New iOS beta brings first look at Apple’s COVID-19 contact-tracing API

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iPhone showing coronavirus that causes COVID-19
iPhones will help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that’s the cause of Covid-19.
Photo: Cult of Mac/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The third beta of iOS 13.5 released on Wednesday gives developers their first look at the coronavirus contact-tracing tool that Apple is creating in cooperation with Google.

iPadOS 13.5 Developer Beta 3 was also debuted today, along with the initial beta of Xcode 11.5.

iOS 13.5 and contact tracing

Despite a name change, this is what used to be called iOS 13.4.5. Apple is calling this beta 3, even though this is technically the first anyone has seen of iOS 13.5. The inclusion of contract tracing could well have contributed to the new name.

Apple and Google are collaborating on a cross-platform coronavirus contact-tracing system. This uses a phone’s Bluetooth capabilities to detect if two people have been near each other for a set length of time. If one person is later found to have contracted Covid-19, then everyone they’ve been in near contact with going back days can be notified.

The just-released iOS 13.5 Developer Beta 3 includes the APIs for Apple’s version of this system, not an actual app. These application program interfaces will enable governments and companies to create their own contact-tracing applications.

iPadOS 13.5 Developer Beta 3 also came out today. At this point, it’s not yet clear if it also includes the APIs Apple and Google are developing to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, or if these are reserved for iPhones.

The new Xcode 11.5 beta introduced on Wednesday includes tools developers need to write contact-tracing software  too.

Google also released a Google Play Services beta with the contact-tracing APIs. This will allow Android devs to write apps that can communicate with iOS ones to track who’s been near other people who’ve potentially been exposed to the coronavirus.

iOS 13.5 and the iPadOS equivalent are otherwise “bug fix” updates for the respective 13.4 versions introduced in March.

New betas only for devs

The pre-release versions of these system-software updates introduced today are only for paying members of the Apple Developer Program. Devs get each new version before the general public because they are assumed to be more tolerant of buggy software. If a major problem crops up in a pre-release version, they’ll identify it before it affects beta testers who aren‘t developers.

But the general public will get their turn.