There have been lots of new things to talk about since WWDC’s main event last Monday. The next generation MacBook Pro made good on the Retina update we’ve been expecting to come to Macs for what seems like ages, but the meaty topic of the keynote was iOS 6.
Some people have been weighing in with disappointment about what they perceive as minor updates in iOS 6, but it addresses some very common pain points for customers. This is a refinement release, which as far as I can tell is a big part of Apple’s strategy for development. Somewhat a reflection of Intel’s “tick-tock” strategy, Apple makes a new release with big bets and new features, following it up with a release more notable for its tweaks and subtle refinements. We’ve seen Apple display this maneuver before: Leopard and Lion made bold steps forward for OS X and gave way to more attenuated updates in Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion. iPhone 3G and 4 were radical redesigns, while iPhone 3GS and 4S simply brought those same designs a new level of polish and elegance.
This post is where I try to evaluate some of the features of iOS 6, and reflect on how they’ve affected the use of my phone after one week with the beta. Being that it is a beta, it’s not fair to discuss crashes or features apparently in progress, so I won’t. And I don’t have any secrets to share that Apple hasn’t already made public.
Clearly a big deal to Apple, the humble virtual assistant is more valuable for users than ever. First up is sports. You’re now just a phrase away from stats, scores, rosters, and schedules. I’m not qualified to comment on whether this is a strong offering of sports information, but the few questions I asked were answered as expected.
The rest of Siri’s updates have turned out to be slightly more useful to me. The assistant now has more information about restaurants, and can help you book a reservation. Booking is done through the OpenTable app though, and if I remember correctly, this feature was more integrated in the original Siri iPhone app.
My personal favorite is the wealth of movie knowledge Siri has picked up. I’m frequently using my phone to look up trailers, remember another movie some actor was in, and find what’s playing in theaters nearby. Siri is now the fastest way to do these things, although my wife doesn’t generally appreciate me talking during movies.
Two little features that were glaringly omitted from Siri’s initial release were the ability to tweet and launch apps. Both are finally here and work as advertised. Of less relevance to me, but certainly great importance for the worldwide market, are the expanded languages and locales available. Notably Spanish, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, and Cantonese have all been added with the corresponding relevant countries. This helps Siri support a much wider global footprint.
The much rumored, widely anticipated Facebook integration has arrived. It’s unsurprisingly similar to the Twitter support introduced last year. And while I use Facebook less than Twitter, it is handy to have some native functionality onboard. Facebook goes a little further than Twitter with integration into your contacts and calendars. Note, this might be an unwelcome change for some. Facebook tends to leave you on the receiving end of event invites that you don’t necessarily need on your calendar. This was something I turned off pretty quickly. Beyond that, Facebook has tie ins with Game Center, and ‘likes’ are prominently displayed above user ratings and reviews inside the new store apps.
Speaking of the store apps, they’ve all had a good working over. Banner images are more prominent and interactive. Everything seems bigger, from the icons to the text. In the App Store, the biggest changes have happened on the app screen itself. The information is split up into multiple sections, with the initial view showing screenshots followed by the app description and notes from the latest update. My favorite addition, there is an “Update History” item that let’s you peruse the release notes from previous versions of the app. This gives good context for the activity of the developer, and is a welcome change.
As noted above, the review section shows Facebook likes from your friends first and foremost, with an option for you to like the app right here in the store (whether you’ve purchased it or not). That’s followed up with the more familiar app store ratings and reviews, which don’t appear to have undergone any significant changes. With just one week down, it remains to be seen how these changes will affect ratings, discovery, and sales for apps, but thankfully Facebook likes from your own network of friends are a great metric that’s difficult to artificially inflate. I anticipate this helping a lot of people share and discover apps.
You can now scroll the charts smoothly while apps fetch in batches of five as you near the bottom. If you’re scrolling at a reasonable pace, you never notice the loading. But perhaps the best usability change in the store is the new flow for downloading. You aren’t pushed back to the homescreen after purchasing or updating. Progress indicators show live on the app icon in the store, and once your app has finished loading the purchase/install button changes to read ‘Open’. A simple change that relives a frequent annoyance.
The Phone app has been pretty stable since its first appearance in 2007. It gets a new keypad in iOS 6, which is of little consequence. Notably, there are now additional options when receiving a call. If you aren’t able to pick up, you can quickly reply with a text, one of the problems Canned was built to address. In addition, you can leave a reminder for yourself to call back later. These are worthwhile changes, and I’m sure this is a common feature request. I don’t get more than a handful of calls per day though, so no game changers here for me.
