Apple spent its biggest conference of the year playing catch-up to Android rather than setting the stage for the iPhone's future

Apple spent its biggest conference of the year playing catch-up to Android rather than setting the stage for the iPhone's future
Business Insider

Apple spent its biggest conference of the year playing catch-up to Android rather than setting the stage for the iPhone's future

  • One of the biggest changes coming to iOS 14 is the ability to customize your home screen with widgets in different sizes, a feature that Android phones have had for years.
  • Overall, changes like this make it feel like Apple is playing catch up with its new iPhone software rather than laying the foundation for what comes next.
  • For example, the company barely mentioned augmented reality updates during the conference, which is sees as being the next big leap forward in consumer technology apps.

When Apple's Craig Federighi took the stage at an empty Apple Park to showcase the new features coming to iPhones during WWDC, he kicked off the presentation with a feature that's been a major part of the Android user interface for years: customizable widgets.

"Today, widgets help you get information at a glance," Federighi said. "But a lot has changed since we first introduced these."

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Federighi cited the Apple Watch as a source of inspiration behind the new widgets, saying that having to surface relevant information on the Apple Watch's tiny screen helped it create new widgets in different sizes and designs for the iPhone.

Not only do widgets come in new sizes for the first time, but you can also place them on your iPhone's main home screen instead of leaving them on the "Today" screen located to the left.


It's one of the biggest visual changes coming to iOS 14 when it launches this fall, and it's feature that Android phones have had for many years.

Taken together, changes like the new home screen and App Clips — which lets you use one specific feature of an app like making a transaction without having to download or run the full program — will probably make iOS 14 feel like the most significant iPhone update in years.

The changes are certainly appreciated. But it feels like Apple's iPhone software is playing catch-up by introducing new features that either recreate some aspects of Android or cater to the ways in which people have already been using their smartphones, rather than setting the stage for what comes next.

Adjustable widgets that you can pin to the home screen have been a mainstay on Android for years. App Clips are clever, but the concept of triggering one specific task on your phone rather than launching a full app or service has also existed through QR codes for years. So has the idea of using your smartphone as a car key, which Apple also introduced on Monday.

It's not uncommon for Apple's iPhone updates to introduce features that have existed elsewhere before, but implemented in different and sometimes superior ways. Last year, for example, iOS 13 brought Look Around to Apple Maps, which is essentially Apple's answer to Google Maps' Street View. And back in 2016 with iOS 10, Apple allowed third-party apps to plug directly into iMessage, taking a page from Facebook's approach with Messenger.


But in recent years, Apple has also detailed more forward-looking additions that felt like they had potential to set an example for the rest of the industry or lay the foundation for the iPhone's future. In 2019, for example, Apple introduced "Sign in with Apple," an answer to the conundrum of having to share your email address each time you want to sign up for a new service.

Apple has also emphasized updates to its ARKit framework, its toolset for helping developers create compelling augmented-reality apps. Such updates are particularly important considering the company is widely expected to be working on products like an augmented reality headset and smart glasses. How AR works on the iPhone will undoubtedly play a huge role in introducing people to the technology, which is still largely nascent.

Apple did introduce some updates to ARKit with iOS 14, like the ability to place AR objects in specific geographic coordinates. But it was barely mentioned during the company's WWDC keynote. Considering Apple has started building hardware centered around AR into its products — such as the new iPad Pro's Lidar sensor — it's a bit surprising that the company didn't mention AR more during its developer keynote.

Overall, the immediate changes coming in iOS 14 are great news for consumers. The new widgets and App Library, which sorts apps into folders so you don't have to do so manually, will make the iPhone's software feel fresher and easier to organize.

Even if it does seem like Apple is playing catch-up in some respects, such changes will be more meaningful and impactful in the near term for most people than new tools that could power the next wave of AR apps.


But if you're hoping to get a glimpse at where Apple's smartphone ambitions are heading, you might have to wait until the fall when it's expected to launch its new iPhone rather than looking to its newly announced iPhone update.