Ever since Scott Forstall’s ouster, iOS 7 was touted to be a massive update, perhaps the most significant ever, at least in terms of the interface.
The shake-up resulted in the division of his responsibilities amongst various other Apple SVPs. Eddy Cue got Siri and Maps, and Craig Federighi, who then lead the OS X engineering division, took command of iOS engineering too. The most interesting reassignment, however, was that of the Human Interfaces department to Jony Ive, the revered industrial designer whom Steve Jobs called his “spiritual partner”, thus consolidating Apple’s hardware and software design efforts under one person. This was a truly massive change, one that can potentially define the face of computing for years to come1.
The rumour mill was at its peak after that, with rumours of the removal of all textural and skeumorphic elements from iOS (dubbed the de-Forstallization of iOS, as an Apple employee told AllThingsD) coupled with the transition to a flatter and black-and-white design for iOS 7. While most Apple blogs and most of the community looked at this as the best thing to happen in years, as if Ive was going to be Apple’s knight in shining armour, all this talk of a flatter iOS 7 scared me a bit. I wasn’t against the very thought of visual changes, but what I wanted at the time was more along the lines of tweaking and adjusting. The iOS 7 I wanted then looked like this, and the biggest change that I was expecting was a dash of aluminium. I thought it only made sense for the software to adapt if hardware and software design were to come closer. Here’s an iOS 7 prediction I’d made about a year back:
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t prepared for iOS 7 when I saw it first. Here’s some context on the cat Mario thing.
It took some time for me to get over my predictable knee-jerk reaction, but I’ve grown to love the new design over time. But it’s time for another massive change now, I feel. Not it the realm of design, but in features.
It wasn’t a major update any way, but to me iOS 6 seemed almost like a pointless update given how most of its major features such as Passbook, the new Siri commands, and the new Apple Maps features either weren’t available or wouldn’t be of any use in India. I was expecting major changes in iOS 7, particularly in the field of inter-app communication, but I got next to nothing.
While iOS 7 was a trivial update in no manner, I think it’s high time that we got some changes that alter the way iOS works. While many are expecting what shall be the Snow Leopard of iOS updates, there are a few areas where I feel iOS has decremented way too much over the years, and some where it needs to play catch up to the competition. These things are in need of some serious, urgent restoration, and taking another year to fix them just does not seem feasible to me. iOS is now a mature operating system, and its capabilities need to be upgraded to reflect that.
So without further ado, here’s a comprehensive list of the major changes that I’d love to see happen in iOS 8.
Table of Contents
- Inter-app communication
- Touch ID
- Interface improvements
- iPad improvements
- App Store
- App improvements
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs revealed that the late Apple chief, despite being spot-on in his foreshadowing about such things usually, was absolutely insistent on the subject of 3rd-party apps on the iPhone, in that he vehemently opposed the idea as a whole – much like he once did iTunes for Windows. As was said in the legendary keynote for the original iPhone, web apps, and not native ones were supposed to be the only way for 3rd-party developers to create software for the original iPhone. Thankfully though, he did cave in eventually, and thus the App Store was born along with iPhone OS 2.0. It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine at first, however. Initially, Apple didn’t even allow apps which replicated functionality of it’s own built-in applications into the store. The tides have changed considerably with time, though.
The iOS App Store now has over 1 million apps, and iOS’ massive library of well made and polished 3rd-party apps is one of the core advantages that it possesses over its competition, in both the phone and tablet space. Let alone banning them, it’s not a rare sight nowadays to see Apple promote an app that entirely subsumes the need for its own stock apps.
I don’t think I would be wrong one bit in saying that the iOS of today is built in a way so as to remove any and all friction between the user and apps. Unlock your device, and there’s a wall of apps in front of you. No widgets, tiles, or other visual trinkets. Just apps, waiting to be opened and used. iOS’ job, it seems, is to be a platform that acts as a conduit and enabler for multitudes of these apps. Sadly, however, Apple refuses to acknowledge this and modify the system accordingly.
Defaults and Intents
While Apple’s first-party apps aren’t atrociously bad (more on some of them later), it seems they’re made for a person who is using a smartphone or a tablet – and not just an iPhone or an iPad – for the very first time, and thus needs time to wrap their head around concepts which we now take for granted, and by extension also has very limited needs. Both my parents got their first smartphones in the past 12 months, and watching them learn this stuff from the ground up, I can testify that Apple’s apps are indeed the best tools to get started on. My mom has many a times asked me “Why can’t WhatsApp (the de facto chat app here in India) be more like iMessage?”. And to my surprise, without ever asking me how to find his way around it, my dad has started using the Stocks app to keep track of his investments, and regularly checks them from the stocks widget in the Today section of Notification Center.
But that simplistic and uncomplicated approach to apps becomes problematic as more and more users become experienced with these devices and their needs and requirements expand. Sure, users with more demands can simply download apps that meet their needs, tuck away all of Apple’s apps in a single folder (thanks for that, iOS 7!), and forget they even exist. Except…we can’t, really.
Say you’ve switched over all of your email duties to CloudMagic as I have (or Mailbox, or Dispatch, or any one of the many fantastic 3rd-party alternatives that exist). Disable all your accounts from Mail and sign in with them in CloudMagic, and you should be good to go, right? That’s until you want to email a file or a photo from within another app, and it pulls up a share sheet from the default Mail app. Similarly, even if you’ve switched over to Fantastical for your calendars like I have, the Today tab in Notification Center will open event details in Calendar only. The shortcut in Control Center app will still take you to Camera even if you use Camera+ only. Even if you prefer Chrome, most apps will still give an option to open links in Safari other than their built-in browser. I could go on, but you get the point. In any place where there’s a system-level shortcut to do something, it is the corresponding built-in app that it opened, always.
The worst aspect of this all is how it all ties in with Siri, though. It’ll only look up the contact data stored in Contacts, store notes to Notes, message via SMS/ iMessage (this one in particular is a major irritant to me), and so on and so forth. Compare that with Android, where any 3rd-party app can be the default for a particular task based on the user’s discretion. This is not a viable system in the long term, especially when 3rd-party apps are more and more becoming the reason for why many people are even using iOS. Needless to say, this has to change soon.
Share sheets on iOS are insufficient too, allowing for sharing only to a bunch of stock apps, built-in services, and a handful of integrated services – namely Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Vimeo – depending on the data to be shared. Even the “Open In” system for sharing data within apps is flawed, in the sense that because of the sandbox model of apps in iOS, it creates a separate copy of data which is transferred from one app, thereby leaving extra copies in each app that the data is opened in, wasting rather precious storage and leaving redundant and non-syncing copies in its wake.
And I suspect this will start appearing to be a problem to Apple fiscally too. iPad sales have been levelling off of late, and many have suggested that this might be because of the difficulty in managing files across the system, as Jean-Louis Gassee positions in this piece from some time back. While I don’t agree with that piece in its entirety, I can see the point there being that the iPad’s inter-app communication standards are inefficient and simply speaking not enough, and this is harming its capabilities as a work machine.
Something a lot more closer to Apple’s heart is how Google has recently started utilising the x-callback-URL protocol within it’s iOS apps to provide seamless linking within them cutting out for Apples apps should they have a corresponding app too. So should you move over to Gmail, Chrome, and Google Maps from Mail, Safari, and Apple Maps, a link that someone has emailed you will open in Chrome and not in Safari. If it’s a link to a YouTube video, it’ll open in the YouTube app should you have it installed too. Links to locations also open directly in Google Maps. YouTube.app already hijacks links shortened to a youtu.be URL irrespective of source, much like how links to iTunes content opens in the appropriate storefront instead of Safari.
What’s more, is that because they have open-sourced their implementation of x-callback-URL in their apps, other developers to link to these apps too, so their apps too can choose to open content in Google’s own apps. Looking at apps on my homescreen, Tweetbot and Pocket – two apps that I probably spend most of my time in – have both added support for Chrome, and Fantastical has support for Chrome and Google Maps both. (You can head on over to the Safari section for some more detailed talk on Chrome integration). This has allowed Google to create a psuedo-ecosystem of sorts on top of iOS, wherein you can in the proper sense of the words replace a bunch of Apple’s apps with Google’s. Given the current state of relations between Apple and Google, wherein Apple was willing to ship an app with objectively inferior data just to get rid of Google’s presence on an iOS device by default in any measure (they had also removed the YouTube app simultaneously), I don’t think Google trojan horse-ing iOS will sit right with them.
A third-party open-source framework called ‘Choosy’ that launched only recently has taken upon itself the initiative to provide developers a mechanism to switch default apps on a per-app basis too. I’d love to see the reaction that “normals” have to something like it, and whether or not it can generate enough of traction for Apple to not ignore the need for user-selected defaults.
Another thing that the default apps will set right is Siri integration. Right now, the reason that Siri cannot talk to non-default apps lies in keyword interpretation. Say you ask Siri to save a reminder, then should that reminder be stored in Omnifocus, Clear, or Finish? All three certainly quality for that keyword. With a definite default app, however, you could link a keyword to its corresponding default app, in that events only go to Fantastical, messages only go through WhatsApp, and similarly for other apps.