Do Not Disturb
This is a feature that we had first seen demoed in Mountain Lion. Whether or not it was actually developed for both systems in parallel, after seeing OS X be so influenced by iOS, it’s nice to see a new development going the other direction. (Long live OS X). I had a crisis of notification overload a few months ago. I dealt with it by individually shutting off notifications for pretty much all my apps. Having a prominent switch in settings and the ability to schedule notification downtime has put the power back in my hands. I can now keep my notifications online, and shut them all down when they’re getting overwhelming. This is a simple change, but a big step in having notifications work for users.
FaceTime Over Cellular
FaceTime made video calling a practical reality for the first time. The WiFi limitation was not all that unexpected given the track record of AT&T’s support of data-heavy features, but from people testing on tethered connections and jailbroken phones, it was clear that cellular speeds were often adequate for carrying the calls. iOS 6 brings FaceTime calls over the cellular network with no tricks. This is a good boost to one of the great features of the iPhone, but only on rare occasions have I wanted to use FaceTime while away from WiFi. It doesn’t seem like the ideal way to communicate while out and about. It’s bound to come in handy sometimes, but it likely won’t come up every day.
Phone Number, Apple ID Merging
Since the day FaceTime made its debut on the iPod touch, there has been a weird dichotomy of phone numbers and email addresses as identifiers for Apple’s messaging services. It wasn’t a big deal until iMessage arrived with the promise of carrying your conversations from your iPhone to your iPad, and recently, your Mac. Most iPhone users have been texting from cell phones for years. Using phone numbers was an obvious way to let us seamlessly continue messaging as we always have, and it worked out great—on the iPhone. But when bringing our other devices into the mix, the experience has been fragmented.
I have multiple message streams going with a number of contacts. I haven’t been willing to switch whole hog to using my email address for messaging, because it’s great to have SMS as a fallback on my phone when iMessage is acting up or (heaven forbid) I’m talking to someone without an iPhone. With iOS 6, I don’t need to decide because Apple is bringing together my phone number and Apple ID. This has been the most frustrating problem behind iMessage, and although I haven’t been able to practically test it in this initial beta, it’s one of the things I’m most happy to see iOS 6.
iCloud Tabs solve a common issue for me. I’m regularly coming across sites on my iPhone that would be a little simpler to browse on my Mac. Or conversely, something comes up on my Mac that I want to pick up on the go. iCloud Tabs offer a well-considered solution to this problem.
The Offline Reading List brings a lot more value to a feature that hasn’t been too exciting by downloading your saved pages for viewing when you don’t have a data connection. While I don’t expect it will crush Instapaper’s bottom line, it may prevent casual users from looking elsewhere for a better solution.
Photo upload is a “finally” kind of feature. It’s understandable that it had been omitted due to the lack of a generic, user-controlled file system in iOS, but this is a great stop gap for enabling web uploading for the kind of files we upload most, photos. It works wonderfully, just as you’d expect.
Websites can hover new Smart App Banners linking to their App Store offering above their page. Once there is some time for site owners to integrate this, it will hopefully cause many to migrate away from ejecting you into the App Store to download an app that you aren’t interested in. However, this is already setup at store.apple.com, and it seems only slightly more elegant than some of the other techniques being used by sites to promote their apps. It’s helpful to provide a consistent solution all the same.
Full screen mode opens up browsing a bit in landscape mode, which is a little puzzling. It’s true that webpages are cramped for vertical space in landscape, and this helps alleviate that tension. I hypothesize that the cramping would be that much more pronounced on a rumored, taller iPhone, and this might be a feature geared toward easing that issue.
Shared Photo Streams
Having just gone on a cruise with family, of whom everyone over the age of 3 has an iPhone (11 of us), this would have been a killer feature to have. It’s not going to Sherlock Instagram, as you share each stream with a unique set of users, not a consistent list of followers, but the presentation, sharing, and commenting make it highly social. On paper this is a minor feature bump to Photo Stream, but with the investment people are putting into photo sharing these days, this feels like a huge deal. My initial experiments have been exciting, and I anticipate sharing quite a few photos this way.
