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Apple is introducing a number of software upgrades and enhancements for 2021, including improved iPad multitasking and better online security on all devices. Photo: Apple

Apple’s five best software features for the coming year, from iPad multitasking and control innovations to enhanced privacy

  • Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, online for the second year, announced a raft of new features
  • These include better iPad Pro multitasking and control via a Mac, and improved security against third-party tracking

For the second year in a row Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) – which is usually a weeklong gathering of software developers in San Jose, California to test beta versions of Apple’s upcoming software – has been forced to an online-only broadcast due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

However, that did not stop the world’s most influential tech brand from announcing a bunch of new features that will be part of software updates for iPhones, Macs and other Apple products this autumn.

However, not all OS updates this year were created equal. Some, such as iPadOS 15, bring significant changes to how the iPad operates, while others, like WatchOS 8, mostly consist of software polishes and tweaks.

Here are the five most important new software features coming to Apple devices.

Apple’s FaceTime is coming to Android and Windows. Photo: Apple

FaceTime coming to Android and Windows, also gets major new features

While Apple’s FaceTime video calling service hasn’t completely taken Asia by storm due to this region’s preference for third-party chat apps (such as WeChat and WhatsApp, both of which have video calling features built-in), it is so widely used in North America that the name has become a verb (example: “I’ll FaceTime you when I get off work”).

Apple’s new iCloud VPN not available to users in China

So Apple’s announcement that people will be able to participate in FaceTime calls on any web browser is huge news, because this opens up the service to non-Apple hardware for the first time. What’s more, FaceTime users also gain the ability to share screens and audio with others in the call, allowing it to pull off potential virtual movie nights among friends and family.

Considering how ubiquitous and influential Apple products are around the world, this could immediately make FaceTime the default video calling platform of choice for most people. This could be a big blow to video calling services like Zoom and Skype.
Apple has upgraded user privacy on all its products. Photo: Apple

A further push to protect user privacy

Apple has made protecting user privacy a priority in recent years, and a recent policy change by the tech giant to make it harder for iPhone apps to track users’ online habits has led to a bitter feud with Facebook, whose main source of income is running targeted ads at Facebook users using data sourced from the Facebook app.

With this autumn’s software updates, Apple will make it harder for apps and websites to track users on all of its products. For example, iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 will bring a new privacy dashboard that shows users exactly when and how often an app or a website accessed the device’s location, microphone, contacts and camera.

Apple’s Mail app will also block micro trackers embedded in emails that can alert the sender when and where the email was opened. Finally, Siri will also process more speech on-device instead of requiring the internet. Keeping things offline drastically reduces the chance of a user’s audio being sent elsewhere, and also will speed up Siri’s response time, at least from the demos shown by Apple during the event.

The iPad will have more user friendly and powerful split-screen multitasking. Photo: Apple

Improved multitasking for iPads

Apple has been claiming its iPad Pro can be a computer replacement since its debut in 2015, but it wasn’t really until a year or two ago that it became true, with the introduction of split-screen multitasking, a proper filing system, and trackpad/mouse support. iPadOS will further push that vision with an overhauled multitasking system that makes it easier to run two apps at once. Whereas in the past the process required multiple swipes, users can now launch into split-screen mode immediately via a new pop-up menu at the top of the screen. iPadOS 15 will also allow a third app to open in a floating window in the middle of the screen now (hovering over the two split apps).

Other multitasking improvements include the ability to launch a mini version of the Notes app anywhere on the iPad screen via a swipe from the corners. This allows users to immediately jot down notes without needing to leave their current app.

Apple’s new Universal Control feature on the Apple Mac and iPad. Photo: Apple

Mac and iPad connected more than ever

Another new cross-platform feature that should prove highly popular is “Universal Control” which allows a Mac user to also control their iPad with their Mac’s keyboard and trackpad (provided the Mac is running the upcoming MacOS Monterey and iPadOS 15).

Not only that, the Mac’s mouse cursor can also carry over to the iPad’s screen and perform actions there, such as dragging files from an iPad directly to a Mac. This makes the iPad significantly better as a companion screen alongside an iMac or MacBook.

Live Texts can identify words in photos and copy and paste them elsewhere. Photo: Apple

Convert words in photos to text

Coming to MacOS Monterey, iOS and iPadOS 15 is “Live Texts”, which uses the device’s machine learning AI to identify words in photos to turn into text that can be copied and pasted elsewhere.

This works with any photo – whether taken by the user or from the net. In theory, a user can take a photo of a magazine article, then quickly grab all the words in that photo and paste it into a word document for editing or sharing.

Apple says Live Texts will also work with traditional and simplified Chinese, among other languages.

All of these features will be available as over-the-air software updates for iPhone/iPad/Mac owners this autumn (usually September, when the new iPhones are released). Those interested in trying the software earlier can download public betas usually later in the summer.