All said and done, I hope with crossed fingers that this year Apple will finally give users the ability to pick default apps of their own choice. I’m not entirely sure on what exactly would make for the best implementation for this, but I can’t see something like Android’s pop-over system, which asks you every time you attempt an action which app you would like to use to complete it and whether you would like to use it always sitting well with the folks at Apple. Something buried deep within settings which allows you to pick defaults for each stock app on a per app basis from a list of qualifying apps seems like a way it could be done.
As for intents, I don’t think that it’s a feasible model for Apple to allow every app that can accept the data type to be acted upon show up within the share sheet. What makes most sense to me it to have a model wherein each app that can receive certain data types to request access to do so, just like how permission is required for an app to be present in Notification Center or for it to access device photos, location data, motion activity, and so on, giving users the ability to specifically choose applications for sharing various kinds of data. The discovery of remote view controllers in iOS 6 raised quite a hubbub a year-and-a-half back, as did the fact that they updated GarageBand to support Audiobus, but sadly, nothing more has come out of it yet. It was and to this day remains an undocumented feature. One of 9to5Mac’s early reports suggested that Apple might finally bring XPC to iOS, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that that turns out to be true.
For a web service coming from Apple, iCloud, which was first publicly displayed on June 6, 2011, at the WWDC keynote, generated quite a lot of hype in the build up to its reveal. The purchase of the iCloud.com domain name, and the massive data center that Apple had set up in North Carolina both received a fair bit of media attention.
Positioned as the successor to the ill-fated MobileMe service, iCloud was able to perform most of its predecessor’s functions, and had also picked up some fancy new tricks. It would perform automatic device backups on a daily basis, sync the camera roll and device settings, and also keep track of content previously purchased from the iTunes and App Stores. A lot of the excitement was also built around the fact that it would be integrated into iOS 5, and that any iPhone or iPad upon being upgraded to iOS 5 would in the setup process be shown a prompt, asking them to create a free iCloud account, and going through just that one step of creating or signing into an iCloud account would enable apps to sync data, without any further input required from the user. That was a much better solution that syncing with a 3rd-party service which your users possibly may not even have have accounts in. Core Data, a way that allowed apps to present exactly the same data in apps across iOS and OS X, was a big selling point to developers, who would otherwise have to make build from scratch separate sync methods of their own.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having a sync service that is built into your device and 3rd-party apps, and requires the user to go through just one login process to sync everything. That most of the apps on my parents’ iPhones back up their data without them having to do anything, and device backups contain the entire camera roll is a godsend. Unlike some people, I think Apple’s understanding of the cloud and how it should work is spot on in more ways that not, and that iCloud comes closer to the cloud your average user wants and needs than most others. The potential of the cloud is, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, much more than simply a “hard disk in the sky”, which is what most others seem to be gunning at.
However, some changes need to be made to the consumer-facing aspects of iCloud to allow for everyone to be able to utilize it to its fullest potential.
Better storage plans and pricing
In what would turn out to be his last keynote, a rather frail Steve Jobs lavished praise on iCloud.
We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device. We’re going to move your hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.
It’s completely integrated with your apps, and so everything happens automatically, and there’s nothing to learn. It just all works. It just works.
As he told his biographer Walter Isaacson, iCloud was a large, central part to the future of computing as Jobs envisioned it.
We need to be the company that manages your relationship with the cloud — streams your music and videos from the cloud, stores your pictures and information, and maybe even your medical data. Apple was the first to have the insight about your computer becoming a digital hub. So we wrote all of these apps—iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes—and tied in our devices, like the iPod and iPhone and iPad, and it’s worked brilliantly. But over the next few years, the hub is going to move from your computer into the cloud. So it’s the same digital hub strategy, but the hub’s in a different place. It means you will always have access to your content and you won’t have to sync.
For this vision to come true, however, a few things about the user-facing aspect of iCloud need to be reworked. First up are the storage tiers and pricing.
As of now, every iCloud account comes with 5 gigabytes of free storage irrespective of the number of devices you own, or their storage capacities. While this amount of storage might be enough for someone with just one iOS or OS X device (It is for me and both my parents, and iPhones are the only iCloud devices that the three of use), it’s easy to hit the wall of how much 5 GB can store with just two devices, let alone if you go the full trifecta and get an iPhone, an iPad, and a Mac. That’s especially bad when you consider that iCloud is the only cloud-based backup option for iPhones and iPads, which are also Apple’s most popular computers. At that point, where you are backing up two or more devices and app data into iCloud, managing that outright meagre 5 GB of storage becomes a tangible problem. In other words, getting more Apple devices is actually detrimental to your (free) iCloud experience. Given how the entire point of everything Apple sells other than their ‘computers’ (iPhones, iPads, and Macs) is to serve as an ecosystem perk that’s supposed to make you want to purchase more of their computers, iCloud’s storage plans seems to have gotten this ass backwards. The obvious solution would be to have the amount of storage linked to an account be made additive based on the number of devices linked to an account.
There’s also the question of whether 5 gigabytes of storage is useful for someone with, say, a 128 GB iPad (they’ve sold those for over a year now). Many have argued on multiple occasions that given the ton of money Apple has lying around, they should just tie an equal amount of storage as is in any device to an iCloud account linked with it, meaning you get 128 GB in iCloud if you bought a 128 GB iPad Air. While I too was on this bandwagon initially, I don’t think this approach makes much sense anymore because of a number of reasons.
Firstly, any content purchased from the iTunes and App Stores doesn’t count against your storage space for backups, and secondly, app caches (more on them in the miscellaneous section) which generally take a considerable part of device storage, aren’t backed up at all. Not having to back up multi-gigabyte TV shows, movies, and Retina-quality games is a huge burden off of iCloud’s back. That said, I would appreciate slightly larger storage amounts allocated per device. 10-25 GB per device seems optimal to me, although if Apple were to increase base storage at all, I suspect they’d stay towards the former end of that spectrum.
And then there are the upgrade plans, coming in at $20 for 10 GB, $40 for 20 GB, and $100 for 50 GB per annum. By comparison, Google Drive offers 15 GB for free, and has upgrade plans of $1.99 per month (or $23.88 per annum) for 100 GB and $9.99 per month (or $119.88 per annum) for 1 terabyte. Even Microsoft’s OneDrive has better plans that iCloud, coming in at $25 for 50 GB, $50 for 100 GB, and $100 for 200 GB.
A more digestible comparison, however, given that these services don’t offer the exact same storage tiers, is of price per gigabyte per annum. While OneDrive’s $0.50 per GB per annum might seem massive against Google Drive’s $0.24, both of these are dwarfed by iCloud, which charges a monstrous $2 per GB per year. In even simpler words, iCloud costs 4 times as much as OneDrive, and a little over 8 times as much as Google Drive.
Apple being a company that makes most of its money by selling hardware which commands industry-defying margins, I don’t see why they have to command such high prices for their cloud storage, and even despite those prices offer a storage ceiling much lower than pretty much everyone else in the business. While I don’t see plans at the same prices as Google’s being feasible for them, I’d love to see them bring them down a notch, maybe to half of current prices, or they could offer double the current storage for the same price. Either way, these archaic and frankly absurd pricing levels have to change.
iCloud app data sharing
While Apple’s approach to apps as individual and confined silos with very limited means to transfer their data to other apps was well established on its operating system platforms, it took that to a new level with iCloud. While data stored in apps is siloed off from data stored in other apps (more on this in the section on Files.app), iCloud also doesn’t allow for sharing of data stored in iCloud with other users. This is a completely different model from the likes of say OneDrive, Box, Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive… or basically every cloud-based storage solution other than iCloud, all of which allow for sharing via a simple direct URL.
So not only is an app’s data confined to the different versions of that app only, it is confined to devices that are linked to that one iCloud account only too.
Up until a few months back, iCloud photo sharing and shared calendars were the only exception to this rule, and iWork document sharing only recently joined this list. Communication channels across iCloud simply do not exist for other apps or services.
While I can’t see Apple implementing something that allows users to share data using a public link, something more Apple-esque would be to allow for apps to share data to other copies of the same app on other devices which are linked to a different iCloud account. With iOS 8, I’d love to see Apple take sharing a bit further and expand this model to other apps of its own. A way to share and sync app data, be it a list in Reminders, a notes folder from Notes, or Safari bookmarks would make collaboration much easier. Making this a public API, allowing 3rd-party apps to hook into this system, seems like the best approach to me.
An implementation that is similar to the aforementioned iCloud photo sharing feature, which allows you to create shared streams and sync them with other people simply by entering their iCloud email addresses would be a great thing.
It’s amazing how many things we take for granted now seemed like massive revolutionary improvements no more than a couple years back. Photo Stream is one of those things.
Pretty much every cloud storage app implements it now given iOS 7’s addition of background refresh, but at the time, being able to wirelessly sync your photos from your phone to your tablet and computer, and automatically at that, was a pretty darn big deal. You could also create custom shared streams, to share certain selected photos with selected people. And it wouldn’t even count against iCloud storage!
