If 2016 is like every other year in recent memory, we can look forward to the unveiling of a new iOS version at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, which takes place on June 13 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.
But while we’ve heard rumors about everything from a fancy desktop display to a major Apple Music refresh, relatively little news has leaked about the the next version of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system.
Coming in a year when people are asking if we've seen peak iPhone, Apple watchers are hoping for big things from iOS 10. I asked developers, former Apple employees, and pundits for their wish lists. Here’s what they're keeping their fingers crossed for.
Apple didn’t invent the idea of an app store, but it certainly made it a defining component of a modern operating system. Almost a decade down the line, however, should the company rethink the way that it approaches applications on the iPhone? Maybe so, says Tiago Silva, an ex-Microsoft employee who now works as an independent iOS developer.
"In my view, the apps we currently have on our phone are a transition model," Silva says. "As we get better and better access to the Internet, the concept of downloading an app is less significant than ever. People are used to having things instantly available."
So-called "instant apps" are one of the most exciting features coming to Android this year, with fall’s Android N update. It’s a concept Silva says is revolutionary. "Instead of downloading apps, you get a native app that exists in a transient state," he explains. "You use it and then, once you’ve used it, it’s gone."
The apps you want to use all the time—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—are worth downloading. Ones you may only want to use once or twice, and which you don't want hogging space on your phone, might be better off as instant apps. Sure, you could download an app for a particular retailer or restaurant, but wouldn’t it be more convenient just to have the app appear instantly when you most need it?
If Apple built technology similar to Android's into iOS, "you could put your iPhone against an NFC reader and the app would appear on your handset immediately," Silva says. "It doesn’t take up space, you don’t have to think about it again, but you can benefit from it while it’s there. It’s a great example of how to improve user experience."
Over time, our phones have become Silicon Valley’s answer to the Swiss Army knife: not just bringing together the humble cell phone and PDA, but adding in a great camera, a mobile payments service, and much more. Useful though that is, there are also times when the iPhone’s plethora of features butts up against Apple’s other big obsession: simple, intuitive design.
With the Home button's current fuctionality, "I find myself accidentally activating Apple Pay, Siri, and the clunky screen-shifting-down [Reachability] shortcut way too often, and it all feels overloaded and muddy," says Phill Ryu, an independent app developer. "There are now five different functions—six if you turn on the accessibility shortcut—mapped to different patterns of taps and clicks, like Morse code."
What’s the answer? "Maybe Apple could try a single shortcut that pops up an array of options to tap," he suggests. "But at this point I’d even just take some setting that let me disable various functions I never use, to bring this back to simpler times when the Home button was just about going home. I miss that."
And speaking of which . . .
"Allowing developers to sell third-party keyboards for iOS 9 was a change of mentality for Apple that probably wouldn’t have happened under Steve Jobs," says Silva. "Progressively, it looks like Apple is going to be a bit more open in this area—and as a developer that’s something I would certainly welcome."
Customization has long been more Android territory than Apple's. But with iPhone interface now so ingrained that even toddlers can use it, it's time that Apple stopped limiting what more experienced users can do.
"Apple assumes that not only does everyone start ignorant, they stay that way forever," says Bruce Tognazzini, a former Apple user interface guru. "People grow, and, as they do, their needs grow. Apple keeps delivering the message to existing users that it’s time for them to switch to a different system, an open system that, for example, might let them not only look at all their pretty pictures but read the titles they carefully assigned to them along with tags and keywords."
As Silva notes, this is more of a philosophical change than a feature Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, is likely to stand on stage and announce.
However, it does lead to some specific examples, such as . . .
There are plenty of different apps available for carrying out broadly the same tasks. "One of the things that I feel has been long missing from iOS is the ability to choose a default app for certain tasks such as email, web browser, phone, or notes," says Ben Dodson, another freelance iOS developer who created the popular Music Tracker app.
"I would love to see a way for developers to make their app conform to some set of standards that would allow them to be selected as a default app," Dodson says. "For example, Skype could conform to the ‘phone app’ standard so when you tap a phone number in your mail app, it'll launch Skype and dial the number rather than using the Phone app. Similarly, email links could go to Polymail, and web links to Chrome."
Apple may have doubts about letting users bypass the company's own in-house apps for these tasks, but it would certainly make a subset of users very happy.
