothers me. I’m not one to read most of the previews for WWDC, since most give the same clickbait every year: “This will make or break Apple” I can guarantee you what happens at WWDC will not make or break Apple. Apple learned their lesson with Apple Maps. There’s a reason WWDC is in June: If something goes horribly wrong now, it will be fixed — or pulled– by September. This is the warning that change is coming to developers. The beta versions that thousands of developers and users will jam Apple’s servers downloading Monday afternoon will go through our scrutiny. There will be changes between now and then.

Apple never makes anything truly new. They take the best of what’s out there, and combine it to make it into something remarkable. Once again, we’ll see what they do at WWDC2017.

During the keynote, I’ll be tweeting my reactions @Steve_Lipton

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