WWDC is one of the biggest events in Apple's yearly calendar, second in importance only to the new iPhone reveal in the autumn. In this article we round up everything you need to know about WWDC 2021, from the newly announced dates and how to watch the video presentation live, to the range of products and software updates that will be revealed on the night.
We've also dissected the announcement artwork for clues about what to expect. It's all got a bit obsessive.
What is WWDC?
WWDC stands for Worldwide Developers Conference. It's an event Apple holds once a year for the benefit of its developer partners - the people who create the software that runs on the Mac, iPhone and other Apple platforms.
WWDC lasts for a week, but on the first morning (or evening in the UK) Tim Cook and other Apple staff will appear in a keynote presentation announcing the major software updates for the year: the new features and other changes coming in the next versions of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS for the iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV respectively.
This is obviously important information for the developers, but owners of Apple devices will be watching the presentation with great interest too, since the new features will be available for existing devices as well as the new ones launching later in the year.
The rest of the week is occupied with workshops and networking events for developers, although these sections of the event were very different in 2020 because it was held entirely online. We suspect the same will be true in 2021.
Dates: When will WWDC 2021 happen?
Apple has officially announced the dates, and as we predicted, WWDC 2021 will run from 7-11 June 2021.
The keynote presentation will start at 10am local time (PDT) on 7 June. That translates to 6pm UK time.
It's a return to Apple's usual habit of picking a week in early to mid June, after the unusually late scheduling last year. Here's when the past 11 WWDC events have begun:
- WWDC 2020: Monday 22 June
- WWDC 2019: Monday 3 June
- WWDC 2018: Monday 4 June
- WWDC 2017: Monday 5 June
- WWDC 2016: Monday 13 June
- WWDC 2015: Monday 8 June
- WWDC 2014: Monday 2 June
- WWDC 2013: Monday 10 June
- WWDC 2012: Monday 11 June
- WWDC 2011: Monday 6 June
- WWDC 2010: Monday 7 June
Will WWDC 2021 be online-only?
Yes. Apple has officially announced that WWDC 2021 will follow an all-online format for the second year in a row.
This was always likely, based on the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the US. After taking office President Biden warned: "It's going to take months for us to turn things around."
On the plus side, Apple's video presentations in 2020 seemed, at least from the outside, to be a triumph. The slick, pre-edited video presentations were far more enjoyable and efficient than the usual sprawling live events, and while the local area will have taken a financial hit (in recognition of which Apple has pledged to donate $1m to a local San Jose initiative called SJ Aspires), a lot of money was saved on catering, accommodation and air travel.
With doubts remaining over the health implications, it made sense for Apple to keep things online-only.
How to watch WWDC 2021
The presentation video will be available to watch in all the usual places: on Apple's main and developer websites, in the TV app for Mac, iPad or iPhone, and on YouTube. You can even watch it on a Windows PC.
In the past Apple has also sometimes held viewing events in certain Apple stores, although we doubt that will happen this year. (It didn't happen in 2020.)
You can find out more in our dedicated article on the subject, How to watch Apple's WWDC keynote live.
What new software will Apple announce at WWDC 2021?
We can split this fairly neatly into two sections: the software updates that will definitely happen, and the hardware products that might happen.
Let's discuss the five big software updates first.
The new operating system for iPhones will bring a raft of new features, tweaks to the interface and all-important security fixes. It will be unveiled at WWDC and immediately released as a pre-release beta for developers only; a few weeks later the first public beta will follow.
We discuss this update in more detail in our iOS 15 news hub.
Not much is currently known about Apple's next OS for the iPad, but we'll find out what's in store when Tim Cook takes to the virtual stage in June.
iPadOS is in an interesting point of development, having split off from iOS relatively recently (in 2019). The two platforms still have much in common, but we expect that to change for the iPadOS 15 update as Apple works to define separate aesthetics and user experiences to suit the small and medium-size screen.
It should be said that we found iPadOS 14 considerably buggier than its iOS equivalent, and it continues to be far less user-friendly; a 'stabilisation' update would be unpopular - everyone always wants a big headline feature - but we'd take it.
We know Apple has been testing macOS 12 since at least 11 January, so the version that's unveiled in June ought to be pretty slick. We also know it will be numbered 12 - which wasn't as obvious as it might sound, given how many version 10 updates the company released over a period of years - because references have been spotted in WebKit code.
In terms of features, we hope to be able to customise what appears in the Control Centre, and for the arrival of the Shortcuts and Health apps on Mac.