Even if you leave aside the frustrations about how many photos are stored in Photo Stream or for how long2, it was and remains a practically useless or redundant utility for the iOS user that Apple had envisioned.
iOS 5 was unveiled in June 2011, and the last twelve months before it had seen Apple unveil the iPhone 4 and the iPad 2. The iPhone 4 truly stunned everyone with its Retina display and the brilliant iSight camera, and especially that glorious, timeless design, that many would argue has yet to be eclipsed by anyone – including Apple. The iPad 2, while not looking as good, was an even more important product at the time. Steve Jobs was a big proponent of the “post-PC” vision, and the iPad 2 was the first device that made that vision seem attainable. iOS 5 solidified that vision even more, adding iMessage, OTA software updating, and iTunes WiFi sync.
So, in a world where Apple themselves were creating devices that they believed would one day replace “traditional” mouse-and-keyboard computers, Photo Stream keeping photos just so long as to transfer them to their PC didn’t make much sense. Even if you consider that the general trend would possibly move to everyone in a family having their own iPhones and iPads but sharing a common PC, Photo Stream didn’t fit that use case too, as Photo Stream can sync with just one iCloud account at a time.
If you think about it that way, Photo Stream makes sense as a product only for those who have a traditional computer. This is obviously an archaic vision, and especially so as we move more and more towards a world where for the majority of new smartphones users, their first smartphone will indeed be their first and only computer.
I think Apple recognises this too, as Photo Stream is absent entirely from the iCloud page on apple.com, whereas iCloud Photo Sharing remains heavily featured.
So what sort of a product could Photo Stream pivot into? Proper photo backups is the first and most obvious things that comes to mind. First of all, the photo backup scene is in a really bad right now. Some services have bad apps, some are dead, some have bad uplink speeds, some may or may not be trustworthy, and so on and so forth. Heck, the state of photo backups is so bad that someone even made an entire podcast about them. Some might even call it a pre-iPhone stage or sorts, waiting for Apple to come and disrupt it. Secondly, giving someone control of your entire photo archive requires placing an immense amount of trust in them, and with people not being hesitant about giving their fingerprints to Touch ID on the iPhone 5s despite the entire NSA and Snowden hubbub of last year, Apple has shown once again that it is trusted by consumers. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, photo backups align nicely with Steve Jobs’ original vision of \, of it being the your digital hub.
The new Photos tab in the revamped Photos.app for iOS 7 is also built in a way that it could possibly scale to accommodate for navigation and browsing through multiple thousand images spread out over multiple years too. Given that quite a few of the millions of iPhone units Apple ships (a vast majority of them, according to ASP data) have 16 or less gigabytes of data, which is clearly not enough for storing years’ worth of data, I can’t help but think that it was built this way by design for when the proper backups service actually launched.
Thus, a photo backups service does indeed seem like the ultimate destiny of Photo Stream, and it would be nice to see Apple go ahead and implement the integrated, user-friendly, and sustainable backups service that everyone needs. While I personally expect something around $50 per year for this service (which is what the now defunct Everpix charged, which by and large seems to be the service that came closest to providing the optimal photo backup experience; it’s worth noting here that when is was shut down, Everpix’s technology was sold to an unnamed party, and at least thus far, no one else seems to have developed products which might have integrated it) I also can’t help but agree with this article by Matthew Panzarino, where he asks Apple to make photo storage free for everyone because it seems to fit perfectly with the position of the iPhone as a camera and the relation that they try to build with customers. Also seems like a good use for their mountains of cash.
Looking back at it now, its easy to attribute the success of the iPhone to some of the major additions that it included, such as a fluid and large multi-touch display, a proper high-quality browser, and so on and so forth. But at the time at least, the things that the iPhone excluded were just as striking as the ones it brought to the table. It famously didn’t have a physical keyboard – prompting this famous response from then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer – a storage expansion slot, Bluetooth sharing, an AM/ FM radio, a download manager in the browser, and many other such things. And while certain things (such as a 3G radio, which would only come along with the next generation of iPhone) were not present because of time constraints, the decision to leave out most of them was by choice. It was the ultimate embodiment of one of my favourite Steve Jobs quotes:
I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.
But while the common judgement on most of these seems to be that their exclusion didn’t and hasn’t affect the core product very much, the verdict on perhaps the biggest exclusion the iPhone and subsequently the iPad made still hangs in the balance – that of a user-facing filesystem. At the time at least, this was a massive, unprecedented thing. Leading up to the its launch, the rumour mills positioned the iPhone as a union between phone and computer, in that it would basically be a computer except miniaturized, and with a cellular radio. As such, the omission of something that was present in the “smart”phones of the time and has been part of computers since time immemorial was a bit of a surprise.
It did away with a complex, multi-layered hierarchy through which files were distributed, which were and to this day remain a hassle for your average computer user.
It did introduce a different layer of complexity, however. With the sandboxed data model that iOS introduced, each app was confined to its own pool of data, and the only ways to add new data were by a manual copy-paste action, or via the “Open In” system that iOS provides.
As I’ve mentioned in the section on inter-app communication, “Open In” is a rather inefficient and wasteful system. To reuse my own words from last year’s iOS 7 wishlist, should you use it on a file in app ‘A’ in app ‘B’ Open In copies not the address of the data, but rather the actual data over to app ‘B’ and stores it as a new file, meaning any modifications and changes made to the file in app ‘B’ do not get synced back across to app ‘A’, while also leaving the original copy of the file in ‘A’. This is a nightmare for someone creating a complex multi-file document that requires the use of multiple apps, as it leaves redundant and outdated copies of files in every app that lies in its wake. The sandbox model also applies to iCloud syncing, meaning that files present in app ‘A’, when synced using iCloud, will only be synced to copies of app ‘A’ on other devices or compatible apps on other platforms that are made by the same developer. So should you not have that compatible app on other devices you own (or worse, should a compatible app not even exist), all files will remain within that one app on that one device where they were made.
Rene Ritchie summed up my feelings towards document management on iOS really well in this sentence in his post on a potential Files.app for iOS.
In an attempt to avoid the complexity of a filesystem Apple has created the complexity of an app-system.
While many people have argued that this might indeed be a problem so large that it is causing a drop in iPad growth, and the return to a full-fledged filesystem is the only viable solution, I’m not sure that such a radical change makes sense when you consider the repurcussions. The benefits of no filesystem, in that the user doesn’t anymore have to be concerned with where exactly within the twenty folders the file they’re looking for is, are massive. If you’re reading this, chances are that assorted relatives have on many occasions (mostly family gatherings on occasion of religious festivals) asked you to “fix” their computer for them, and chances are that they look something like the above image, with files from here, there, and everywhere strewn all over the desktop.
We need to find a middle ground, something that doesn’t go so far as to recreate the filesystem, but something that at the same time improves the state of document creating and editing across multiple apps.
I think it’s important that I reiterate the importance of maintaining simplicity in this model at all costs. Simplicity and ease of use are of paramount importance. A way for apps to continue syncing with their “sister apps” on other devices still needs to exist, and anything else that is added should be designed so as to be fully functional for power users’ needs while staying away from the eyes of those who might be intimidated by it.
As I had suggested in my post last year, a Files.app of sorts, which would house all documents synced with iCloud, coupled with a way for any compatible app to gain access to files stored in it, might be the solution we’re looking for.
An app for files that would be analogous in function to Photos.app as it is and has been, and which would serve as the default location for files and sync its entire library with iCloud, allowing other apps to access data stored within it, would be mighty impressive.
Should Apple make a public API for this mythical Files.app, and allow apps to “borrow” files from and “return” files to it, I’m convinced that this could for once and for all hit the nail of file management and multi-app file editing on the head, both at once. Just like Photos, it could also have just one main repository for all documents (akin to the camera roll), separate folders grouping them by data type (akin to how panoramas and video are sorted into their own albums), and the ability to create single-layered folders to store related documents (akin to user-created albums). Documents shared over iCloud could also gain their own tab as well. Mavericks’ tagging functionality too could be carried over to this app and synced across iCloud to maintain a sense of coherence across operating systems.
Keeping with the Photos.app-but-for-files analogy, it would also potentially solve one of the biggest problems that many business users seem to have from the iPhone – attachments in emails. As of now, media from Photos.app is the only thing that can be attached to an email composed within Mail.app right in the compose view; attaching anything else requires manually going to the app where the file is and creating an email from within it. This is obviously an even bigger hassle if you want to email files from across multiples, which would require sending multiple emails. All of this could easily be fixed by a files system-level repository that would allow Mail.app to access it just as Photos.app does now.
All in all, as it stands document management is hell on iOS, and we desperately need a glass of ice water. This vision of a Files.app seems like the best compromise between the current model of multiple silos and the antiquated filesystem.
