iOS 14 First Impressions

There are times when Apple pushes boundaries and times when they don’t. This was definitely the latter category. I’m not sure I could point to anything specific in the new software that feels particularly novel. That’s absolutely fine. In fact, I’d place the 2020 conference as one of the best WWDCs ever. Apple advanced each of its operating systems significantly, often adding features that people have been asking for a long time.

The iOS 13 cycle is overshadowed by the bugginess of its debut but it had fundamental product problems from the beginning. Many of the features introduced in iOS 13 were simply mistakes in direction, even if they worked. Things like the changes to text selection, the naive grouping of accessory features in Home, and the inane layout of the Mail toolbar. Myself and many others shared our grievances on these matters over the summer, Apple shipped them without changes, and they were indeed received poorly. It was not a good look when every point-update was congratulated for reverting something that had been launched in 13.0.

In stark contrast to last year, I do not see anything in iOS 14 that is so bad I think they need to retrace their steps. iOS 14’s brilliance is going to make quick work of pushing the troubles of iOS 13 into distant memory.

Widgets on the home screen are just perfect. The whole system feels like a modernisation of the macOS Dashboard, complete with a ripple animation when adding new widgets from the library. For the longest time, people have wanted the ability for app icons to be dynamic, like Clock and Calendar. The small 2x2 widget is basically answering those demands. You can finally have a weather icon on your home screen that actually reflects the current weather conditions. I don’t expect people to flood their home screens with widget after widget, I reckon most people will settle on a couple to put on their first page and that will do just fine. The stringent size options (either 2x2, 4x2 or 4x4) basically encourage that kind of usage pattern.

The decision to disallow any interactivity apart from tapping to launch the app is an interesting one. It makes iOS 14 widgets feel a lot like Watch complications. Whereas the Watch has to lean in to the true black nature of its background, widgets on iOS 14 can explode with colour and vibrancy to complement the surrounding app icons and wallpaper. Apple has set a high standard of beauty with the design of the built-in widgets and I look forward to seeing what the developer community does. I know some people are already anticipating that Apple adds support for buttons and interactive controls in widgets in the future, but I’m not yet convinced they have to. I certainly don’t feel an immediate compulsion to ask for more. The enforced restraint breeds elegance and I am glad Apple’s implementation has ended up being more inspired by Windows Phone Live Tiles than the Android widget system.

Incoming calls as banner alerts and support for Picture-in-Picture video are so good you can only wish Apple would have done it sooner. In particular, PIP adds so much convenience and utility without introducing complexity. The mental model is incredibly simple: a singular floating window that you can drag around and close when you are done. You can’t get confused about what’s going on when you are multitasking with PIP. Again, this is nothing revolutionary, but it is new to iOS and the iPhone is better for it.

I like the idea behind the new design for Siri, making Siri a contextual overlay over your current app instead of a modal takeover. An animated version of the Siri icon pulsates to indicate it is listening, and the answer card appears at the top of the screen. Nothing else obscures your vision of the app Siri has been invoked on top of. This means you no longer see the text of your transcribed request. That’s a bold statement as to the quality of Siri’s dictation accuracy, although there is a toggle in settings to show it. Whilst Siri is active, if you touch the screen, Siri is dismissed. This behaviour is befitting of the compact phone screen, but it also applies to the iPad. Any attempt to interact with the foreground app dismisses Siri completely. On the big iPad canvas, not being able to use the app and interact with Siri simultaneously feels like it is defeating the point of the redesign altogether.

The improvements to HomeKit are very welcome. There is smarter onboarding when adding new accessories, which help to guide novice users into taking advantage of automations, integration of favourite scenes into the top level of Control Centre, and the textual summary status in the Home app has been replaced by a more functional visual strip of buttons.

App Clips are being framed as the next big expansion of the App Store, with Apple even resurrecting the iconic “There’s an app for that” slogan for the feature’s intro video, but I’m not sure if it is impact is really going to be that widely felt. I think it will find utility in select niches where it makes sense but I don’t think people are going to be encountering them on a daily basis. Retraining people to scan QR codes is a tall order. Searching the name of an app in the App Store and downloading it isn’t that hard. We’ll see how that plays out, I guess.

On the services front, I was surprised News+ Audio wasn’t mentioned given how finished it seems to be in the 13.6 betas. I guess that’s been pushed to fall now. The Apple TV app received no attention at all, sadly, which means TV+’s primary problem will continue through November 1st 2020, the date when customer free trials start expiring. I had guessed this before, but now with the COVID factor delaying the completion of second seasons of Apple’s flagship series, a second year rollover of the free trials feels inevitable. Arcade actually got quite a love. The Game Center UI has been overhauled, banishing the gaudy floating bubbles in favour of a barebones design that uses translucent platters for layering. The Arcade app now uses Game Center for some prominent social features, like seeing what games your friends have played recently.

Other iOS 14 capabilities are tacit nods to the looming antitrust complaints. In this update, you will be able to choose alternative email and browser apps, and integrate MFI-compatible device trackers into the Find My app. Apple is even letting third-party music services run natively on the HomePod. Some of this is merely lip service. The requirements to participate in the Find My accessory program are so locked down I’m pretty sure Tile won’t be participating, but it will probably help Apple’s defence in court nonetheless.