Note that while macOS 12 will be announced alongside the other four OS updates at WWDC, it may be released to the public a little later. In 2020 macOS Big Sur wasn't released until 12 November.
Get the latest info in our macOS 12 news hub.
What new features will arrive on the Apple Watch this year? More Health and less internet (by which we mean less requirement to be online for features like Siri), was the verdict of Halyna Kubiv in our Apple Watch trends article for 2021. There is likely to be a standalone Health app, and 9to5Mac thinks Apple will come up with Battery and Hiking apps too.
In terms of compatible devices, we think Apple will be kind this year. After slashing the Series 1 and 2 from the list in 2020, it's likely to allow Series 3 and later to install watchOS 8 - but we'll find out for sure in June.
Keep up to date with all the features coming to an Apple Watch near you with our watchOS 8 news hub.
There's a lot of focus on the Apple TV at the moment; in fact, we expect a new Apple TV to launch before WWDC 2021, which may change expectations of tvOS 15.
Regardless of the new hardware, however, you can expect Apple to continue its focus on gaming and home security.
New hardware products at WWDC 2021
The five software updates are nailed-on certainties - or as close to that as we ever come with Apple. WWDC's hardware launches are harder to predict.
As you can read in our history of WWDC article, some of the company's biggest products have been announced or unveiled at WWDC, such as the iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4, various iPads, the HomePod, numerous MacBook Pro and Air models, and the iMac Pro and Mac Pro. But other WWDC events, including two out of the last three, have had no consumer hardware launches whatsoever. It can go either way.
If Apple does decide to honour us with hardware news, expect the company to focus on pro rather than consumer devices. This could be a good moment to discuss the new iPad Pro, for example, and we hope to hear about the next iteration of the Mac Pro.
WWDC 2020 may have lacked consumer hardware launches but it did include the momentous announcement of Apple Silicon. Given the success Apple's M1 Macs met with towards the end of last year we wouldn't be surprised to hear the company discuss the next Apple processors at WWDC 2021: perhaps an M1X or M2 chip, which is likely to appear in the new iMac. Read: Everything we know about the M1X Chip.
Finally, will Apple talk audio at all? It's odd that the hugely popular core AirPods line-up received no updates at all in 2020 - although the super-expensive AirPods Max were added at the top end - and we wouldn't be surprised to hear about new AirPods at WWDC 2021.
Bear in mind, however, that almost all of the hardware discussed above is slated for imminent launch. Before we get to WWDC we expect Apple to host an event in spring - most likely March - and some of them may be announced then.
New subscription services
Last but not least, let's discuss Apple's range of paid subscription services. Apple is working to pivot from being primarily a seller of premium hardware to being a seller of services - TV+, News+, Apple Music, Apple Arcade - to owners of that hardware, and the launch of any new services is likely to happen at WWDC.
One analyst has argued that Apple will launch a raft of new Plus services in the near future, and suggests that Podcasts+, Stocks+, Mail+, Maps+ and Health+ are all plausible additions to the portfolio. Such services would also, of course, make it easier to shift subscriptions to Apple One.
Apple loves to put clues in its invites: small details that later turn out to reveal crucial elements of its announcements. Every year we look forward to dissecting the invitation. (Here are some classics from the past.)
The proper WWDC 2021 invitations haven't gone out yet, but in the meantime we can content ourselves with the artwork that accompanied the date announcement. Here it is again:
The obvious stuff first. The main figure is one of Apple's Memojis, a feature in iOS and other platforms that lets you create and customise an icon which you can then send, in static or animated form, in iMessages.
Now, the Memoji is wearing glasses, which immediately puts us on alert for information about the much-anticipated Apple Glass launch. But that's not expected to arrive for a long time yet, and it's more likely that the glasses are instead there to reflect some intriguing glimpses of what's on the MacBook screen.
The most prominent icon visible in the reflection is Calendar, a fairly standard clue that Apple uses to allude to the date of an event - in this case 7 June. Easy. (Although it could also hint that Apple is going to let iPhone owners set third-party calendar apps as the default, something that would be much appreciated.)
There's also a notification bubble on the Calendar icon showing the number 21, which probably refers to the year but could mean something else: the number of new features in iOS 15, say? That might be pushing it.
Alongside the Calendar icon we can see icons for Terminal and Xcode, tools used by software developers. And further left we can see the icon for SF Symbols 2.
But what's that icon on the very far left? We can't make it out, but let us know if you've got any ideas.
And that's it for WWDC rumours - for now. More info about Apple's upcoming plans can be found in our guide to New Apple products coming in 2021.
If you'd rather make savings on the products available right now, visit our roundup of the best Apple deals.