As expected, Apple took the virtual stage at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference to unveil its latest iPhone operating system, iOS 15, highlighting all the exciting new features that it will be packing in this year.
Although Apple has segmented its operating systems to the point where iOS 15 is really iPhoneOS, it also still provides the core of iPadOS and also numerous features that cross over into tvOS, watchOS, and macOS. So, it’s no surprise that Apple led today’s presentation with iOS 15, announcing improvements to features like FaceTime, Messages, Maps, and more that will operate across all of its other devices as well, and even onto the web.
As usual, Apple is releasing a preview of iOS 15 today for registered developers, which if past experience is any indication, is not going to be for the faint of heart. A public beta will follow in July that should be a bit more polished for early adopters, while everybody else will be able to get their hands on iOS 15 this fall — most likely in September. While you’re waiting, however, you can read on for 12 cool and exciting things that we can expect to see when iOS 15 finally lands.
Many New FaceTime Updates
Notwithstanding the addition of Group FaceTime in 2018, Apple’s video calling app has remained largely unchanged since it was first introduced back in 2010. This makes this year’s iOS 15 enhancements kind of a big deal, with Apple adding a potpourri of several cool and useful new features to make the experience more natural, comfortable, and lifelike.
Right off the bat, Group FaceTime calls can now finally be organized into a flat grid view, addressing a longstanding concern over the dizzying “floating heads” view that became even more frustrating as many more people have turned to FaceTime to stay in touch over the past year or so. While Apple offered a partial fix in iOS 13.5, it seems it’s taken until now for FaceTime’s developers to actually provide the same kind of grid view that’s commonplace in other video chat apps like Zoom and Google Meet.
The good news, however, is that it’s now here, and it looks like it will be a welcome change for those who found the old view either simply distracting or outright nauseating. It can be easily toggled on and off, and will provide a highlighted frame to indicate who’s talking, but otherwise, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect a grid view to be — more function, less flash.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t adding a lot of flair to FaceTime in iOS 15. It looks like we can expect both video and audio improvements to our FaceTime calls, with Apple now taking the Spatial Audio technology that it first brought to its AirPods last year and leveraging it to help spread out your friends' voices so that they’ll feel more natural and like they’re coming from their relative positions on the screen.
Apple is also adding voice isolation and wide spectrum audio. Voice Isolation will use on-device intelligence to filter out background noise, so you can hear the other person much more clearly, while Wide Spectrum Audio will “pick up an entire symphony’s worth of sound,” so you’ll hear the person and everything around them in higher quality.
FaceTime in iOS 15 will also add Portrait Mode to the video calls, basically apply the same effects that have been available in the Camera app since iOS 10.1, and bringing them to your video calls, with a bokeh effect against the background.
While Apple didn’t mention it, this also sounds like the first step toward offering the kind of virtual backgrounds available in other apps like Zoom, but in a much more effective way than relying on colour matching. Considering that this is already available in the Clips app, we’re actually kind of surprised it’s not coming to FaceTime yet, but we’re fairly confident Apple is working on it.
Finally, Apple is also taking a big page out of the books of apps like Zoom by allowing you to create FaceTime Links that can be shared in various ways, making it easier to schedule Group FaceTime calls in advance.
What’s even more significant about this, however, is that these FaceTime Links can be used to join a call from any modern web browser.
That’s right, you’ll no longer be limited to making FaceTime calls with other Apple device users, which also means you won’t need to turn to other services like Zoom or Google Meet to keep in touch with your extended family and friends. Best of all, Apple promises that these calls will still be end-to-end encrypted, even when some participants are joining from a web browser. It’s been eleven years since Steve Jobs promised to make FaceTime an open standard, and while this still isn’t quite where we’re at, it’s still a big step that’s better late than never.
Hand-in-hand with its FaceTime enhancements, Apple is also bringing a much richer media sharing experience to iOS 15, allowing users to watch movies and TV shows and listen to music together, as well as share their iPhone and iPad screens for the first time ever.
From a media perspective, it’s not really all that different from what other services like Disney+, Hulu, and Plex are already doing, except of course that it’s going to be baked right into iOS 15 (and iPadOS 15, tvOS 15, and macOS 12).
Basically, users will be able to start watching a show in the Apple TV app, or listening to a playlist in Apple Music, or watching or listening in any other participating app or service, and then automatically share that with their friends for a synced experience.
This will also tie in with Group FaceTime so that everybody can be hanging out on a video call while enjoying their favourite media or music together. It will stay in sync for everyone on the call, and there will be shared playback controls, so anybody can pause or skip forward or backward.
