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iOS 8 review

Apple opens its gates

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Apple has become a different company this year. It’s undergone major personnel changes, promised to be a more open and friendly company, and released two new iPhones that are clear responses to consumer demand.

A year ago, Apple released the most dramatic visual revision to iOS since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007. iOS 7 was a complete visual overhaul, a ditching of the skeuomorphic and obvious designs of years past and replacing them with a flatter, more colorful, and more modern interface. It was a striking visual change: it took some getting used to for longtime iOS users, and some of the design decisions were (and remain) questionable. But iOS 7 was a completely new-looking house built on an existing foundation. All of the paint inside was new, but the blueprints remained the same. The core functions of the OS were the same as always.

With iOS 8, Apple is tearing out the old foundation of iOS and replacing it with a new, friendlier platform. Apple has thrown open the doors of iOS 8 to developers in ways it never has before. Where the iPhone used to be an appliance, iOS 8 turns it into a platform, a way to connect your apps and devices in new ways. But Apple still hasn’t dramatically altered how it works for millions of people. iOS 8 is much more powerful than any of its predecessors, but it’s still as approachable and easy-to-use as it ever has been.

Changing the core functionality of an operating system without disrupting the day-to-day experience for millions of users is a difficult undertaking, and as a result, iOS 8 is far from a perfect operating system. I’ve been using it on devices old and new for the past couple of weeks, and it’s clear that Apple still has a bit of work to do.

iOS 8 on the iPhone 6

The most important thing Apple did with iOS 8 is open parts of the platform that have always been off-limits to third-party developers. Third-party apps can now integrate into Apple’s native sharing system, put themselves right into Apple’s own Photos app, and replace the iPhone’s keyboard. They can put widgets in the Today tab and use your Touch ID fingerprint scanner to authenticate you.

Many of these features and capabilities would have been unheard of in iOS just a year ago. It’s the biggest change Apple has made to the core of how iOS works since the App Store launched in 2008. It makes iOS a more friendly, more extensible, and more useful platform than ever before.

That isn’t to say iOS 8 is without fault — in fact, it feels like one of the buggiest, most unpolished versions of iOS in years. In my testing, there weren’t any noticeable performance or battery life degradations compared to iOS 7. But there are inexplicable bugs everywhere: a keyboard that refuses to appear when you need it, or an interface element that remains stuck in landscape when you rotate the phone back to portrait. No iOS launch has been without bugs, and Apple’s iterations in the weeks and months that follow tend to smooth a lot of things out. (iOS 7 didn’t get really great until 7.1 was released, a full six months after 7.0's launch.)

iOS 8 isn't without its share of bugs

A number of developers are already taking advantage of iOS 8’s new widget functionality, with mixed results. Evernote’s widget is super useful for quickly creating new notes and NYT Now inserts the top headlines right into your Today screen. Dropbox’s widget is less than useful (it just shows recently changed files in your account, with no ability to do anything with them), and Yahoo’s image-heavy widgets for Weather and News Digest just look clunky and out of place. It’s clear that developers are still wrangling with the best ways to use widgets in iOS, and it’s likely we’ll see some really useful additions in just a short time. Fortunately, all widgets are disabled by default and you can pick and choose which ones show up in your Today tab.

Likewise, though third-party keyboard support is welcome and long overdue, the options you can use right now range from "sometimes buggy" to "barely usable." Oftentimes, the keyboard just wouldn’t show when it’s supposed to, making replying to a message from a notification using a third-party keyboard more miss than hit. Third-party keyboards also aren’t allowed access to iOS’ built-in dictation service. Developers will likely fix a lot of these problems as time goes on, but it might take more work from Apple to make third-party keyboards as good as the native one.

Sharing data between apps, such as saving an article from the web to Pocket or Instapaper, has always been a chore in iOS, requiring clunky bookmarklets or a lot of copy and pasting. That’s finally been rectified since third-party apps can now make themselves available in iOS’ native sharing system. Web links can instantly be saved to Pocket or Evernote with just two taps, and apps like Drafts won’t need to rely on hacky URL schemes to pass text to other third-party apps. It’s the closest thing iOS has ever had to Android’s sharing functionality — for all intents and purposes, Apple’s essentially mimicked it. But there are some small bugs to work out with the system: regardless of how many times I told the system I wanted Pocket to be first in the list of apps to share to, it would revert back to Apple’s default ordering.

Editing photos in third-party apps in iOS was never possible from the native Photos app, but iOS 8 changes that entirely. Editing photos with third-party tools right in the Photos app is a huge improvement to my workflow, and I can now enhance and tweak photos with my preferred apps like Litely (and soon VSCO Cam) instead of having to use Apple’s own tools. It still takes far too many taps to get to the third-party photo editors, and the process isn’t obvious at all, but I’m very excited that it’s here.

There are many places where Apple could have been even more open

Still, despite all of these improvements and a new feeling of openness with iOS 8, there are many places where Apple could have gone further. Spotlight has been overhauled to include results from the web, Wikipedia, iTunes, the App Store, maps, and more; it’s finally the universal search app it should have been from the beginning. But it will be even better if and when Apple lets third-party apps integrate themselves into it, so I can use the same tool to search the web, look for local places to eat, or pull up a note saved in my Evernote account.