Upon its introduction in iOS 5, Notification Center was met with a massive collective sigh of relief. There finally was a place now you could access and open all notifications from every app on your device, putting to rest for once and for all the fears of missing out on something important, while also giving you a way to check the weather and stocks without having to switch to their respective apps. iOS 6 added ‘Do Not Disturb’ (DND henceforth), a way to disable notification alerts temporarily, either by manually toggling it on, or by scheduling it for specific times of the day. It also added widgets for Twitter and Facebook, which allowed for share sheets to the two networks to be accessed from anywhere across the OS, by just opening Notification Center.
iOS 7 brought another bevy of changes along, splitting the Notification Center into three panels: Today, All, and Missed. ‘Today’, the most interesting of the lot, integrated data from a variety of sources, presenting a summary of weather conditions, upcoming calendar events for the rest of the day, reminders, a summary for the following day, and stocks. iOS 7 also added Control Center, which placed a toggle for Do Not Disturb front-and-center in the UI, and made it accessible from anywhere across the system.
So while notifications have been iterated on continuously ever since their initial introduction, there still remain some flaws and problems which make them an awkward and sub-optimal experience. So here’s a list of some improvements that I’d love to see in how iOS implements notifications.
Notifications as they have been implemented on iOS thus far have been very simple – too simple even, some would say. You see a banner or a pop up, you click on it, and you’re taken to the notifying app to deal with it. And while iOS 7’s background refresh has killed the extra time wasted in waiting for the app to make a request to download the data that the notification was for, this remains especially painful on iOS given its one-app-at-a-time model, which means that acting on a notification still pulls you out of your current activity and requires two presses of the home button to enter the task switcher, and a tap to return to the original app.
Reducing these small amounts of friction from various parts of the system can go a long way because of their recurring nature which adds up quickly, making seemingly trivial tasks consume a non-trivial amount of time and mental baggage. Apple has been taking efforts in this direction recently too, as shown by the additions of Control Center and the Today view in Notification Center in iOS 7. Most notable, however, was the addition of quick reply to messages right from the notification bubble in Mavericks. Such a feature was expected by many in iOS itself, especially after it was shown to be a part of Mavericks earlier on in the same keynote. Sadly, however, it did not carry over to iOS.
Keeping with their tradition of introducing a feature on one platform before making it available across the others, I expect Apple will add actionable notifications at least to its own apps in iOS 8.
An “action button” of sorts, which would pull up a share sheet allowing to quickly act upon a notification with a pre-defined action, such as ‘Reply’ for a message or tweet seems like a simple yet efficient arrangement for something of this sort. More detailed actions, such as ‘Send to archive’ and ‘Mark as read’ for an email, ‘Retweet’ and ‘Favourite’ for a tweet, and so on, could be absent from not to the banner and visible in Notification Center only.
One of the fears I had about such a feature earlier was that it might lead to confusion about what part of the interface a user is in, making it difficult to differentiate between whether one is in a modal and temporary “quick reply” view or the app itself. Thankfully, iOS 7’s use of Gaussian blurs fixes that up too. Differentiation of an app’s quick reply view from the app itself can now be achieved by making the background of the actionable dialog appear as a semi-transparent blurred layer, akin to Control Center and Notification Center in iOS 7, so some context of where the user is in the system is always available.
Something like this across the system for a number of apps would save a tangible amount of time while also reducing the time and effort required to get back to the original app. At the same time, I’m not that confident that even if such a feature is added to iOS 8, that there will be a 3rd-party API available for the same. Having it plug into interchangeable default apps would be the ideal scenario, but I wouldn’t get my hopes too high for that too.
Better ‘Today’ Tab
While the Today view in notification center was a welcome addition, giving quick access to a summary of data collated from a bunch of sources, it was but the first step in a path to replicating the proactive information delivery system that Google has with Now.
I’d like to see Apple take advantage of more data from various sources and assimilate it into one unified interface. Things such as Google Now’s flights and transit integration are the obvious big ones. And as Windows Phone 8.1’s Cortana has shown, Apple doesn’t even have to take this stuff up into the cloud and instead just parse the data accessible on the device itself.
Their purchase of the smart assistant Cue last year shows that they are indeed moving towards this sort of direction, and I’m really hoping to see some of the fruits of the purchase as soon as this year.
Kill the ‘Missed’ tab
The Missed tab in Notification Center has had a rollercoaster of a journey in terms of my opinion of its usefulness. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it when it was first shown off at WWDC. It seemed like a useless tab that would just replicate some of the notifications from the All tab. Then, when the iPhone 5s and Touch ID with it were revealed, it started making a little bit of sense. The way Touch ID worked meant that you would often bypass the lockscreen entirely, and thus having something that essentially replicated the notification view from there made a bit of sense.
It all fell apart, however, when I got my 5s a couple months back. Even though Touch ID wasn’t fast enough at first, its speed has improved massively since the iOS 7.1.1 update, and it is practically instantaneous now. Coupled with the fact that I do not like being disturbed and drawn to my phone for any non-urgent reason (basically calls and messages, because only my parents, sister, and grandparents communicate using those two channels) because I know it will lead me down a rabbit hole ending in me checking my Twitter feed, RSS, and so on, and thus I have Do Not Disturb turned on almost perennially, the stage was set for the Missed tab for shine especially for me, or so I thought.
In practice, however, I rarely opened it, if at all. The All tab still had the exact same notifications in most cases (if not more), and if I was going to make an extra swipe in Notification Center before shutting it, it would be towards the Today view. And I’m not the only one who feels that its a redundant and/or useless thing, practically surmounting to cruft.
One of 9to5Mac’s very first reports on iOS 8 suggests that the tab might be removed in iOS 8, and I for one would be glad if that happened.
There aren’t many things in all of iOS that I despise as much as the current notification settings interface. Its an absolute and outright mess that makes organizing and managing what app gets permission to display which types of notifications unnecessarily complicated. Dragging and dropping apps out of the “Include” section only turns off access to notification center. Each app contains five different alert settings – alert style, badge, sounds, show in notification center, and show on lockscreen – all of which have to be disabled individually on a per app basis to entirely prevent apps from having any sort of notification access. This is, frankly speaking, a ridiculous task.
Out of the 70 apps that I have on my phone as of this writing, 42 can provide notifications. Turning notifications off for even just ten – or a quarter – of those requires me to toggle 50 different settings and many taps and swipes to get around the settings page. Like I said, a ridiculous task. Something simpler, maybe something such as dragging and dropping disabling all notifications makes much more sense when it comes to access.
The problems don’t stop just there, however. Another issue is sorting. As of now, there are two options to choose from: by time, and manually. Manual sort can, depending on how many apps you have on your phone, be easy to manage or a hassle. If, like me, you have a ton of apps (read: 42) that are providing notifications, this becomes practically impossible to manage unless you’ve been prioritising them as per your needs since you got the first of those. While by time is a nice option, it doesn’t always make sense in the way that more urgent alerts may be lost between trivial ones.
I’d like to see Apple take an approach to this akin to the way background refresh works on iOS 7. Unlike in Android where you have full blown background tasks for all apps at all times, in iOS 7 the system learns over time when and how your use certain apps and fetches data accordingly. Meaning if you open Unread at about 7 every morning like I do, iOS 7 will power up the WiFi/ cellular radios and download fresh content to Unread around that time after it figures out that there is a pattern in your behaviour of using that app. I’d like to see a system close to that, that tracks my app usage and other metrics such as how much time I take to respond to a push notification from ap app after receiving it to, over time, determine the priority that a notification from that app carries. This is, of course, an especially tricky thing to implement and get right, and there are some quirks, but this seems like an implementation that could theoretically be made to work right.
Better Do Not Disturb scheduling
While the ability to toggle Do Not Disturb on and off with a flick from anywhere in the system by means of Control Center probably reduces the need for scheduling for many, I still think that there need to be better ways to do so. Your phone knows enough about you, where you are, and when you’re there to automate this stuff for you, with little or no input required.
One of my biggest issues with Do Not Disturb lies with the scheduling settings. It only allows to set a start and an end time, meaning should you enable it for 11 pm to 7 am, you will not receive notifications between those hours on all days. I haven’t been able to find any good hard data, but it seems fairly obvious from anecdotal evidence that for most people weekends have a completely different schedule compared to weekdays. Having granular settings for DND times for each day would be a welcome change. The ability to schedule multiple DND time limits (one for sleep and one for work/ college, say) would be a boon for many too. I suppose a sleep-tracking iWatch would reduce the need for this even further, but until then, multiple granular schedules for DND are high on my list of things I want in iOS.
DND Integration with Calendar.app
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There needs to be a way to schedule DND for upcoming calendar events right when you’re making them. As I’d said in last year’s post, I was pretty surprised when such a funtionality wasn’t included in iOS 6 back when DND was first introduced. It just seems obvious to be able to tell your phone to not disturb you have an exam or are to visit your grandmother, especially when it already knows that you’re going to be doing that.
When the feature was introduced in 2011 along with the iPhone 4S, Siri was met with a wave of excitement. I personally associated it with the then two-film old Iron Man series’ J.A.R.V.I.S. for some reason, and still do to this day3. Coming from the company that had dramatically rethought how interfaces worked for entire product categories multiple times before, Siri seemed to be the first sparks of the next big interface paradigm – voice and natural language.
