With all the buzz surrounding next-generation iPhone hardware, it’s easy to forget that it also runs an operating system. Surprised? Me too. It could be because the next generation of iPhone hardware is likely to be a large upgrade over the 4S, or because most of the major complaints with iOS have been addressed. In any case, I’m perhaps more excited about the possibilities of iOS 6 than about what lies in store for the new iPhone.
Arguably, the largest feature requests have been addressed. Notifications, for example, were dramatically improved in iOS 5, and multitasking support was added in the prior release. Where does iOS go from here? I’ve separated this mentally into two broad categories: fixes, for current features, and new features. It seems like the OS now requires more of the former than the latter.
The notification system in iOS 5 has been an obvious improvement over the previous modal dialog. Gone are the days when you had to decide whether to answer the text message immediately, or forget to do it later. However, Notification Centre still isn’t up to the Apple standards of UI design. The most glaring instance of this is the tiny clear button beside each application’s group of notifications. It’s simply far too small to be functional. The solution isn’t to enlarge the button, but rather to remove it entirely. It shouldn’t be necessary to manually manage notifications in 2012. Ideally, each of these notification groups should automatically clear themselves after a period of time. For example, the reminder notifications I cleared earlier today are still present in Notification Centre, for some reason. This isn’t a bug, but a systemic problem with the current handling of all notifications. They’re present until you deal with them, one by one.
Apple’s next fix concerns Siri. I should provide a full disclosure, in advance of my complaints. In my iPhone 4S review, I wrote:
The biggest hurdle, however, is not technical. It’s mostly because commanding a virtual assistant feels very odd, even if it’s in plain language. I’m sure it’s a bit quicker for me to reply to a text message with my voice, or tell Siri to call someone as opposed to finding their name in my list of contacts. But I really, really do not want to. I’m also the kind of person who will find a secluded area to call someone in public, rather than trying to chat while walking down the street.
I am perhaps not the correct person to be writing about what Siri desperately needs. I use it for adding reminders, setting timers, and checking the weather. Nevertheless, I would like to see its functionality improve.
Foremost, I’d like it to be significantly more accurate. The other day I asked for it to remind me to prepare the asparagus. It interpreted this command as “enter the asparagus” which, aside from being a great name for a rock band, is quite useless. Apple assures me that Siri is a personal assistant, which I can use natural speech to command. But it isn’t contextually sensitive in the way that it should be. I admit that I’m not even close to an expert on how speech recognition software works, but this seems like it could be addressed with better recognition algorithms.
The next necessary improvement is for non-Americans, like myself. Siri absolutely needs to integrate with Maps and Yelp like it does in the States. This functionality is what Apple often demonstrates because it’s impressive and useful. Being able to dictate messages is useful, but the ability to ask for things nearby is futuristic.
Finally, I imagine third-party developers would love the ability to integrate with Siri. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, especially from a user interface perspective. Consider scheduling applications. I have three that I use regularly, and targeting each is difficult for a non-human to do. I place appointments with a set time in Agenda, my calendar app. This is easy enough to understand. But it gets tricky for short-form scheduling. I place reminders in the Reminders application, but I place tasks for completion in Clear, my to-do list of choice. The delegation of these tasks is tricky for a machine to understand. It could be specifically stated (“add ‘iOS 6 post’ to my Drafts list in Clear”), but this is inelegant and clunky.
As I said, I can’t think of any glaring omissions in iOS. Apple added WiFi syncing, a better notifications system, multitasking, copy & paste, and third-party development. The requested features seem to concern current features that are being asked to do more than they shipped with, like the iPhone’s home screen. It’s not a bad system, but it has become cumbersome with a veritable plethora of third-party applications. I have only 67 on my iPhone, but it feels like too many. Folders are a hacky workaround. There has to be a better way.
Shawn Blanc wrote an exceptional post on why this is a big deal:
Rebuilding the Home screen isn’t just about increasing usability. It is also about innovating at that “front-door interface” of how and where we get to the stuff on our devices (you can hardly do anything on your iPhone without going through the Home screen). Moreover, the ramifications of a reimagined Home screen go beyond iOS. As we are now learning via Lion and Mountain Lion, innovation on iOS is a setting of the stage for innovation on OS X.
In a post from earlier this year, Federico Viticci argued the same:
The concept of the Home screen we interact with today is broken because the Home screen wants to be a real, physical, tangible surface while providing access to the gates of the intangible: apps.
It’s a multifaceted problem, and one that cannot easily be solved. I don’t have any ideas on how it could be fixed, but it’s something that Apple is likely concerned with.
In a similar vein, I feel compelled to address home screen widgets. In his “Back to the Mac” keynote, Steve Jobs addressed the concept of OS X and iOS feeding each other. With this in mind, I think widgets would occupy a similar place as Dashboard does in Lion. If Apple does implement widgets, I think they would be placed on a screen to the left of the first home screen, in the area where Spotlight currently sits. The Spotlight interface would likely be integrated into this new screen.
In the Fixes section above, I pointed out the challenges of machines making decisions in a way that us human beings take for granted. I don’t think this is possible quite yet, but my “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-as-shit” idea borrows from Microsoft’s Future Vision video. At 1:26, a “5 Minute Focus” menu is shown, with tasks that the phone thinks can be completed in five minutes. As I noted when the video was released, this would be a great idea to borrow since Microsoft probably won’t ship it.
Aside from complaining about the current iOS home screen, Federico Viticci has a great iOS 6 wishlist, too. Features that he wants and which I’d agree with include iCloud tab syncing (coming), all-mailbox search, AirDrop, and better multitasking.
Craig Hockenberry, like the rest of us, is tired of having to enter his passcode when he’s at his desk. He’s come up with something called “Homebase” which would adjust settings based on device location. If, for example, your iPhone is within range of your home WiFi base station, it doesn’t require a passcode to unlock it, or for Find my Friends. Very clever.
Lastly, Neven Mrgan is annoyed by the grippers introduced in iOS 5. I’d like to see these improved as well.
That’s my iOS 6 wish list, then. It’s not complete, it isn’t particularly unique, and it likely won’t be fulfilled. But it’s what I believe would dramatically improve my iOS user experience. To what extent these changes will be improved will likely be known in the first half of June, at WWDC, and I’m excited.