Similarly, though Siri has been enhanced with a couple of new features for iOS 8, it will be a lot more powerful once it can truly integrate with third-party apps. There’s a lot of potential in Siri and the Today tab in the Notification Center that Apple hasn’t yet tapped into, and it’s still not the predictive personal assistant that Google Now or Microsoft’s Cortana is.

iOS 8

In addition to all of the new functionality, Apple also added some significant new features to some of its most-used apps in iOS 8. Mail borrows some ideas from Mailbox and other third-party apps, letting you swipe to delete messages or quickly add a new contact right from a message. But it’s still not as good as the third-party options out there. Safari has been updated with a new desktop mode, and it gains a lot of the search functions that are new to Spotlight. Maps has been enhanced, but not in noticeable ways and it's completely inexcusable that it still doesn't offer built-in transit directions.

Messages, on the other hand, gets a number of important new features in iOS 8. There are new, self-destructing video and audio messages, which can be recorded and sent all in one gesture. (If you don’t want them to self-destruct, there’s a tiny little "Keep" button below them.) You can also share your location with other iMessage users super easily, and group messages are much easier to manage. Most of these features have been available in WhatsApp and other services for a while. I’ve been using audio messages a lot in iOS 8 and I have a feeling it’s going to be a big part of my personal communications going forward.

If you’re not interested in using a third-party keyboard, the standard keyboard now has a predictive engine called QuickType. It suggests words that it thinks you’ll type next above the keyboard. You can type complete sentences using just QuickType suggestions, if you dare, and it’s designed to get better over time as it learns your habits and writing style.

There are new apps with iOS 8 too, but we’ve yet to see their full potential. Apple’s Health app is a one-stop shop for all of your health and wellness data. It uses the iPhone’s own step tracking features and can receive data from third-party fitness apps such as Jawbone and Fitbit. It’s designed to be the hub that joins all of your health data together. But thanks to a bug at launch, apps aren’t yet able to connect to Health, and it’s a bit of a wasteland for data right now. There’s no clear use case for the Health app right now, other than to just show me the steps my iPhone counts (which other third-party apps already do a better job of). This app will be a much bigger deal when Apple launches its smartwatch next year, but for now, it’s just an annoying icon that I can’t delete from my home screen.

iCloud, now known as iCloud Drive, is growing up into a real cloud storage service for iOS 8. Instead of being a silent backup and sync service, iCloud Drive now supports the ability to store and share files between devices, much like Dropbox and Google Drive. You can save a file to iCloud Drive on an iPhone and then access it on an iPad, iPod touch, or Windows PC. But if you have a Mac, you’ll have to wait until OS X 10.10 Yosemite is released later this fall to use iCloud Drive — it’s not very useful for a large number of iPhone users right now.

Continuity and Handoff are the future of iOS and OS X

Actually, a lot of great things about iOS 8 are going to be unlocked when Yosemite launches. A new feature called Continuity connects the iPhone to the Mac in more ways than ever. It lets you receive phone calls to your iPhone on your Mac, or send and receive SMS messages from your computer. Handoff lets you begin an email on your iPhone and pick it up on your Mac moments later. A webpage open in Safari on the Mac is accessible on the iPhone in just one tap.

Right now, you can only get a taste of Handoff if you have an iPhone and an iPad. I can answer calls made to my iPhone on my iPad seamlessly, and any text messages sent to the iPhone also show up on the iPad. I started reading an article in Pocket on my iPhone and picked up my iPad moments later to see an icon on the lock screen prompting me to open Pocket there and finish the article.

Continuity and Handoff are very clearly the future of both iOS and OS X: they make every device in your life more connected and cohesive, provided you’re fully bought into Apple’s ecosystem of products. It won’t be long before iOS and OS X are one and the same, and Continuity is the first big step to making that happen.

iOS 8 represents a big shift for both how the operating system works and how Apple perceives it. No longer is it a completely walled garden; the doors are open to developers in ways they never have been before.

Apple is still treading carefully, and there’s a lot of room to take this even further. Still, Apple has managed to open up many parts of iOS without changing the experience for a large number of people. If you don’t want to take advantage of third-party keyboards, widgets, or any of the other new tools, iOS 8 is still an easy-to-use, easy-to-learn, reliable platform with the best selection of third-party apps. Nobody has to be retrained on how to use iOS 8 — most people probably won’t see any significant changes in their day-to-day use and it looks exactly the same as iOS 7 did. Those users will still benefit from the new features in Messages, QuickType on the keyboard, and improvements to Safari and elsewhere.

But those of us that have been longing for easier ways to share data between apps or different keyboards to type on in iOS 8 will appreciate and use these new features all the time. There are also a lot of new, hidden things power users will love, such as the ability to see what apps are using the most battery power. Unless you have an older device, like the iPhone 4S or perhaps an iPad 2, there’s little reason not to upgrade to iOS 8, and according to Apple’s statistics, chances are you already have.

We won't see the full potential of iOS 8 for weeks or months after its release

More than any other iOS release before it, we won’t see the full potential of iOS 8 for weeks or months after its release, once OS X Yosemite is out and developers have become more comfortable working with the new tools provided. Apple’s forthcoming HomeKit and CarPlay will extend iOS’ hooks into your life even further. For that reason alone, it makes iOS 8 the most forward-thinking release yet and lays the foundation for the future.

If iOS 7 was a rebuilding of the house iOS lives in, iOS 8 is the concrete base below it. It’s the blueprint for the future, when the iPhone and iOS are not only a smartphone and its operating system, but the platform for every connected device in your life. Now that Apple has laid the foundation, it’s time for app makers and outside developers to get to work building new ways for us to use it.