WWDC 2021: A week of reckoning for Apple’s cloud services rivals

Apple intends to replace every leading third-party consumer cloud app with its own platform equivalents. Sharing and privacy are everything.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

This week, while my ZDNet colleagues were covering the 2021 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference, I was on vacation in the Florida Keys, lounging at the pool, sipping rum drinks with lime, and getting sunburned.

Well, I didn't completely ignore what was going on in Cupertino. I did have my new "="">, and I had pretty good bandwidth -- 190Mbps on AT&T's Sub6 network -- enough to take time out from my lounging and skin crisping to see what was being announced.

No names were named, no fingers were overtly pointed. But in one keynote, we saw Apple take direct aim at Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, Gmail, Google Docs, OneNote, Evernote, Pinterest, and every paid VPN service I can think of. 

How so? Let's count them.

Sharing is everything

Let's start with the fact that the concept of "Shared with you" will be a consistent theme and function across all Apple platforms, including iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS. This allows Safari links as well content from Photostream, Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, Apple TV, and Apple News to be shared via iMessage and surfaced within all of those apps in a highly visible category.

While this falls somewhat short of being a complete social network like Facebook, it does appear that Apple intends to use its platforms as a captive portal for its userbase. iMessage is an extremely popular application, so tying it into all of Apple's core services makes it even more compelling to use and that much more powerful.

Facetime seems to be evolving into a full-blown Zoom (and Google Meet) competitor and now can schedule calls via Calendar invites. While there is no dedicated Android or Windows client being launched, Apple will be introducing a web version so that users will be able to join calls from those platforms. UX enhancements to the app include a grid view and a portrait video mode so that backgrounds are in soft focus and the subject is in sharp view -- much like the way Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet does. Facetime also implements screen sharing now, just like Zoom does.

The company has also added Spatial Audio capabilities so that calls occur with 3D surround sound, provided supported headsets (such as AirPods Pro and AirPods Max) are being used, giving conferences a more realistic, in-person experience. Other audio enhancements include Voice Isolation so that the speaker's audio quality can be enhanced in a noisy area. 

Facetime will also be getting its own sharing functionality, with a new API called SharePlay, making it easier for friends to watch streaming videos together and working with various services such as Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount+, ESPN+, and MasterClass. The API will be available so that all video app makers can access it and integrate it into their own apps.

As a 52-year-old, I don't know how much I will use that functionality, but I can imagine it will be very popular with the Gen-Z crowd.

But privacy is even more so

While I believe these cross-platform sharing features will be popular, Apple's potentially most disruptive move is offering the new privacy enhancements announced on iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS, particularly what it has done with the Mail app.

UX-wise, there appear to be no big changes to the Mail app. I'm not even a huge fan of its design, as I think it looks a bit dated. But one change has caused me to reconsider my 17-year run of using Gmail's smartphone app and the Web UX on the desktop -- and that's the new Privacy Protection feature in the Mail app, which can be found under Settings > Mail > Privacy Protection in iOS/iPadOS 15, and under Mail > Preferences > Privacy on MacOS 12 Monterey. One flip of a toggle is all it takes to turn it on.


Apple's new Mail Privacy feature, as implemented in MacOS 12 Monterey.

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Mail Privacy Protection works by hiding your device's IP address and loading remote content privately in the background through the use of Apple-run proxy anonymizing servers. Those invisible tracking pixels that marketers use to build a profile on your online activity can tell how many times you have opened an email and whether you forwarded it? Zapped.

But wait, there's more. iCloud now can set up "burner" email addresses with the "Hide My Email" function. So if you have a personal iCloud, Gmail, or other 3rd party address configured on the device, you can set it up as a forwarder. You can set up a whole list of these for different uses, such as filling in web forms.

There is also iCloud Private Relay, which effectively gives you a free VPN service for web browsing, provided you are using Safari. You can set it to preserve your approximate location so that websites can offer you localized information or set it to a broader geographic territory.

These two service enhancements are part of iCloud Plus, which you get if you are paying for any of the iCloud storage upgrade plans, or through an existing Apple One subscription.

Places for your stuff

In addition to anonymizing, Safari is getting something called Tab Groups. Effectively, this is like having your Pinterest built into your browser, in which you can have groups of tabbed content under separate namespaces, such as "Reviews of Loki on Disney Plus" and "Stuff I Want to Cook for Dinner." 


The new Tab Groups feature, as shown on Mac OS 12 Monterey and iPadOS 15

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

This is similar to the "Collections" feature that Microsoft has introduced with its Edge browser, but this synchronizes across all your devices running Safari.


Updates to the Notes application in iPadOS 15

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

The Notes application is getting a few updates positioning it more as a Google Docs/OneNote competitor. Among other collaboration improvements, you can now @ someone in a shared note to tag that person to get their attention on a change, and within MacOS and iPadOS, you can now do "Quick Notes" which allows you to create a note from anywhere by swiping up from the bottom corner of the screen.


The Quick Notes feature implemented on iPadOS 15

Jason Perlow/ZDNet

A reckoning for Apple's consumer cloud competitors

What we see here, evolving right in front of our eyes, is a transformation from Apple as not simply an end-user endpoint and distributor for other consumer cloud platforms but a captive hoster of consumer cloud platforms itself. 

With roughly 1.64 billion Apple devices in active use -- if you combine the collective user bases across all of the company's platforms, you have a huge built-in audience to use all of these features. By being only a single click or voice assistant query away, the company has a significant home-court advantage in making their services the preferred ones over their competitors.

I am not sure if Facebook should start worrying as Apple is only a fraction of the worldwide mobile and desktop device userbase, as Android devices outnumber it approximately 3:1. MacOS is only about 10-13% of worldwide desktop operating system use. 

But in key demographics, especially in the United States and in Europe, Apple occupies a powerful market position and a steadily growing share. That's undoubtedly going to make its competitors nervous and escalate market manipulation concerns, and Apple is already in hot water in this area.

Suffice to say, after watching all 90 minutes of the WWDC keynote, I came out of it with many more questions than I did answers. But one thing was very apparent to me: Apple has now declared war on just about every major player in the consumer cloud and social networking space -- with the intention of replacing every app we consider to have a leadership position with its own platform equivalents.

What do you think of the new social and privacy features in the new platform updates from WWDC 2021? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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