iOS 14 unveiled: A first glimpse at Apple's upcoming iPhone software

Apple shows off its updated operating system at its first all-digital WWDC with its new App Library, redesigned widgets and picture-in-picture.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read
Screenshot by Shara Tibken/CNET

iOS 14 is official. Apple on Monday, at its first-ever digital Worldwide Developers Conference, unveiled the newest software that will power its iPhones -- both the new devices expected later this year and the phones we already have in our hands. 

The updated software includes features like a redesigned home screen, called App Library. iOS 14 will automatically group apps into folders to make the different pages on an iPhone cleaner. Apple tweaked its widgets to let you decide the size and location of the boxes that contain information like the weather. Apple's Memoji are getting face coverings and more age options, and Messages gets pinned contacts, mentions and in-line replies.

Apple also is bringing picture-in-picture, already available on iPads, to the iPhone. It will let you do things like watch a video in a small screen while messaging with people on the main screen. Siri, Apple's voice assistant, also is getting an update, as will  Apple Maps, CarPlay and many other features of Apple's popular mobile software. 

The company detailed the changes in a rapid-fire press conference Monday, with Apple executives talking to cameras broadcasting the presentation around the globe. The keynote featured shots from around Apple's Steve Jobs Theater, with executives isolated from each other to stay safe during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

"iPhone, iOS [are] central to how we navigate our lives and stay connected," Apple's head of software, Craig Federighi, said Monday from an empty Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. "Now we're making it even more powerful and easier to use. ... This year, we spent time rethinking some of the most iconic elements of the experience on iPhone."

Watch this: First take: iOS 14 and all its new features

Apple's annual developer convention, called WWDC for short, is where the company unveils its updates for its software and services, showing off upcoming features that developers will be able to build into their apps. Apple may be best known for its devices, but the seamless integration of its hardware with its software is what sets Apple apart from rivals. Apple's ability to control every aspect of its products -- something that began when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded the company in 1976 -- has been key in making it the one of the most powerful companies in tech. This year's WWDC is the company's 31st.

Typically, Apple hosts several thousand developers for the event at its Northern California base, with the conference last year taking place in San Jose. But this year's WWDC comes as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. As of Monday, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 9 million people around the globe. Tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment as businesses closed and governments directed their citizens to stay at home. While some parts of the world and the US are reopening, life is far from normal, making it risky to gather thousands of developers in one location.

All digital

Apple in mid-March said WWDC would be all-digital this year, similar to other gatherings like the Collision conference and Microsoft's Build confab. Companies like Google and Facebook opted to scrap their developer conferences this year. 

WWDC comes as Apple focuses more on its software and services. There's iOS, MacOS for its computers, TVOS for Apple TV and WatchOS for the Apple Watch. And last year, Apple split its mobile software, keeping iOS for phones and introducing iPadOS with features tweaked for Apple's tablets . When it comes to services, the company offers Apple TV Plus, Apple Pay , Apple Music , the App Store, iCloud, HomeKit and various other apps and services. It's critical that Apple make a strong impression at WWDC with the next versions of its software. 

But even if there aren't huge new changes or redesigns, the majority of users will download the updates, especially when it comes to iOS. iPhone owners typically download the latest software within weeks or a few months of its release, helped by the prompts Apple sends them. As of Jan. 27, four months after it became available, iOS 13 was in use on 77% of all iPhones introduced in the previous four years. By June 17, the percentage had jumped to 92%.

Many of the new features in iOS 14, like customizable widgets and picture-in-picture support, are already found on phones running Google's Android software. 

"Taken in isolation, some of the updates -- particularly those in iOS 14 -- are simply catching up with features already available on other platforms," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood said. "However, taken together they make it clear that this is a very significant WWDC that sees Apple redoubling its efforts in software and hardware integration, and in privacy."