Much like with the switch from the command line to the GUI a few decades back, Siri eschewed away things that “power users” held close and only did the most basic and essential of tasks. At least to begin with, most of Siri’s functionality was rooted in being an alternative interface for built-in apps, and there wasn’t much that Siri was capable of doing that you couldn’t achieve via a couple of taps on your screen4.
While iOS 6 did highly extend its capabilities and finally brought Siri over to the iPad too, most of the additions (such as Yelp, Fandango, OpenTable, and Maps integration) were available only in a few countries. iOS 7 changed Siri’s voices so it sounded more cohesive and realistic, but didn’t add much in terms of functionality at all. With Google Now and Cortana too heating up the playing field now, it’s high time Apple ups its game with Siri to bring a product more attuned with current needs.
Better accent recognition and live transcribing
These are some basic, really run-of-the-mill things that I’d expected Apple to get right by now. While I am pretty fluent in English and started learning it at practically the same time as the other two, it still remains a third language for me behind Gujarati and Hindi. Naturally then, my English is layered with an Indian accent, and with Siri, that’s a usability problem. While Siri can pick up simple, everyday words quite easily, things get a bit more complicated when larger words, or especially names get involved. Apple’s purchase of Novauris and it’s much hyped Boston office which is said to be working on improving voice recognition give me some hope in this area.
Another problem with how Siri works is that the transcribing happens post hoc, meaning that you can see its interpretation of what you’ve said only after you’ve completed the entire command. Google’s voice search and Microsoft’s Cortana, on the other hand, are capable of displaying a live view of whatever you’ve said almost instantly after you’ve done so. While the actual time that Siri takes to output data might possibly be close to that the others take, going through that uncanny moment’s wait (wherein you’re not even sure if anything you say is getting transcribed at all, given the reliability problems that seem to pop up every now and then) every time you use Siri is not a good experience. It’s an even worse experience in dictation mode, wherein what you’re saying is not just a 5-6 word command but often multiple sentences, if not entire paragraphs. At least for my needs, I’d be happy if a live transcription of whatever I’ve said showing up in Siri was the only addition they made to it in iOS 8.
While Siri and voice-based interfaces in general have not evolved, become practically viable, or socially acceptable enough to become our default interaction model, there’s one massive thing that they brought about which can be just as useful, if not more: Natural language processing.
That I can just tell my phone to wake me up at 5 tomorrow, or to text my mother that I’m going to be an hour late is a massive shift from previous interaction methods. There’s no need to leave the task that I’m doing, look for the appropriate app, open it, fiddle around a bit trying to look for the new item button and possibly get distracted by something along the way. For a calendar event or a reminder in particular, there’s no need to first input the event name, then toggle on to a date-picker, the entire class of which, for all intents and purposes, lies somewhere between Sauron and Joffrey in terms of degree of evilness.
All I need to do is just press and hold on to the home button for a second, tell my phone the appropriate command, and boom, it’s done.
The problem is, however, that voice isn’t the most efficient or appropriate means of interaction as of now. Even if you set aside issues with how fast one can type vs. speak, there still remains a non-trivial amount of social awkwardness attached to talking to your phone in a public place. (The changes that would come with the gradual disappearance of that awkwardness might just be worse still, however: As if one person in a crowded train or bus ~~speaking to~~ yelling at their phone isn’t bad enough already, the chaos and confusion that would arise from everyone on the train yelling at their phones – and others’ too in the process – might just one up that).
For situations like these that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, a way to have a good old text-based interface for Siri seems obvious, really. A unified hub wherein you literally just type out whatever you want your phone to do and it happens seems like a great concept if executed well. As Rene Ritchie suggests, such a feature could very well be nestled within Spotlight, although some way to have it accessible from within anywhere in the system would be more ideal.
We already have ‘Siri Eyes Free‘, and it’s about time that we have a ‘Siri Voice Free’ too.
A Siri API
This is something that developers have been clamouring for ever since the day Siri was first revealed. The App Store is home to literally over a million applications, and all Siri can do with most of them is open them.
One of the main obstacles with a public API for Siri, as Guy English noted in this post way back in 2011, was the way that Siri handled app integrations. URL schemes for each app that didn’t ship with iOS had to be hardcoded into Springboard to allow for integration with Siri. This would be an impossible task to carry out for other apps given the aforementioned size of the App Store.
Just a few days back, however, Apple enabled Siri integration in Podcasts for iOS with a simple software update to the app. While it certainly is possible that Apple might have added URL schemes for Podcasts with the last update to iOS (7.1.1, which was released on the 22nd of April), the timing of this move suggests that Apple might have enabled Siri integration in Podcasts by only making the requisite changes to the app.
That, if true, is a huge deal, and suggests the existence of an official Siri API. Combined with the fact that Mark Gurman, possibly the biggest authority on Apple rumours, called this move “a sign of things to come”, this has me excited about the prospects of a Siri API actually shipping this year with iOS 8.
Even if we do see a public API for Siri, I’m still undecided about the nature of such a thing. Something that allowed every app on your device access to Siri overnight doesn’t seem like a very Apple-esque way to go about it. Keyword conflicts would also arise, as WhatsApp, iMessage, and Facebook Messenger could all serve as delivery routes for a command of the style “Send a message to X about Y”. Lastly, there also is the question of deals that Apple has made with certain companies such as OpenTable, Yelp, and soon Shazam for Siri integration, all of which would become redundant and lapse if any other app could hook into Siri.
I had discussed one way of doing so in the Inter-app communication section above. What Apple could do is just allow users to pick different default apps for things such as messages, email, notes, and so on, and allow Siri to hook into only the one default app for each function. So if you have Omnifocus and Listacular installed too, but Clear is marked as your default app, Siri would store reminders in Clear only. I’m still a bit confused as to how Apple could implement integration for services and apps that do not have equivalent built-in apps, but I’d expect a strict compliance policy and review process to be at work should that ever come to be too.
The rumour mills were abuzz with talk of a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5s as far back as January of last year.
At least at that time, there were many who were skeptical about the very existence of such a thing. We’d all seen and been scarred by the absolutely terrible fingerprint sensors on laptops5 and other devices. We knew that they were clunky, slow, and inaccurate too, and that the effect of all of these would be magnified tenfold on a device that you generally use in short bursts instead of continuous extended period, and thus need to unlock multiple times a day with as little friction as possible.
But Apple did indeed add a fingerprint sensor, and boy is it a great one.
I’ve had my iPhone 5s for a little just about three months now, and I love Touch ID. While admittedly it wasn’t as quick as having no password and just swiping to unlock in the early days (but still remained faster and infinitely more secure than a 4 digit passcode), and it still gets a bit iffy when moisture gets involved, Touch ID has become near instant with the iOS 7.1.1 update and absolutely flies now, with little or next to no noticeable delay. It hasn’t failed on me in quite some time as of this writing, and having it standardised across iPads and Macs is something that I’m genuinely looking forward to now.
The best way to describe my feelings towards Touch ID would be by quoting Apple’s own words:
Unrealised until now.
Indispensable from now on.
However, I feel Apple is being rather conservative about how it is using it, and so here are a couple of things that I believe could be used to make use of Touch ID to its fullest potential.
A Touch ID API
This is the big and obvious improvement right here. A Touch ID API has been talked about even before Touch ID was officially unveiled along with the iPhone 5s. A way to allow 3rd-party developers to integrate Touch ID into their own apps and replace manual passcode/ password input with a touch of the home button would indeed be a godsend.
The problems of “old school” passwords such as friction in input, susceptibility to being spied upon, and the mental baggage of having to remember multiple passwords (or the security loss that comes with preferring to go with just one password for all apps) all still exist for individual apps. Removing these across the system would ease all of those and also seems like the logical conclusion to the purpose of a system like Touch ID.
It’s worth noting here that whichever implementation Apple goes for here will have a fresh set of problems of it own too, since a conventional password will still probably be required as a fallback method. You’ll either set one single password to guard your phone and each individual app too, or you’ll have separate passwords for each app that you must remember. Either way, a lowering of security or increased mental baggage would mean that this isn’t a perfect solution, but it seems about as close as we can practically come to at this point in time given the technology at hand. A complex alphanumeric password for the phone and simple numeric codes set on a per app basis seems like a balanced solution in my opinion.
Because of a boatload of leaks in the build up to its reveal at WWDC last year, this one in particular, coming from 9to5Mac on the eve of the keynote, that iOS 7 was going bring with it a visual refresh wasn’t news to many. The scale and scope of the redesign was a surprise to many, though. While a significant redesign wasn’t an entirely foreign concept, I believe I speak for quite a few when I say that something that completely rethought the interface was unexpected. After all, Jony Ive had taken over all responsibilities of interface design at Apple no more than 7 months ago.
