iOS 7 Features: Will they/won't they?

Style over substance

All of the recent iOS 7 chatter has focussed on the Ive-ification of iOS. Out with the skeuomorphs, in with the sandblasters. That's fine and dandy - iOS could certainly do with a lick of paint - but it seems odd that superficial spit and polish overshadows the more important, substantive areas for improvement.

Filtering the fluff

These forums are drowning in "iOS concept videos" and "feature request" lists. This post is not intended to add to that noise. Instead, it focuses on three potentially significant areas for reform grounded in the reality of Apple's modus operandi. I hate reading posts calling for features that bear no resemblance to that reality (replacement launchers, and unfettered multitasking!).

I have ordered my suitably-restrained and realistic feature proposals in terms of their likelihood for implementation in iOS 7: a probable, a possible, and a longshot. With that preamble out of the way, let's dive in:

PROBABLY: Power Nap for iOS

I have written about Power Nap for iOS before, in a detailed forum post available here. In short - iOS lacks the "always-connected" feel of Android, largely because of its highly constrained background operation model. Apple restricts background operations in order to strike a balance against the detrimental impact on battery life and performance.

Whilst there is merit in continuing to maintain such a balance, Power Nap allows Apple to carefully relax its background permissions model unobtrusively, and without making significant concessions to battery life etc. By permitting apps to update in the background under "Do Not Disturb" conditions, Apple will achieve perhaps 90% of the benefit of unfettered background operations, with none of the compromises.

There have been a lot of comments by very well sourced journalists and bloggers (including John Gruber, and Rene Richie) which indicate that this was a feature considered for iOS 6/6.1, in one form or another. I would place good money on Powernap for iOS arriving as a headline feature in iOS 7.

POSSIBLY: Changing Default Apps (Conditionally)

In the past few years, Apple has greatly relaxed the App Store rules regarding "duplicate functionality", and it is quite possible that Apple might now be willing to allow users to set defaults for core applications such as mail, calendar, and browser. There is more than one way to skin this cat, however - and I would like to explore how Apple might free up consumer choice, without any of the consequential complications/compromises that might otherwise result.

Android adopts a completely open model, permitting users to define defaults for any/all apps (including launchers). These alternatives to the "stock" applications have their own profiles, settings, network connections, permissions, etc. It seems unlikely that Apple will ever go down that route, citing security implications and potential concerns over losing control of their platform. It's the same concern that prohibits third party browsers from using their own rendering engine (all of which are essentially wrappers for the Nitro-free version of Safari's WebKit).

There is, however, an elegant solution that may be more attractive to Apple - a solution which is effectively already in place for calendars.

When you install an app such as Fantastical, it automatically inherits all of the data associated with your stock Calendar.app. The two applications use the same calendar entries; the same networking; the same security restrictions, etc. This has many advantages - no need to sign in separately; no inconsistent entries across apps; battery efficiency from sharing data (i.e. instead of opening independent, parallel network connections); and shared securities/ permissions. You receive the benefits of the Fantastical skin and advance features such as natural language processing, without changing the underlying data model and system settings (which are still controlled on an OS level).

By adopting the same approach for Mail, customers could have the freedom to choose an app with the UI and features of their choosing, without changing any of the core settings/permissions etc relating to their mail account(s). The advantages are particularly evident in the corporate environment. For example, my work Exchange account is currently tied to the stock Mail.app; this is in stark contrast to the Calendars set-up, where I can have my work data populated in the application of my choosing, without any networking set-up for the app developers (and without exposing any security concerns for my employer).

It is hard to say whether post-Jobs Apple perceives "user-defined defaults" as a loss of platform control. However, it would be great to see the stock applications evolve and become users' defaults based on merit, not mandate. If and when Apple does permit user-defined defaults, I would envisage them doing so in the manner outlined above.

LONGSHOT: Profiles

A feature more targeted at iPads than iPhones, since these are inherently less "personal", more "shared" devices. My wife and I share an iPad, and are constantly logging in and out of the Facebook app to view our respective accounts. Likewise for countless other applications. And we can't use iMessages or FaceTime on the iPad because attempting to do so induces information overload and chronic schizophrenia.

Having the ability to define user profiles, and "log in" to those profiles would be a godsend. Having the ability to set up a "Guest" account, or "child" account to restrict app access and other parental controls would also be an obvious advantage.

I am not aware of any particular murmurings that such a feature is on the horizon, which probably suggest that it isn't coming in iOS7. This is a huge shame. On the basis that Apple prioritises features based on how loudly we demand them(!) can I please start the ball rolling now for profiles in iOS 8?!

Final Thoughts

So there you have it - the three most substantial enhancements I would like to see in iOS 7, and a carefully considered assessment of if/how Apple might be willing to allow them.

I'd be interested to see what you all think about these ideas. Additionally, what other features do you think Apple might bring - being realistic about Apple's motivations and aversions. For example, do you think Apple would acknowledge that its onscreen keyboard is starting to lag behind the competition, and if so do you think it would allow third party alternatives? Or would it instead choose to iterate its stock offering with new Swype-like features etc?