Plus, in the case of Apple Music, users will have a shared play queue where they can add songs, iTunes DJ style.
In the case of watching videos, it’s integrated tightly into the iOS experience, with features like picture-in-picture allowing one viewer to jump into another app without interrupting the feed, and playback controls always accessible via a notification-style banner that appears at the top of the screen. The video can also be extended to the Apple TV, with an iPhone/iPad as a second screen running FaceTime or Messages to stay in touch with the rest of your viewing party.
Apple will also be providing a SharePlay API to allow other video streaming services to get on board with supporting this in an iOS-native way, and so far, there’s quite a long list of partners who have committed to supporting SharePlay, including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount+, NBA, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, and more.
We suspect this is yet another aspect of Apple’s Video Partner Program for premium streaming services, in which they get a larger cut of subscriptions in exchange for supporting key features of Apple’s ecosystem.
Sadly, the one thing Apple didn’t mention was whether everybody in the SharePlay group has to be a subscriber or have purchased the content in question (in the case of iTunes Movies and TV Shows). While we certainly think it would be fantastic if Apple has found a way to allow this, due to the way that copyright and licensing rules work, we’re not optimistic.
Apple might be able to lead the way for this with Apple TV+ content, since it owns all the rights to the shows it produces, and it would be a great way to promote the service. However, unless Apple has managed to play serious hardball again with the rest of the movie, TV, and recording industries, it’s very likely the rules will be different for just about everything else.
While Apple’s Messages app hasn’t gotten the same large-scale overhaul that it’s seen in other recent iOS releases, Apple has added a few nice quality-of-life improvements to make it easier for users to share photos and keep track of other shared content.
Mindy Borovsky, Apple’s Engineering Program Manager for Messaging Apps took the stage to show off how these new features work in iOS 15, including a new way of sharing photos in stacks and collages that can be expanded to view individual photos much more effectively, and even Tapback on individual ones.
Apple has also introduced a new Shared with You section into several key apps that will collect and help to resurface links that have been sent to you via Messages.
For example, if somebody shares a News link with you, this will appear in the Shared With You section in the News app, so you can read it later. It also links back to the original conversation in Messages so you can reply later. Shared items can also now be individually pinned to elevate them in the Shared with You view.
The new Shared with You section will be available in News, Music, Safari, Podcasts, the TV app. It will also appear in Photos, where Apple has added some additional magic to collect photos shared by your friends and family and also include them in Featured Photos, Memories, and even integrated with into your Library (with icons that indicate that they’ve come from Messages).
Don’t worry, though, as Apple promises that this will be handled with some on-device intelligence to make sure that only relevant photos get included in your library, so you won’t have to worry about a bunch of irrelevant things like screenshots or casual snapshots cluttering up your main library.
According to Borovsky, iOS 15 will look for details such as photos that were taken at places and times you were present. This will let you easily see all the photos shared from a party or vacation in one unified view.
Even Better Notifications
iOS 15 also promises to make some big improvements to notifications, giving them a brighter and bolder look. Notifications for things like messages and emails will now include contact photos instead of simply showing the app’s icon, while other notifications will have larger icons to make it more obvious where they’re coming from.
A new Notification Summary feature will also help to collect low-priority notifications, grouping them together and allowing you to schedule when you want them to be delivered. This will be useful for users who still like to get things like news and social media notifications without being overwhelmed by a constant barrage of them.
Like everything else, Apple is promising that on-device intelligence will be used to arrange the summary and place the most relevant notifications at the top, making it easy to catch up.
More importantly, notifications from actual people (e.g., Messages, Mail, WhatsApp, etc) will always come through immediately and never end up in the summary.
Lastly, Apple is expanding the Announce Messages with Siri feature into Announce Notifications with Siri, allowing AirPods users to have all important or relevant notifications read back to them, not just incoming messages.
Not only will iOS 15 enhance the way notifications look, but it’s also making a big change to how they work as well, with a new Focus feature that allows you to filter notifications based on whatever different “modes” you may find yourself in throughout the way.
For example, you can create a “Work” mode that silences non-relevant personal notifications when you’re working, or a “Fitness” mode that turns off almost everything when you’re at the gym. You can switch between these modes on-demand or on a scheduled or location basis, and iOS 15 will even offer intelligent suggestions for what people and apps should be let through in each mode to help you get started.
Of course, there’s still the full Do Not Disturb (DND) mode to silence all notifications (except emergency calls), but as an added bonus, your DND status can be shown to others when they sent you a message, and optionally allow them to punch through if they do need to urgently reach you.