With iOS 7, Apple completely rebuilt iOS’ interface from scratch, throwing away the legacy elements of iOS 6 and earlier, whose origins could be traced all the way back to the ‘Aqua’ interface introduced over a decade back with OS X. Naturally then, being a product that was in gestation for all of 7 months before the reveal in June at WWDC, and 11 months before the final build in September, iOS 7’s interface wasn’t the polished and near-perfect (albeit outdated) product that iOS 6’s interface was. Jokes about Jony Ive’s apparent florescent fetish plagued the internet for weeks, and some people even went so far ahead as to call the new interface an ‘estrogen-addled mess designed for 13 year old girls’ (curiously, the hyperlink to the original article now redirects to a review of iOS 7 by the same person, entitled ‘A major triumph for Apple’).
A**holes and their bickering aside, it is well known that alignment issues have plagued iOS right from the get go. Some choices such as the use of paper textures in Notes and Reminders have also been brought to question, along with practically every other iPad interface decision (more on that in the iPad section).
While the magnitude and significance of this major change in direction makes me want to cut Apple some slack, I expect iOS 8 to add a heavy layer of polish and refinement to the interface. Seeing as the interface is going to hit OS X, larger iPhones, and potentially a watch too in what remains of this year, I’d expect Apple to go out all guns blazing in a bid to perfect the look of the OS and bring it up to the standards of iOS 6 and before.
The starkly different visual style of iOS 7 did away with a multitude of legacy visual styles and devices such as textures (remember the linen, those damned pinstripes, and that green felt?!), the extensive use of bevelling and drop shadows in objects, and so on and so forth, all of which have been generally lumped under the concept of ‘skeuomorphism’, meaning the digital “objects” resembling the real-life objects whose functions they would be emulating. In turn it brought about a stack of its own new principles. Depth, parallax, Gaussian blurs, deference to the content, borderless buttons and lack of ornamentation are the new style buzzwords that have generally been associated with the new visual language of iOS (and soon of OS X).
One thing that does generally escape from these is use of colour, or rather the lack of it. While the very bright (at least against iOS 6) new colour palette of iOS 7’s icons has attracted a fair amount of critique and has been toned down gradually in response, colours other than white seem to be significantly underrepresented within the actual apps.
As these two fantastic collages put together by Matt Gemmell demonstrate, iOS 7 is tangibly brighter and lighter in colour than iOS 6.
This sort of white-dominated colour palette becomes a really big usability concern in the night, or even under dim lightning. Concentrated spots of bright light between darkness aren’t good for vision in the long term, and reducing the brightness is not an optimal solution for the same. This gif almost perfectly fits my reaction when I unlock my phone at night.
3rd-party app developers have shown that they are aware of these issues too, and more and more apps are including dark/ night modes now. Looking at my own homescreen right now, 9 out of 18 apps offer some sort of theming options.
Sadly, however, that still leaves 9 third-party (and 6 of Apple’s own apps) on just my homescreen that do not offer any means to change the app’s visual settings based on my needs. Even the ones that do offer dark themes of their own still require that said dark themes be activated individually on a per app basis, meaning your eyeballs are still searing while you figure out which gesture or control activates said theme in that particular app. Lastly, without any movement on Apple’s part, I doubt many of the more popular apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, and so on, will be prompted to add a dark theme of their own.
An official API from Apple that could enable dark themes across all apps including its own with one single tap would be an ideal solution to this problem. Rather than having its activation times based on something like local sunrise and sunset timings, which at least in my experience tend to not align properly with the timings during which the dark mode is actually needed, I’d love to see dark mode being activated as per the readings from the ambient light sensor, which has thus far only been used to adjust brightness levels. A way to toggle it on manually too, possibly from within Control Center would make a good deal of sense too.
While the iPad is by far the fastest growing Apple product in history, with its total unit sales as of now standing at about 7.5 times that of the iPod, and a smidgen under twice that of the iPhone at the same time in their respective life cycles, and was regarded by many as being the culmination of Steve Jobs’ grand vision of what personal computers and the experience of computing should be like, it’s no secret that it has always been treated as a second string device against the money maker that is the iPhone.
Keeping aside the trend of major hardware features such as the Retina display, Touch ID and the True Tone flash being introduced on the iPhone, and the vast difference between the iPad’s and iPhone’s cameras despite Apple repeatedly promoting the former’s use as a camera in its ongoing ‘What will your verse be?’ campaign, the iPad’s software has also never received the attention that it deserves.
Many an analyst and (diagonal) competitor were quick to write the iPad off after its initial reveal as “just a big iPod touch”, and while time has proven them wrong, the argument that iOS on the iPad is treated just as a stretched out and slightly tweaked version of iOS on the iPhone and iPod touch is still a valid one, and even more so in light of iOS 7.
While the UI indeed was completely reimagined and restructured for the iPhone, the iPad did not receive any such treatment.Music.app in iOS 7 is a striking example of this, as it fails to take any meaningful use of the extra real estate that comes with the iPad. Areas such as Control Center, Notification Center, Siri, and most notably the multitasking app switcher were just copied over from the iPhone. That it received literally a few seconds of screen time in the keynote shows its position in the pecking order.
While the recent flattening of iPad sales may or may not have anything to do with such an approach to its software, it certainly suggests that if tablets and the iPad are to be the default computing platform of the future, Apple ought not to rest on the laurels of having created the only flourishing tablet platform and rethink its take on multiple design decisions for the iPad. For the iPad to make sense in a world where 5.5″ iPhones exist, it’s software needs to evolve in order to allow for a different experience and enable different use cases.
As I mentioned above, I find some of the choices made in creating interface elements on the iPad to be truly confusing. Consider the aforementioned Music.app, for example, which in iOS 7 adopted a structure close to the iPhone app, leaving loads and loads of unused, wasted space.
Notification Center and Siri also waste a majority of screen space, now taking up the entire screen whenever they are summoned, as compared to the popover-esque interface they all had in iOS 6. With Notification Center, this presents a minor usability problem too, as Notification Center must fully be opened to even get a glance at one notification because it sits at the top of the view. Control Center is also presented as an edge-to-edge bar at the bottom of the screen, and the various toggles and controls are thus spread out all over the width of the device, thus requiring quite a lot of hand movement to toggle a bunch of them. Ideally, you’d want all the toggles to be present within an area covered by one sweep of the thumb. Similar problems with the spatial arrangement of interface elements exist in various areas around the system.
Multitasking especially seems like a massive failure to me. That a 9.7″ screen displays the same number of apps in the switcher view as a 3.5″ one makes absolutely no sense to me. It looks and works in a downright primitive manner when compared to Windows 8’s multitasking interface. While they are in the process of adding split screen multitasking to the iPad (more on that later in the section), I’d like to see Apple go Jeremy Clarkson on the multitasking interface, and blow it to bits with a hammer to rebuild it from scratch.
I’d also like to see the aforementioned problems faced by the Notification and Control Centers solved by merging them both into one view that slides on over from the edges, akin to how Notification Center works on OS X, but with Control Center’s toggles added to the bottom half. This could be summoned from both edges, thus increasing one-handed usability manifold too.
In the debate that erupted after Apple’s most recent earnings call, wherein the iPad saw a tangible quarter-over-quarter drop in unit sales, quite a few people made this argument in its defence: That the iPad is generally considered to be a family device rather than a personal one, and as such is often used by multiple people for their own specific use cases, and thus one in often shared by an entire family. In many cases, the iPad has replaced the desktop as the “family computer” that anyone and everyone can pick up and use.
I’ve borne witness to this myself too: My family’s iPad mini was a game console (because of Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja) for my mother, a social networking (Facebook) client for my sister, and a reading (via Twitter, Flipboard, and Instapaper) and writing (Daedalus Touch and 1Writer) device for me.
And data backs this up too, as this report by Global Web Index indicates:
Finally, it’s also clear that device sharing is widespread: fewer than 50% of tablet users are the sole owner of their device, with 21% saying that one other person has use of it and 31% reporting that two or more others have access.
And this becomes problematic as multiple people seek to use the same app for multiple use cases. The Facebook app, for example, only allows for one person to be signed in at a time, which is a problem when you’ve got 4 people wanting to use. The iTunes Radio channel for Frozen that my sister listens to also gets synced back to my iPhone, because I have signed into home sharing with my ID. Many other such issues exist, with no solution as of now.
Naturally then, it only makes sense to allow users to create and personalise environments for themselves to fit their use cases. People have been clamouring for the ability to create multiple accounts on the iPad ever since the iPad existed, and I think it’s about time that Apple implements the feature.
An “admin” account of sorts would be able to set up new accounts, each of which would be able to sign into a separate iCloud account of its own (with third-party apps also being given the ability to manage login tokens on a per user basis), meaning the same app would display different information depending on the user that was accessing it. Users would also be able to customise the arrangement of apps on their homescreen, set default apps, and hide unwanted apps for their accounts.
As with Apple’s conventional approach to such things, the inclusion of Touch ID in this year’s iPads would also make this a streamlined process, with the iPad recognising the user based on their fingerprint.
While it would greatly increase usability of iPads shared within groups of people, it’s worth noting that such a move would also add complexity to it. Hassles regarding storage management across users and how to sign the appropriate user into an account seamlessly (on devices without Touch ID, that is) would definitely arise from this. Nevertheless, I still have high hopes in that Apple, of all companies, can think up solutions to such quandaries.