Another place a bit more customization would come in handy is with iOS’s Control Center, the screen you can access when you swipe up from the bottom of the display, letting you quickly reach tools like Wi-Fi and Airplane Mode toggles, alongside applets such as Timer and Torch.
Control Center is great, but Apple could make it even better by allowing users to modify the apps and features that appear there. "I never need quick access to the calculator," says Dodson.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to be able to pick our own most useful apps? Or even to have your iPhone or iPad determine which ones to present to you based on their frequency of use?
"One of the things I love about the Apple Watch is its rich notifications," says Brian Mueller, an iOS developer best known for his Carrot series of humorous AI apps.
"Instead of displaying a simple text notification that says it’s going to start raining soon, I can show a graph that shows exactly when and how much rain will be coming down over the next hour. I’m hoping Apple decides to bring this feature to iOS, since it would drastically reduce how often people need to unlock their devices when all they care about is seeing just a tiny bit more data than a text-only notification can provide."
And while Apple was at it, it could let developers modify the color of notifications.
If you’re a serious developer, it can sound silly to wish for essentially frivolous features that exist only as eye candy. But a flashy iOS feature like Apple Watch-style dynamic wallpapers would remind everyone what a fun company Apple was before Jony Ive fell in love with aluminum and minimalist design.
"It’s bothered me how stagnant Apple’s selections of wallpapers has remained since its debut years ago," says Ryu. "iOS 10 is a milestone release, and some optional razzle-dazzle would be fun. I would love to see some new Apple creations here, a bit like some of the cooler Apple Watch faces, and it would be great if they allowed developers to create and sell dynamic wallpapers in a new category on the App Store as well."
As iOS devices have become productivity tools in their own right—as good for editing PDFs or images as for calling your mom or playing games—the need for multitasking has grown. With iOS 9, Apple introduced split-screen multitasking for the iPad—it's especially handy on the iPad Pro—but so far the feature has yet to make its way to other iOS mobile devices.
Could 2016 be the year this changes? While carrying out two tasks at once may be less than perfect on the 4-inch iPhone SE, it would be a great feature for the larger 5.5-inch iPhone Plus models.
And as good as iPad Pro split-screen multitasking is, there’s still room for improvement, too. "The main thing that’s missing now from a developer’s perspective is an easy way to get information from one split-screened app to another, such as dragging and dropping content," says Mueller.
OS X has a dark mode—offering a different, darker color palette for users who find it easier on their eyes. On iOS, iBooks and Safari's Reader feature already offer something similar. However, a system-wide dark mode hasn’t arrived for iOS users, despite Apple's interest in making its devices easier on the eyes.
"What I'd like to see for a system dark mode in iOS is twofold," says Federico Viticci, founder and editor-in-chief of MacStories, a website that covers Apple with a focus on apps, developers, and mobility. "Firstly, a way to switch system UIs and Apple apps to a dark mode, either manually or on a schedule, and secondly an API to let developers easily bundle dark assets into their apps and have them switch automatically to dark mode when system-wide activation is detected."
An iOS dark mode would extend to every app, provide a consistent interface for users and API for developers, and would make using apps easier and more comfortable in different contexts.
When Apple introduced Siri back in the fall of 2011, it was the first AI-powered assistant most people had ever seen. Jump forward five years and Google, Microsoft, and even Amazon can all make claims to have overtaken Apple’s assistant in various ways.
The single biggest iOS request from developers may be for Apple to introduce a Siri API, allowing third-party services to harness the power of its AI assistant, so that users could do anything from asking Siri to call an Uber cab for them to having recipes read out from their favorite app while cooking in the kitchen.
"Siri is becoming the default UI for many operations on the iPhone," says Alan Oppenheimer, a former Apple employee who worked on the original Macintosh project and now runs the virtual museum Art Authority app. "But these operations still need to be Apple-approved. As a start, if Apple added Spotlight [search] support through Siri, users could use Siri to search for Spotlight-registered items within apps—since Apple opened Spotlight to apps in iOS 9."
Horace Dediu, one of the world’s leading Apple analysts, suggests that opening up Siri to developers could be a major boon to Apple financially. "Apple has an audience of around 800 million people at a maximum," he says. "These are people who have been prequalified as owning Apple products, so you can assume they meet a certain threshold in economic value to third parties. They are people who will shop more and engage more. That audience is extremely valuable."
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