SAN JOSE: Apple unveiled new operating systems for its iPhones and computers on Monday, with features designed to thwart the use of secret trackers which monitor people's online activity.
The announcement comes amid the controversy surrounding protection of privacy following a Facebook data scandal and new rules being enforced for online services by the European Union.
Apple, kicking off its annual developers' conference, appeared to be setting itself apart from Facebook, which has drawn the ire of privacy activists, and even showed how its software could prevent the social network from tracking users on Apple devices.
The upcoming versions of the software powering iPhone and Mac computers will block the use of so-called "cookies" from Facebook and "like" buttons that can follow people from one website to another, Apple said.
"Turns out 'like' buttons and 'comment' fields can be used to track you, so this year we are shutting that down," Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, told a crowd of around 6,000 developers at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in the heart of Silicon Valley.
The new MacOS Mojave and iOS 12 software, to be released later this year, will also make it harder to use trackers to create "unique fingerprints" by gleaning data about devices being used, according to Federighi.
"It will become dramatically more difficult for data companies to identify your device and track you," Federighi added. Enhanced privacy was part of a slew of improvements touted by Apple.
The conference was kicked off the day the New York Times reported that Facebook gave special access to device makers, including Apple, to personal data on social network users and their friends.
Facebook said it "disagreed" with the report and that the agreements with device makers were far different from those with third-party developers including one which shared data with the political firm Cambridge Analytica.
Acknowledging smartphone "addiction"
Apple's software upgrades include features that help users understand how much time they are spending on their devices, amid concerns of growing smartphone "addiction."
Features have been added to "limit distraction" from iPhones, like being able to turn-off lock screen notifications at bedtime to avoid "getting spun up" by prompts. "I think we are all going to be using Do-Not-Disturb a whole lot more," Federighi said.
Along with ways to limit distracting notifications from iPhones, a new Screen Time feature allows people to control and monitor time spent on applications. "We know there are people who would like extra help," Federighi said on curbing app time.
Parents will be able to set limits for the time their children spend on apps, and get detailed reports regarding which apps are used.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook told developers that the "app ecosystem" developed by the iPhone maker will soon have delivered more than $100 billion to partners.
"This is beyond remarkable," Cook said, noting that the online App Store will be 10 years old in July. "The App Store has fundamental changed the way we live," he added.
The array of features being added to the software powering Apple devices included being able to make group FaceTime video calls, letting third-party applications work on Apple Watch, expanding the abilities of Siri digital assistant and delivering a platform for augmented reality applications.
Some analysts remained unimpressed, and said that Apple is lagging in key areas like artificial intelligence as the smartphone market matures.
"I am concerned... that Apple is falling further behind Google and Amazon in AI (artificial intelligence)," said GlobalData research director, Avi Greengart, in a tweet. "If Apple has major improvements to Siri in its labs, it did not show them off today," he added.
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