Mark Gurman reported this past week that with iOS 8, Apple is finally going to add a split-screen multitasking mode to iPad, along the lines of the Snap Mode seen in Windows 8 and later. According to the same report, it will work only in landscape orientation, possibly only on the full-sized iPads, and also bring with it the ability to drag and drop data from one app to the other.
This sort of view does come with its own set of problems, however. How developers would have to redesign to accommodate for a third aspect ratio (3:2, provided it works only in landscape mode and keeps to a strict 1:1 space for apps; this ratio would be third that developers would have to design for in addition to the existing 4:3 landscape and 3:4 portrait aspect ratios) colour of the status bar, conveying to the user which app the open keyboard is typing in, how edge swipes would work are just a few of them, as Roopesh Chander notes in this post.
All these, however, pale in comparison to the major one of curbing any rise of complexity within the iPad’s interface.
Apple has generally developed iOS in a rather conservative manner, prioritising the average needs and use cases over those of power users. For all four years of its existence thus far, the iPad has run only one app at a time, and for good reason: Multiple apps that can be layered, stacked, partially covered, and so on by other apps aren’t easy concepts to grasp for the average user.
Thus, while such a change would cause a massive departure in how iOS works at the fundamental level, I expect it too to be designed while keeping in mind the needs of the average user, so as to preserve the all-important simplicity and straightforwardness of the system.
Like Siri, Notification Center, Control Center, and even the current multitasking view, I’d expect this view to be placed in the interface in such a way that it is easily accessible for those who want and need it, while at the same time remaining invisible to the average user who doesn’t care for it can continue using the iPad as they always have, blissfully unaware of its very existence. The most logical place for such a feature, therefore, would be within the existing switcher view.
I’d also expect the default behaviour of the home button, wherein pressing it once from anywhere within the system wretched you out of that place and throws you right into the familiarity of the homescreen.
Except for the part where apps can resize to custom aspect ratios, this concept by Sam Beckett is pretty much exactly how I’d expect split-screen multitasking to work on iPad.
In his report detailing the existence of such a feature, Mark Gurman noted that it would be designed with the 9.7″ iPads in mind, and said that it was unclear as to whether it would run on the iPad mini too. It would certainly be an interesting move if it worked out this way, because as of now the only differences between the full-sized iPad and iPad mini are on a hardware level, in the form of screen size, (and thus pixel density) and colour gamut. Siri not working on the iPhone 4 seems like precedence for this, but this is much larger in magnitude in that it would become a differentiator not just for one product (the iPhone 4S, in Siri’s case), but rather an entire product line. It would concretise the positions of the iPad Air and mini as devices best suited for content creation vs. consumption respectively, and also anger quite a few iPad mini users (I can think of one right now). I’m personally not settled as to whether the iPad mini is too small a device for such a feature, and would be happier to see it come both devices.
All in all, provided Apple could solve some of the aforementioned problems with this mode and retain the simplicity and ease of use of iOS, this sounds like it could be a promising thing, and I have high hopes that it finally comes to pass as an actual shipping feature in iOS 8.
Over a million apps. 800 million (paid) accounts. Over 70 billion downloads. $13 billion paid to developers. About twice as much revenue as the nearest competitor despite having just a fraction of the market size.
In light of all these truly stunning numbers numbers, and the fact that it practically single-handedly kickstarted the consumer software renaissance that we now find ourselves in, the App Store seems like a mighty impressive being. But if you take a look at its finer details through a microscope, as those who intent to making a living off of it ought and tend to do, a multitude cracks across the system start showing.
Problems with the ratings system, discovery, trials, top charts, search, and more have been brought up and discussed by the community at no end for years and years, with the biggest changes Apple seems to have implemented over the last two years being the addition of a (practically useless) ‘Near Me’ tab and search being made much worse with a cards interface.
As Marco Arment noted on a recent episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, the slow rate of changes made to the App Store suggests that Apple might just be relying on the aforementioned monstrously impressive statistics and metrics to gauge its condition, an approach that could prove devastating in the long run.
One of the problems I personally am most irritated by with respect to the App Store is and has always been discovery, in that it always takes way too much effort and time to find the tool I’m looking for right within the App Store, and more often than not Google seems to be a clearly better and more streamlined way to do so. Things have gotten so bad that I rarely visit the App Store at all, and when I do it’s either to search for some specific app or to install an update. I’ve outsourced much of my discovery needs to sources like Beautiful Pixels, MacStories, and Twitter. The Beats acquisition and the change of focus to human-based curation instead of algorithms for music curation is an interesting development, and I’d love to see it manifested in the App Store in the form of user-created lists, not too different from App Store collections. Allowing individual users to create lists and collections of the apps they love, and letting their Twitter and Facebook friends find those lists would add the weight of trust and taste to a recommendation.
Search is another thing I’d like to see fixed as soon as possible. First of all, the cards interface needs to go ,and we need to revert back to a list-based interface. Cards add way too much friction in the process of searching for something when your query is something general like “To do lists” and not “Clear” or “Omnifocus”. Keyword spamming is yet another concern with search, as apps often having nothing to do with what’s being search for rise to the top of the results, pushing down more deserving apps that actually meet the search criteria. To use the classic example of a search for Twitter, while Twitter for iOS is indeed the first result, the next ones make next to no sense at all. The results are largely dominated by photo editing apps, and this causes the deserving apps to be pushed down. Tweetbot 3, a Twitter client which currently sits at #3 on the paid ‘Social Networking’ charts and topped the paid apps charts within its first week on sale, is 56th on that list as of now.
There’s much else to improve in the App Store to make life easy for developers and users, and rather than reiterate the problems, arguments, and solutions that have been made over the past 12 months, I’d like to divert you instead to some of the best suggestions and wishes made by developers whose livings depend on the App Store.
David Smith: Towards a Better App Store
CloudMagic: To Apple: An iOS Developer’s Wishlist
Rene Ritchie: App Store ratings are broken, let’s get rid of them
In general, I’ve always found Apple’s own apps to not meet my needs. The problems are often trivial, such as Reminders.app having too much friction for my uses, Email.app not having any 3rd-party integration, any attempt at using Notes physically hurting my very being, and so on and so forth. Thankfully then, there are multiple alternatives on the App Store for each of them that fit my needs much better, and in most cases I prefer to use those over Apple’s apps wherever I can (some apps like Settings, Phone, and the App Store cannot be replaced at all, while replacing a few others like Safari, Photos, and Camera is really hard to do within the limits of iOS).
For many, many other people, however, because of the simple reason that they are built into the system, Apple’s apps are the ones they use. This is true for both my parents, and while I cringe every time I see them do this, they have no problem with using any of Apple’s apps. Other than a bunch of games (Candy Crush in particular), WhatsApp, and Facebook, pretty much every app they use is designed by Apple. When I got my iPhone 5s a while back, as an experiment, I decided to do the same and use Apple’s apps instead of their respective 3rd-party options for a whole weekend.
I tried hard to tone down my expectations a bit and not demand impossible things out of them, and while that brief experience with them showed me that they aren’t really as bad as I had made them up to be in my head, they weren’t the best apps for even the simple use cases my parents had. So here are a bunch of improvements that I think could be made to the default apps and other apps that Apple ships to improve their usability.
First and foremost, I’d like to see natural language processing added to the ‘Add event’ dialog. As of now, it has a total of 4 text fields, 1 toggle, 2 (objectively evil) date-pickers , and 4 fields that expand into other dialog boxes. That results in a lot of taps, and thus a lot of friction. I can’t help but think that a single natural language field, akin to what Fantastical first implemented would be a better solution for the average person. Simply enter (to use one of Fantastical’s own examples) “Lunch with Elon in Palo Alto on Monday from 12-1:30pm”, and your phone figures out what you meant by that and stores the appropriate event. Apple have already been doing this with Siri, and having the same sentence-based method for event entry would be fabulous.
The next suggestion comes from my mother, actually. As of now, Calendar adds a single dot below a day in the month view to indicate an event on that date. However, it is a single gray dot for all events irrespective of the calendar they belong to, and it would be nice to instead have dots in colours corresponding to the colour of the calendar the event is part of.
As of now, the ability to create folders in Notes is absent from iOS (and iCloud.com too, although I’m pretty sure that earlier versions of it could do that), but it does sync back folders made in OS X. I can think of no logical reason as to why it hasn’t been added to iOS yet. They could have it appear only upon long pressing the ‘New’ button, if clutter in the interface is a problem.
Also, didn’t the Notes team (along with the Reminders team) get the memo that textures were out with iOS 7? While (thankfully) the yellow legal pad look and Noteworthy of old are gone, Notes now has a texture akin to that of paper. It looks weird and out-of-place in the system, and looks downright old when compared to something like Weather. And not just that, unlike most other apps which have a healthy infusion of colour and physics, Notes looks and works like a reskinned iOS 6 app. I have my fingers crossed that it gets some serious attention this time round and a better design.
