Looking to iOS 8

Late last month, Federico Viticci wrote a great article about his iOS 8 wishes. I agreed with some of his suggestions, disagreed with the necessity a few, and consider still others a bit too niche for Apple to have focused much time and energy, if any, on over the last twelve months. By the end of his piece, I had decided to write out my own list in preparation for WWDC, as we all begin to turn our attention towards the impending unveiling of iOS 8 alongside the possibility of wearable devices and CarPlay demos in a Ferrari. Unlike Federico, I have no spectacular introduction to kick us off; in lieu of that, then, I suppose we ought to just get straight to the point.

Many of the entries in Federico’s lengthy list are very exacting, focused on one specific aspect of an app or service that Apple could improve. The way I see it, though, is that most of these are the things bloggers will write about afterwards: someone will talk about the updated music app, The Wall Street Journal will explain — in single-sentence paragraphs — how the new Photos app spells the end of Apple, and someone will invariably have a problem with Apple’s handling of in-line message replies in Notification Center. These are not, however, the things that Apple will spend any significant amount of time on in their keynote presentation. As such, I find the majority of these second-tier updates uninteresting and unworthy of speculation: the music app will change, although I doubt we will see Beats Music have much of an influence on it until iOS 9 at least; Photos will as well, once again in a novel and interesting way likely having something to do with better photo management; and an improved system for notification management seems like a no-brainer: remember how iOS 6 provided for the creation of tweets and Facebook status updates in the Notification Center? It would come as a great surprise to me if iOS 8 did not debut with a similar system, except for all text-based messages. No, to me, these are not the interesting avenues to explore leading up to WWDC next month, but rather the headlining features that will steal the show and spark controversy and discussion until WWDC 2015; it is to those that I wish to turn my focus today.

In no particular order, I see two areas in which Apple has an opportunity for massive, groundbreaking improvement; one aspect in need of some subtle but, importantly, not drastic changes; and one feature that, while asked for by many, ought not come to the platform in any more of a meaningful way than it already exists there. Were I a (read this in Marco’s brand voice) problogger obsessed with page views, I would dub this “Apple’s Four-Pronged Success Strategy” or, more likely, “Four Weird Ways Apple Will Win"; I would also name the final, as of yet unknown feature or service to come out with iOS 8 something sensational like “The X Factor”. But I am not, and so my dry, less flashy approach will have to suffice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I consider Siri and Touch ID Apple’s two greatest advantages inherent to iOS; nevertheless, despite their remarkable latent ability, these two have yet to reach their full potential — or even come close, in my opinion; I would love to see Apple expand the functionality of both in iOS 8. For starters, Apple could imbue in Siri better faculties for identifying and interpreting context: when I make a reminder, let me say “Send that to my girlfriend as well” and have Siri understand the intent of my command rather than take it literally, only to then ask what I want to send her. And speaking of reliability, some improvement in that area would not hurt. I need a competent assistant, not a scatterbrained one.

Apple could also bring some welcome changes to Siri by making it a native service, and then allowing app developers to interact directly with it. Unfortunately though, these capability are incredibly difficult to build well. Take offline dictation, for example: when Mavericks brought this feature to the Mac last year, enabling it required a download of more than three-quarters of a gigabyte — 785 megabytes, actually — and it’s not even very good at interpreting speech, much less controlling my computer; Siri, which does a much better job of parsing and transcribing natural language, would likely necessitate even more space as a local service. As much as I would love to see a native implementation of Siri, I just don’t see Apple potentially doubling the size of their mobile operating system for this one feature.

Unfortunately, a public Siri API faces similarly difficult challenges: while it sounds like a fantastic idea, Siri’s ability to discern the one correct word out of a near-infinite number of possible matches using inferred context similar to that of auto-correct becomes much less applicable when attempting to interpret complex commands like “Open Drafts and use the ‘Send to Dropbox’ command, then delete the note.”. Understanding these chained events will prove difficult, to say the least. That said though, there is hope for these developments: Google already does offline speech recognition, and many consider Google’s more capable implementation much better than Apple’s despite Siri’s inability to do much more than schedule reminders and check the weather. So despite my misgivings, I expect Tim Cook will surprise me with some very impressive refinements to one of Apple’s two greatest points of differentiation next month at WWDC.

