A week with iOS 8

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iOS 8 Review

All things considered, the past year with my iPhone has been pretty boring.

I have discussed the state of smartphones countless times here on BGR. For savvy power users like myself — and like millions of BGR readers out there — we’re in a bit of a lull right now. Put plainly, 2013 was a pretty boring year for smartphone fans.

Innovation doesn’t grow on trees, and impressive progress has been made in the smartphone market over the past 18 months. Phones are thinner and sleeker than they ever have been before. Mobile operating systems like Android, iOS and Windows Phone have been updated with plenty of nifty new features.

Has anything been introduced that might truly excite power users, though? That’s open to debate. What most technology fans likely won’t debate, though, is that the new features introduced in iOS 7 were not exciting for savvy users. Not even a little bit.

Of course, iOS 7 wasn’t about that. It was about introducing a bold new design that would shape the entire industry for years to come. It was about renovation, not innovation.

Going into Apple’s WWDC 2014 keynote last Monday, I’ll admit that I got caught up in the moment a bit. My expectations were sky-high. I wanted to be blown away.

When the smoke cleared and the dust finally settled, I was not blown away at all — but I knew what I had just seen was a huge deal.

Before I explain myself in further detail, let’s look at some of the new features Apple introduced with iOS 8.

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I have been using iOS 8 for a week now, and there are already some new features that I would have a hard time doing without.

The first is interactive notifications.

What is an interactive notification? As the name suggests, an interactive notification is a notification that the user can interact with. In fact, it’s more like a tiny, temporary widget than a notification.

The most obvious example is a Messages notification. When a notification pops up on your screen from the Messages app, you can simply drag down on it a bit and a text field appears. Type your reply, tap send and your SMS or iMessage is delivered.

Until iOS 8 is released to the public, only Apple’s own apps can take advantage of interactive notifications. But there are tons of great ways for developers to utilize this feature and it’s going to change the way people use their phones.

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Another important feature for me and anyone else with an iOS device is Apple’s new keyboard.

Apple bills its new QuickType keyboard as its “smartest keyboard ever.” Considering how awful iOS’s keyboard has been for the past seven years, that really isn’t saying much.

But in my week using QuickType, I can already see that it’s a big improvement.

QuickType learns the phrases you type and the language you use, and it suggests the word or phrase you might type next based on your history.

What’s more, it takes the situation into account. You probably use different words and phrases while typing an email to your boss than you do while typing an iMessage to your friend (for instance, I use much more profanity when emailing my boss), and QuickType considers that when making recommendations.

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Also appreciated in iOS 8 are the new integrated photo-editing features and Family Sharing, and Safari extensions have plenty of potential. Apple’s new Continuity features look great as well, at least for Mac users. I haven’t tested them yet since I haven’t installed OS X 10.10 Yosemite.

Then there are Apple’s new messaging features in iOS 8, some of which caused me to breathe a sigh of relief the likes of which I haven’t breathed in quite some time.

First — and unquestionably foremost — the updated iOS 8 Messages app finally lets you mute notifications for individual conversations, or flat-out leave group message threads.

FINALLY.

For the time being, Apple’s server-side implementation isn’t in place yet to allow users to leave group message threads. Just knowing this feature is on the way has me sleeping more soundly, though.

Apple added a next-generation push-to-talk service of sorts as well, which already works wonderfully and might eliminate the need for many of the voice calls we make each day. It’s also easier to send photo and video messages now, and location-sharing has been simplified.

On the flip side of the coin, there are also some new features in iOS 8 that I don’t particularly care for.

A few of the big changes Apple made aren’t as welcome as others. The first that comes to mind relates to Spotlight.

Apple added tons of new content types to Spotlight, including movie showtimes, App Store results, iBooks Store results, iTunes results, news, Wikipedia results, nearby locations and more.

That all sounds great, but there’s a big problem: Apple’s Spotlight UI is absolutely horrendous when it comes to displaying a long list of results.

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A quick Spotlight search might now return a dozen contacts, emails, iMessages and SMS, web search results, apps, songs, App Store results, Wikipedia pages, and so on. All these results might be helpful on a Mac, where there is plenty of screen real estate to display different groups of results.

On an iPhone where everything is displayed in one vertical list, it’s a huge pain.

Another change in iOS 8 that I am not a fan of is the addition of contact shortcuts in the app switcher interface.

I love the app switcher UI that Apple stole from webOS. It was one of many interface innovations in webOS that users loved, and it’s just as nice in iOS as it was in webOS.

In iOS 8, Apple decided to start riffing on Palm’s design by adding a row of contact shortcuts at the top of the screen. Two short groups are available, one with your favorite contacts and one with your most recent contacts.

Shortcuts to contacts you communicate with often is a nice idea, but Apple’s logic here escapes me. What sense does it make to lump these shortcuts in with the app switcher UI?

When a user accesses the app switcher, his or her intention is to switch to a different app or to swipe an app closed. Initiating a conversation with a contact is in no way related to those functions. This is not a natural placement at all.

It almost seems like Apple wanted to include contact shortcuts but couldn’t find a way to work them into the Notification Center or the Control Center, so the only place left was the app switcher.

There are a few more oddities in iOS 8, and it will be interesting to see how the platform evolves ahead of its public launch this fall.

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So, let’s revisit the questions I asked at the start of this piece: Does iOS 8 make iOS exciting again for me? Does it bring incredible innovations and amazing new features that I’ll wonder how I ever survived without?

No, on both counts. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter.

Apple’s new iOS 8 update isn’t about appeasing power users like me who are bored with the current state of smartphones. And of course, it shouldn’t be.

iOS 8, like all of Apple’s iOS updates, was designed with a single goal in mind: Make iOS devices better.

That’s it. Apple wants to make experiences afforded by the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch better than they have ever been before. Why? Better experiences allow Apple to retain more existing customers, attract more new customers, and make more money.

Now, when Apple’s executives, designers and engineers set out to make iOS better, they must do so in such a way that new features appeal to the widest possible range of users. Unfortunately for power users, many of the features they’re clamoring for simply would not appeal to the majority of Apple’s customer base. At least not to the extent other features might.

Sometimes there is overlap, of course. Power users want home screen widgets. “Typical” users would probably enjoy home screen widgets as well.

In cases like this, it’s not as though Apple is ignoring this feature or doesn’t care what users want. Instead, the more likely explanation is simply that there are too many trade-offs right now. Apple might not feel confident it can deliver a solution that provides great capabilities without sacrificing battery life, for example.

That said, power users certainly haven’t been left out in the cold in iOS 8. Not at all. There are several new features and capabilities that will dramatically improve the iOS experience for Apple’s more savvy customers.

Apple has also opened up its mobile platform a bit, supplying developers with new APIs that will allow third-party apps to interact more with each other and share information more effectively.

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Most smartphone owners don’t know which features are new and innovative on a broader scale. They don’t care if Apple stole a feature from Android or copied something from Windows Phone. In all likelihood, they won’t even know that any such features had existed on other platforms.

When they update from iOS 7.1 to iOS 8, they will see only the terrific new functionality they have gained, and the new annoyances they will have to endure.

In that context, Apple’s goal is to ensure that the terrific new functionality outshines the new annoyances by as wide a margin as possible.

Unless something is truly off — say, Apple’s Maps app, for example — people generally forget they were annoyed by a software change after a short while. They adjust and move on. The same is true of new functionality. The shine wears off and people take these new features for granted. They become just another part of the user experience.

This is why “wow factor” is nice, but it’s not an endgame. Apple isn’t trying to wow us, it’s trying to make iOS better.

And iOS 8 is, without question, better.

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