The complaints I have with this one borrow from those I have with Calendar and Notes both, in that I’d like to see NLP added to the new event field, and also a slightly more different look. Other than these two, I’d like to see a more obvious way to add tasks, such as a ‘+’ button maybe. Both my parents just couldn’t figure out how to add tasks at their first tries, and while it took me just one second to explain to them how to do so, that it wasn’t obvious enough to be apparent to them, and for no good reason at that, seems like a problem to be taken care of.
Ever since the iOS 7 update to the app, iBooks displays the name of the book you are reading at the top of each and every page of it. Not only is this an outright stupid practice (I hardly think anyone will forget the name of the book they’re reading while they are doing so), but it goes completely against one of the core principals of iOS 7’s new aesthetic – removing chrome wherever possibly. That has to change. I’d also like to see a better assortment of font choices in the app, and especially sans serif fonts, only one of which (Seravek) is supported by the app as of now.
As I said above, most Apple apps do not meet my needs, and in general I more often than not end up using 3rd-party alternatives to the same Music, however, always has been an exception to this rule. Ever since I got my first iOS device, a 4th-gen iPod touch all the way back in 2011, I’ve always used Music.app, and been pretty happy with it overall. iOS 7’s Music app, however, left me a disappointed.
First up, the (unnamed as of yet) new landscape album art view that replaced cover flow is a complete and utter train wreck. It is a truly maddening experience to have to remember which artwork corresponds to which album, and even if you can, unlike in cover flow, where albums were grouped by artist and sorted alphabetically as per artist name, they are sorted in this view alphabetically by album name, with no way to change that. And if all that isn’t enough, it often performs weirdly, and takes a while to load all the album art of the ~7 GB library I have on my 5s. I used to use cover flow all the time on iOS 6, I haven’t touched whatever this is since the first time I did. I’ve got my fingers crossed that at least the bugginess of this view gets fixed with iOS 8, if it doesn’t get replaced with something better and more thought out.
Next up is up next (see what I did there?). ‘Up next’ is a feature that has been a part of iTunes for OS X and Windows ever since version 11 came out in late 2012, and it allows you to create and modify a list of which tracks will be played next. It’s kind of like playlists, but an up next list is meant to be created on the fly for one-time usage. I was really hoping that it would make its way over to iOS last year, but sadly it didn’t. At this point, its exclusion from iOS 8 would make next to no sense to me.
My biggest problems lie in with the artist view, which was completely redesigned for iOS 7. In iOS 6 and earlier, clicking on an artist’s name would take you to a view which displayed all of their albums in chronological order (with older albums at the top), and the first item of that list would show all songs by that artist in one list. From that list, you could easily pick any album by the artist or their entire discography, and listen to that, and just that. The iOS 7 redesign eschewed the album list view and made the all songs list the default view, so now clicking on an artist’s name takes you directly to a list of all their songs, grouped by album and sorted chronologically (with newer albums at the top since iOS 7.1; earlier versions had older albums at the top).
As someone who more often than not goes “all in” with artists I like, in that I have many artists’ entire discographies (along with tons of famous concert recordings) on my phone, this is a massive usability problem. For example, I have 83 songs by Green Day across 13 of their albums on my phone as of now. Should I have the urge to listen to ‘Dookie’, which is from one of their older albums, I’m going to have to scroll all the way down past 11 other albums to get there. And even when I do, the app is gonna go on to the next album and start playing ‘Kerplunk’ too (Because you can’t edit the play order, remember?). Searching for it in the albums view might give me the results I want, but searching through albums is even more of an ordeal than going searching for an artist and then that specific album from all their albums because of their sheer quantity. What’s worse is that Apple has messed around with years and years of muscle memory and habit for no gains at all. I absolutely cannot see what they gain by removing that one tap required to go to the ‘All songs’ view should you want to go there.
Music.app used to be one of my favourite apps on iOS (including 3rd-party ones), and was by far the app I used to spent most time in, but the current state of it makes it a sub-optimal experience to say the least. I have high hopes that given their renewed focus on music with the Beats acquisition, necessary modifications are made to the app to bring it to par with its former glory.
Other than these app-specific changes, I’d like to see a more colour-heavy and animation-heavy approach taken to the bare bones white apps of now. In many cases, apps seem lifeless, bland, even unfinished. Weather is probably the only iOS 7 app that I truly enjoy using, and I hope it is held as the standard for other apps.
This stunning iBooks concept by 9to5Mac’s Michael Steeber (first found here), for example, seems like a great way in which Apple could make iBooks seem less insipid and more appealing. I’d like to see similar improvements, especially the infusion of colour, to be brought about in every other iOS app.
There isn’t really much to say here. AirDrop has been part of OS X since Lion 3 years ago and iOS since iOS 7, and it only makes sense for it to allow exchange of data between the two platforms. While the way the technology works on both systems is not aligned, changes to it ought to be made to ensure complete compatibility across all Apple devices.
Automated cache clearing
If Apple is going to keep on selling 8 GB iPhones and 16 GB iPads, it has to do something about the build up of massive caches in news and social networking apps. Looking at my own phone right now, Tweetbot had a 397 MB cache, Google has 197 MB, Twitter takes up 162 MB, Paper 161 MB, Unread uses 141 MB, and Flipboard takes up another 128 MB. Across all apps that totals to 2.6 GB of ‘Other’ storage, or a fifth of the 12.8 GB of total storage my phone has. Apple is rumoured to add a way to periodically delete iMessage threads in iOS 8, and a way to force all apps to do the same would clear out a ton of waste space for more apps, media, and so on.
Customizable Control Center
Control Center quickly grew to become one of my favourite new features in iOS 7, almost exclusively because of access to the flashlight, camera, and brightness settings from anywhere within the system. I also use the playback controls and WiFi and DND toggles from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve ever used some of the other shortcuts, such as Airplane mode, Bluetooth, or Calculator. Being able to switch those out for other apps and settings, such as possibly a shortcut to Launch Center Pro or a toggle for cellular data would be great.
While I personally haven’t used any of them for an extended period of time, the rave reviews and increased typing speed that they boast of makes me wish that Apple adds an (optional) gestural keyboard akin to Swype, SwiftKey, and Word Flow to iOS. Based on anecdotal experience across Twitter and college friends, quite a few people are replacing their default keyboards with one of these, and it would be nice to at least be able to check what the hype is all about on iOS.
Also, would be pretty awesome of them to fix that damned shift key while they’re at it.
A brilliant post on Medium from a while back, about how apps should ask users for permissions for access to system features got me thinking about the state of permissions on iOS, and how hard it is to mess around with them post hoc.
Like with Notification Center, which makes it hell to revoke access from an app after you have given it to one, it is an absolute PITA to mess with permissions after you’ve given them. In general, most apps do not comply with the guidelines that the aforementioned post lay forth, and bombard a user with permission pop-ups at first launch. It’s easy to just give an app all permissions just so you can get it out of the way and start messing around with the app itself. But should you want to revoke access, you’re going to have to go to Settings > Privacy, and then the requisite permission, look for the app within the list, and turn it off manually for each permission that you want to revoke. A much better solution would be to present a screen of each permission an app has asked for (including notifications, if possible) within Settings, and have that accessible from right within the app with a single tap.
I’d like to conclude on a pessimistic note. Because of the nature of iOS 7 and the high focus on OS X as of now, I would personally be surprised if many of these wishes got fulfilled. iOS 9 (or maybe even 10) seems like a more sound timeline for all of these to come to fruition, and I’d be happy to see even a third of what I mention in this list being implemented in iOS 8. (This post was entitled “wishes” and not “expectations” for a reason).
I have high hopes from iOS 8 nonetheless, and am really excited for the future of iOS given the rumours of a payments system, home automation system, a proper music streaming service, an iWatch, and many other such things.
As for this list, and how much of it will see the light of day? Well, we’ll see in no more than 35 hours.
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- “What Apple is actually in fact great at is determining what the best means in any given category. […]It’s looked at the best of technology well down the road, and it’s projected what will be the right combination of those technological possibilities that will collectively, when packaged in a beautiful product, be the best to consumers, and define what the best means” – Jon Nathanson at about 1:09:30 in episode 2 of the Stratechery podcast. I couldn’t possibly agree more with these words. ↩
- I’ve experienced this firsthand too, as when I upgraded from my old iPhone 5 to my current 5s, I checked Photo Stream on the 5 and it showed that it had backed the entire camera roll, but after logging into Photo Stream on the 5s, only the past months worth of photos were pulled down. Now had I not been the paranoid person I am and had three redundant copies stored across in my laptop and across two separate cloud services, like any normal person isn’t expected to, I would’ve lost all of those photos, and that is not acceptable service from any photo storage/ transfer/ backup provider, least of all from Apple. ↩
- To this day I remain slightly disappointed that Apple couldn’t get Paul Bettany to be one of the voice options. ↩
- Well, other than a bunch of really cute Easter eggs, that is. ↩
- Fun fact: My current laptop, a Dell XPS M1330 also has a fingerprint reader, and that too was made by AuthenTec, the company whose technology is responsible for Touch ID. And it does not work well. ↩