Mail gets some good updates this time around. They seam mostly geared at business folks. The VIP feature lets you mark select email addresses that you deem high priority. They get some special notifications, and their own separate inbox. Those of you drowning in email could find this welcome, but for my workflow it hasn’t been necessary. You can also now view password protected office documents, and set separate email signatures for each of your mail accounts. I’ve definitely taken advantage of that last one, and I imagine they’ve had tons of requests for these features.
In addition they’ve added pull-to-refresh. A slight variation on Loren Brichter’s original implementation, with a kind of silly, gummy-looking animation. Bottom-line, it works well enough. Though, if your accounts support push, you’re probably not refreshing your email all that often.
Finally, and I mean finally, you can insert a photo or video attachment directly into a message. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed half an email only to remember that I need to start in the Photos app if I plan to attach an image to my message. This ranks as one of the most significant changes for me since copy and paste.
Passbook is a bit of a strange one. To me, it’s this years Newsstand. Newsstand still sits empty on my last page of apps. There isn’t a single publication I’ve seen that has enticed me to pull the trigger on a subscription, and I haven’t seen any free content worth reading either. I can’t see Passbook being useful to me in the short term. Scott Forstall billed it as one place to store all your passes. Well, currently I already have that. The Starbucks app is the only “pass” that I’ve made any use of in practice. The airline I frequent doesn’t support electronic boarding passes, and my local movie theater doesn’t use Fandango.
As of today, it’s hard to imagine this helping me for at least a number of months if not years. In last weeks “Live From WWDC” episode of The Talk Show, John and Cabel talk about it as a “half-way point” to being able to leave your wallet behind. Maybe they’re right, but to me it looks more like an eighth-way point right now.
If you’ve seen a child use an iPad, it will be easy to “get” what Guided Access is about. Kids go straight for the home button constantly. Perhaps it’s because they know it will at least do something if an app is frustrating them. Unfortunately, they push it way too much. And if you give them any amount of time to hang out on your homescreen, they’ll end up deleting apps, moving things around, and otherwise assaulting your carefully arranged device. Guided Access lets you lock down the home button and any other possibly destructive controls in an app, so they can read their book, watch their video, or play their game while you have a little more peace of mind that they aren’t bringing your iPad to its knees. Parents everywhere, rejoice.
Maps is the update nobody asked for, but everyone saw coming. There is no question that this move is related to the decline of Apple’s relationship with Google, and this is a pretty hard blow coming from Cupertino’s corner. The new vector maps, and 3D satellite views are indeed gorgeous. But there are really only two notable changes. You can no longer get mass transit directions from the maps app, although both driving and walking directions are still intact. Apple is hoping to leverage 3rd party apps to fill that gap by promoting local solutions from within Maps.
Secondly, turn by turn directions are here, and they’re great. Driving home from the grocery store Monday night after the keynote, the turn by turn directions reminded me that my usual route is not optimal. It gives the perfect amount of notice when turns are coming up, and generally seems spot on with the timing. I expect to use this more and more. My wife is relieved to no longer need to play the role of navigator on long drives.
And The Rest
There are a smattering of other features, and I’m sure some that haven’t been uncovered yet. The clock app is coming to iPad, and you can now have alarms play any of your songs instead of the standard alert tones.
The privacy controls are much improved. If an app needs photo access, that’s what it asks for, not access to your location. Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders also have explicit permission dialogs, and they are all grouped in a privacy item inside the Settings app. The privacy settings have never been this clear and transparent.
A new Lost Mode let’s you add a phone number that someone can call if they find your lost phone, making it easier for them to be a good Samaritan and return it.
Also, there are loads of features for China that I clearly haven’t tested, but Apple assures us are a big deal.
Developers, Developers, Developers
Developers are getting a host of great API updates as well, which are not public information, so I can’t go into any details. It’s enough to say that numerous things that required custom solutions now have a standard implementations that will speed up development in a lot of key instances. Unfortunately, many of these things can’t be put to good use until iOS 6 is widely adopted by users, but with how fast that happened with iOS 5, it seems bound to transpire even faster this time around. Especially given the advent of over the air updates.
The Gripping Conclusion
While at first glance iOS 6 seems to have generally minor updates when compared with iOS 5, I’d like to point out that this post is now nearly three times as long as last years reflection on my first week with ios five. I’m frankly very happy with what I’ve seen so far, and experience tells me it will only get better as we approach the public release.