This also works in the various focus modes, where the sender will see a note that you’ve “silenced notifications with Focus.” It also appears that Messages will include a small “Notified” tag to advise a sender when you’ve been notified of a new message, as opposed to when it’s merely been delivered to your device.
The new Focus features also go a nice big step beyond just managing notifications. You’ll also be able to switch up your Home screen based on what Focus mode you’re in, so you can have a page dedicated to your work apps in “Work” mode, or a page dedicated to your fitness apps when you’re about to start a workout.
Live Text in Photos
While Apple is rarely the first to introduce groundbreaking new features when it comes to its iOS releases, when it does introduce something, it almost always implements it in a groundbreaking new way. We saw this in how it approached copy and paste over a decade ago, and the latest example is its new text recognition feature in photos.
With iOS 15, it will not only be possible to search for text contained in pictures stored in your Photos app, but also effortlessly copy that text right out onto the clipboard and into other apps. This second part doesn’t just work in the Photos app either — you’ll be able to do it from just about any photo displayed on your iPhone, whether that’s in the Safari browser or using third-party apps.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is nothing new; many third-party services have offered the ability to search and extract text from photos for years, but what Apple has done here in iOS 15 is truly unique for two reasons.
Firstly, like everything else Apple has done with photo recognition, this is all happening right on the iPhone. Every other service uses cloud-based servers to do the heavy lifting of analyzing photos, meaning all of that text is stored in a database on someone else’s server. With Apple’s stance on privacy, it clearly doesn’t want any part of that, so the only place the data in your photos will be stored as text is on your iPhone.
Secondly, Apple is handling this in the easiest and most intuitive way we can possibly imagine. Copying text from a photo is literally as simple as dragging and dropping over the photo to select the text. There’s no need to switch into a separate mode or convert the full text of the photo into another app. You just select and copy like you would with a block of text anywhere else.
In addition, there’s no need to take a photo first if all you want to do is capture the text from something like a whiteboard or receipt. The live text feature is available directly in the Camera app, so you can point your iPhone camera at a block of text, and then immediately pull it into the clipboard without the need to go through the intermediate step of taking a photo that you’d likely just delete later anyway.
All of Apple’s smart data detectors are available for in-photo text as well, so if you have a picture that includes a phone number, you can simply tap on the number in the photo to place a call.
Lastly, it’s not just for text either. The new on-device intelligence can recognize a wide variety of objects in photos and provide more details with a tap. This includes things like looking up the breed of a dog, the type of a flower, or even identifying works of art and landmarks.
Although the ability to search for text in photos is new, it’s been possible to find photos based on locations, people, and objects since iOS 10. However, until now, you’ve had to go into the Photos app to do that (or ask Siri).
With iOS 15, Apple is adding the entire Photos library to the main Spotlight search, so your photos will appear when doing a system-wide search. This means you can search by people, scenes, elements, location, and even text in photos.
This will be particularly useful for looking for things like recipes, handwritten notes, and receipts, where you may not realize off-hand that the details are in a photo, as opposed to an email, messages thread, or note.
Spotlight will also provide rich results for contacts, so when you search for a person you’ll not only get quick access to call, message, or email them, but also location details, recent messages and email conversations, shared photos, calendar appointments, notes, and even files.
Similarly, searching for an actor, musician, TV show, or movie will also return much more detailed results right in the Spotlight view.
Photos Memory Mixes
With iOS 15, Apple is also making the biggest enhancement to its Photo Memories feature since it first introduced it five years ago.
Chelsea Burnette, Apple’s Senior Manager or Photos Engineering took the stage to demonstrate how the entire Memories experience has been rethought and redesigned, providing a more immersive full-screen layout with larger cards and much more intuitive and simple editing features to let you create the perfect theme around your memory movies.
Dubbed “Memory Mixes,” iOS 15 will now let you choose predefined looks and music with pacing and filters to match. These aren’t generic filters either, but rather, as Burnette explains, iOS 15 will actually analyze each photo in the memory to apply consistent colouring and contrast.
The old list of boilerplate music has also been replaced with suggested tracks from Apple Music, including personalized recommendations. You’ll be able to search for specific songs or pull up songs from your listening history.
When viewing a memory, you’ll also now be able to pause on an individual video or image to take a longer look, or swipe back to one that just passed, and the music will remain in sync.
