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Apple will use WWDC to rally the troops after spending the last year under attack

Apple faces a growing list of legal and political challenges to its business. Its biggest developers event is a chance at a reset.

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Apple WWDC 2021

Apple's annual developer confab is taking place entirely online.

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This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

For years, Apple used its Worldwide Developers Conference to throw a weeklong party for its partners and developers. But after spending the last year under attack from rivals and competitors, this time Apple needs to rally the faithful to its cause.

On Monday, the iPhone maker is set to kick off  WWDC with a slickly produced opening keynote address announcing new software updates for its iPhones, iPads, Mac computers and Apple Watches, among other things. In most years, WWDC inspires a Christmas-like excitement among Apple's biggest fans, who passionately debate changes they hope the company will make to the software and technologies that power its devices.

This year the mood is markedly different. Over the past 12 months, Apple has faced an unprecedented level of conflict. It's being scrutinized by lawmakers and regulators at home and overseas. It's awaiting judgment in a lawsuit initiated by Fortnite maker Epic Games, one of its biggest development partners. It's started an all-out war with Facebook over privacy. Not to mention the already daunting challenge of navigating a once-in-a-generation pandemic, and all the personal and economic turmoil that's come with it.

But you wouldn't know that listening to Apple CEO Tim Cook. "After the challenges of this past year, we're optimistic about the challenges that lay in front of us," he said when headlining Apple's Spring Loaded event in April. "As we move forward, we feel it's important that Apple continues to make a difference in people's lives through our products and our values."

Follow along: How to watch WWDC from home June 7 to 11

The challenges the tech titan faces are part of a dramatic shift in Silicon Valley. Until recently, Apple was largely able to stay out of the fray as pressure from lawmakers, regulators and users mounted on Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter over a litany of scandals surrounding user privacy, harassment, disinformation and the spread of extremism. But as Apple continued to grow, posting its best ever sales and profit over the holiday shopping season despite the pandemic-fueled economic catastrophe, governments, partners and competitors have begun challenging its actions too.

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What's coming: Everything we expect from Apple's WWDC this year

Echoing Cook's words, analysts agree Apple has a lot to be excited about. Its iPhone 12 line of phones has been a hit, despite launching a few weeks later than usual last year. And its newest iMac, Mac Mini, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro computers powered by new iPhone-inspired M1 chips have gotten near universal praise for speedy performance and long battery life.

Few people expect Apple will even hint at the political and legal issues it's faced, even if it may adjust some of its internal policies in response to them.

"The gestalt of Apple is to push forward and not address it directly," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis research. "They're not totally wrong to be doing that either."

Home turf

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Apple's Game Center service used to look like a felt game table (left). Because, y'know, games. But in 2013, Apple tossed that look out.

Screenshot by CNET

Apple's often at its best at developer events, attracting just the right mix of fans, developers and partners to allow the company to focus on the technology behind its products.

It's where Apple has historically unveiled new looks for the MacOS and iOS software. In 2013 it excitedly changed out the apps with real-life-looking felt tables and wood shelving for today's more translucent backgrounds and buttons. Developers cheered in 2012, when Apple announced new fans for its MacBook Pro designed to make less annoying sounds when cooling the computer.

A decade before, Apple even held a funeral for its aging MacOS 9 software. "Mac OS 9 was a friend to us all," Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said at the time, standing on stage beside a coffin with an oversized retail box of the company's software inside. "He's now in that great bit bucket in the sky, no doubt looking down upon us with that same smile he displayed every time he booted."

This year, Apple will have plenty of gimmes for its most ardent fans. It's about halfway through a massive shift for its computers, switching from the Intel-powered microprocessing brains that Macs have relied on since 2006 to new "Apple Silicon" M-series chips, designed in-house by teams that helped create chips for the iPhone and iPad. Technical experts say these types of transitions can be monumental struggles as software is translated and reworked to run on the new hardware.

But so far, Apple's transition appears to have been smooth, and well received by customers. Apple said fans bought so many new M1 Macs that they helped push the company's desktop and laptop revenues to an all-time high of $9.1 billion during the first three months of the year. That was up a whopping 70% from the same time a year earlier. "Keep in mind, in the five years prior to the pandemic, the Mac was essentially a flat business, growing on average 1% annually," Loup Ventures analyst Gene Munster wrote in May.

Perennial underdog

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Apple's latest software updates have included major privacy changes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Looking forward, aside from software updates and potentially new computers, analysts are watching for Apple to push harder on privacy, an issue many of its customers have shown support for.

The company has used its WWDC events in the past to attack Google and Facebook while promoting anti-tracking technology built into Mac computers, iPhones and iPads. In April it released iOS 14.5, which included new tracking transparency features that represented one of the most dramatic overhauls of iPhone privacy tech since its launch.

Regardless of what Apple announces, Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said she hopes Apple will learn from its struggles in the past year, and communicate why it's making certain decisions. She believes Apple's famous secrecy has made it harder for the company to win political arguments, be they in the court, on Capitol Hill or within the tech industry. "It's about getting more humble," she said. "Just because a choice they made is right doesn't absolve them from having to explain why they made the choices they did."