On the Touch ID side of things, Apple has another opportunity for great improvement, this time in the area of authentication. Last year, Apple dipped its toe in this space with the creation of Touch ID and iCloud Keychain; however, it went no further than that: thus far, these two features have remained wholly separate and unconnected, and thus of little practical use. In iOS 8, I would love to see this change: if Apple could make iCloud Keychain more reliable, less of a black box whereby I have no control over what goes on in it after adding new login credentials, and bring it to iOS in a meaningful way, I would have no problem moving to it from 1Password if doing so meant I no longer had to ever enter a password again, but instead could use my fingerprint to unlock the pertinent credentials regardless of whether I had an app or website open.

Some would undoubtedly characterize such a move as a betrayal of their trust: Apple promised not even the operating system could access a fingerprint scan when it unveiled Touch ID last year, and when taken at face value this stellar combination with iCloud Keychain seems like a violation of that promise. However, I have no doubt Apple could build out a system whereby iCloud Keychain determined the appropriate credentials for a site or service, and then Touch ID provided a simple pass/fail boolean when asked whether the user in possession of the device had the necessary clearance to access the area in question. This feature pairing would bring with it a whole host of benefits, such as increased password security as iCloud Keychain no longer only suggested secure passwords for websites, but apps as well, along with the obvious benefit of taking password entry completely out of the equation. Greater system-wide Touch ID integration would also open up the possibility for many other interesting features involving fast and simple authentication in the future, such as — potentially — fast user switching, a feature that many have called for in iOS for quite some time now. It all starts with opening Touch ID to the operating system, though; in order for any of these great abilities to come to iOS, we must start there. Touch ID could very well steal the show at WWDC.

Moving on from these two feature sets in which I hope to see Apple make some incredible progress, I believe the company would be remiss to neglect the iOS 7 aesthetic. Unlike a surprisingly large number of people, I do not consider iOS 7 a failure; however, I do believe it needs some minor refinements in a number of areas ultimately in service of making the entire user experience feel more polished. It is important that these changes remain minor refinements, though: Apple has a tendency to swing for the fences, and thus we found ourselves with iOS 7 last June. Now, as they hopefully dial back some of the more extreme changes and approach the sweet spot of design done well, I hope they will iterate with that tendency in mind. I have every confidence Apple will do just that, but it remains a wish of mine for iOS 8 all the same.

Finally — and this will likely be the most controversial part of this article — I do not think Apple should make any significant moves towards greater inter-app communication than it already facilitates through such means as the x-callback-url protocol; I may even go so far as to say that I hope they will not. This is an undoubtedly unpopular opinion though, especially amongst nerds, so let me explain myself: as the saying goes, constraints breed creativity. As a result of iOS’s numerous restrictions, developers have created some truly fantastic workarounds built over the years that have given rise to, most recently, the amazing ui module in Editorial, to name just one outstanding example of innovation born of a need unfulfilled by Apple. Whatever Apple might build in iOS 8 to finally fill this void, there is a very good chance that it will fall short of the standards and conventions we have managed to piece together until now. Moreover, the need for greater inter-app communication is a very niche one: even I as a relatively demanding user have no need for this beyond the capabilities x-callback-urls provide, and I can speak from firsthand experience in saying that the need is nonexistent among the mass market. I realize the flaw in this argument even as I say it, but iOS has done just fine until now without developers having the ability to share data between apps; why fix a problem that does not exist?

First outlined the key areas I hope Apple will have focused its efforts; namely, Siri, Touch ID, and minor interface refinements. I also explained the reasons I hope Apple does little to further inter-app communication: whatever feature set would seek to fulfill this perceived need, it would almost undoubtedly fall short of the impressive solutions developers have already created and thus turn into more of a hindrance than a help. Even these refinements and omissions, however, would likely appear only in brief demos following the main, show-stopping revelation. But as to the specifics of that unknown feature, I have little idea outside of a certainty that it will exist: iOS 7 had a major design overhaul, iOS 6 provided the back-end capabilities for developers to utilize the larger iPhone 5’s screen size, and broke Google’s hold on the ecosystem; but what will iOS 8 have? Something involving music, as the recent rumor of a Beats acquisition might indicate? Perhaps, but — as I said — I suspect, should the deal actually take place, that we will not see any direct influence until iOS 9 at the earliest. What, then? At the end of the day, this is the question I find most attractive to answer, perhaps in no small part because I have no idea. But that’s what makes writing about Apple so interesting: in the end, we’re all just guessing.