Basically, it looks like iOS 15 will move away from generating an actual video file into a more dynamic real-time presentation of images and videos in a memory, although presumably there will still be a way to export it to a traditional video once you’re done with it. It’s unclear in this case how Apple Music will fit into the picture, however, since you likely won’t be able to share these tracks.
Your ID and Digital Keys in Wallet
Jennifer Bailey, Apple’s VP of Wallet and Apple Pay took the stage to explain how iOS 15 is taking an even bigger step to help your iPhone replace your wallet in its entirety.
While you can already store credit cards, loyalty cards, tickets, boarding passes, public transit cards, and even your Car Key in Apple’s Wallet app, Apple is now filling in the last important piece of the puzzle with more digital keys and ID cards.
Home Keys will allow you to store a digital key for your front door, assuming you’re using a compatible lock — of which there are about a dozen partners already on board to start producing these locks. Corporate badges will also be supported, as will hotel keys.
In this last case, Hyatt Hotels is ready to roll out the hotel key support to over 1,000 properties worldwide, beginning this fall, with an experience that will allow you to receive your room key for an online booking even before you arrive at the hotel.
In the case of Home Keys, it’s not entirely clear how this will differ from simply using a HomeKit-compatible door lock, although obviously, it’s an easier solution for those who haven’t gone in for the full HomeKit experience.
Apple is also working with several U.S. states to allow your driver's license and other forms of official ID to be scanned into the wallet app, where they’ll be encrypted and safely stored in the iPhone’s Secure Element.
It’s unclear which states are going to be on board with this, but Bailey did add that Apple is also working with the TSA to enable these digital IDs to be used directly from the Wallet app at airport security checkpoints.
When “showing” a digital ID, Apple will also present a card similar to the App Store Privacy labels that will indicate which information from the digital ID will be shared with the scanning terminal.
The Weather app in iOS 15 is also getting a pretty substantial redesign, with a whole new set of data and layouts that will change based on condition, along with a variety of new weather graphics and animations.
This will include data such as wind speed and direction, UV index, barometric pressure, air quality, precipitation, and more. Each of these data points will be shown in a separate tile that provides more detailed info.
The backgrounds in Weather will also feature richer animations that will show details such as sun position, cloud cover, and precipitation specific to your location.
Lastly, Apple is adding full-screen high-resolution weather maps that will include temperature, animated precipitation, and air quality information.
Incredible Maps Improvements
Apple has been updating its Maps app pretty aggressively over the past few years, and it looks like iOS 15 is no exception. Meg Frost, Apple’s Director of Product Design for Apple Maps came onto the virtual stage to share how Apple Maps will be taking its next major leap in showing much more detailed information.
Firstly, for users who like to use Apple Maps to simply browse and explore the world, it’s going to be possible to start with a large interactive globe view to spin around the world and zoom in on any location.
When getting in close to major cities, Maps will also now include custom-designed landmarks for key places like the Golden Gate Bridge, along with incredible new details for commercial districts, marinas, buildings, plus elevation, new road colours, and labels. There’s also going to be a cool new nighttime mode with a moonlit glow.
Apple is also seriously upping the amount of detail shown in navigation mode. You’ll now be able to see turn lanes, medians, bus and taxi lanes, crosswalks, bike lanes, and more when navigating, with incredible attention to detail. Overlapping interchanges will even be shown in 3D when driving along highways.
Naturally, this level of detail won’t be rolling out globally all at once. Like many of Maps’ improvements, it’s going to start with seven major U.S. cities for 2021, with more coming next year. It also may not be available on CarPlay at launch either, but should arrive by the end of the year.
Apple Maps is also gaining some noteworthy transit improvements, making it easier to find nearby stations, pin favourite transit lines to the top, and keep track of all of this on the Apple Watch. You’ll also be able to follow your transit route and get notifications when it’s time to get off.
In another cool use of augmented reality features, Apple Maps will also help you get your orientation when exiting a transit station. You can hold up your camera to scan nearby buildings, so it can figure out where you are and then direct you to where to go next in AR to complete your trip.
With iOS 15, it will now be possible to share health information between family members directly from the Health app.
This will be especially useful for keeping tabs on older family members, as you’ll also be able to share notifications of things like abnormal heart rates, and you can even start an iMessage conversation with the family member directly from there.
All the tracking, trends, and history features will also be available in the Health app for each shared family member, and users will be able to choose exactly what data points to share. Naturally, everything is still end-to-end encrypted in such a way that even Apple has no access to your family’s health data.
What’s not yet clear is whether this will also enable sharing of health information from family members who are using an Apple Watch with Family Setup.