iOS 6 is here. You’ve been waiting a long while for it. I, on the other hand, was impatient and have been running the developer betas for months now. The answer to the question “should I upgrade” is a pretty simple one: yes. iOS 61 is the best version to date of your favorite mobile operating system. It can be described by a host of superlatives. But let’s skip the generalities, shall we?
The Great Google Purge
When the iPhone shipped in 2007, Apple and Google were on vastly different terms. Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was on Apple’s board of directors and was even invited up on stage at MacWorld to talk about the two companies’ partnership. When the iPhone shipped, it included three of Google’s most important services: Maps, YouTube, and of course search.
But time change; it’s now 2012, and the Apple/Google friendship is long since over. While Google remains the default search engine in Mobile Safari, YouTube and Maps got the axe. The YouTube app, the one that’s been there since the beginning, the one that pushed for HTML5 video on the web, is gone. The Maps app is still there, but the backend has been replaced with Apple’s own. No matter what either company has to say about the situation, the message is clear: neither wants to rely on the other.
Regarding YouTube, Apple has officially stated that their licensing deal with Google ran out, and the app had to go. Whether the failure to continue that licensing deal was on Apple or Google is unknown. While some will steadfastly choose to blame whichever they hate more, the fact is we don’t know, probably won’t ever know, and there were clear motivations for both sides not to extend the contract.
Google has released their own take on the YouTube application to the App Store. While it is a significant improvement in terms of usability2 over Apple’s app, well… I hope you like ads.
With Maps, Apple had clear competitive reasons for switching their Maps database; number one being feature parity with Android’s Google Maps app. Apple has been waiting to cut Google Maps support for some time now. On July 7, 2009, Apple acquired Placebase, who specialized in mapping software. In 2010, Apple added Poly9, a company that created web-based map software. And in 2011, Apple bought C3 Technologies, a 3D mapping firm. Now, three years into the effort, we finally see the fruits of those acquisitions. iOS 6 brings an entirely new Maps application with an Apple-developed backend.
Google’s maps in iOS versions 1-5 was rendered with bitmapped images at various zoom levels. On slower connections, this often resulted in pixelated images and blurry text while waiting for the next zoom level to load. With Apple’s new maps, text and map data are rendered individually and as vectors. Zooming in and out is now results in clear images whatever your data speed, and huge, fully-zoomable areas (in some cases up to 50 square miles) can be cached for offline use.
As with text, points-of-interest are now rendered in a separate layer, and for the first time in iOS, they are tappable. With the old Maps, you could zoom in on a shopping center and see a few stores, but you couldn’t tap on any of them to bring up additional information3. With the new Maps, tap on any point-of-interest and up pops the same data sheet you use to only get from searching.
Ever since the introduction of the App Store, third party navigation apps have represented a considerable faction of the market. All of those apps just got Sherlocked. Apple has built their own navigation solution4, and it is a beauty. More importantly, it is integrated right into Maps and works as well as any of the other solutions on the market. It’s a one-hit K.O. to third parties.
Improvements to Safari
My favorite improvement Apple’s made to Safari is the removal of the alert that used to pop up whenever your iOS device had trouble connecting to a server. In iOS 6, Mobile Safari presents the user with an white page with a Safari graphic and a message explaining the problem. Much more user-friendly, much less in your face. Thank you, Apple.
The bookmarks popover on iPad is much improved. Previously, Reading List and History apeared as folders within your bookmarks hierarchy. Now, you get three tabs on the bottom of the popover, one each for Bookmarks, History, and Reading List. This makes much more sense, as History and Reading List are specially apart from the bookmarks system. Frustratingly and confusingly, the iPhone keeps the old way of doing things5.
The best addition to Safari is iCloud Tabs. Like extensions and the omnibox, Safari has lagged behind others on syncing. iOS 6 paired with OS X Mountain Lion rectifies that with what Apple is calling iCloud Tabs. In this humble writer’s opinion, it is the best implementation of syncing to date.
Visible as a toolbar button the Mac and iPad, and as a folder in the iPhone’s bookmarks menu, iCloud Tabs presents itself as a list of web pages open on any Apple device logged in with your iCloud account. Tapping any of them works just as a bookmark and loads the page. Simple and intuitive, but most importantly with anything that syncs: it works. No setup required.
So the next time you find yourself looking up dinner recipes on your Mac and you leave for the grocery store without writing down a list of ingrediants, pull out your iPhone and load up the same page you have open at home on your Mac. Boom.
Dating way back to the original iPhone and iOS (back then it was called iPhone OS) 1, you’ve had glossy blue toolbars and poignant vertical pinstrip backgrounds. Early on, all of Apple’s apps and most early third party apps used this theme. In the past couple years, however, developers and Apple-alike have been experimenting with different colors and textures for the toolbars. With iOS 6, Apple has acknowledged that gloss and pinstripes have lost favor among designers, and they’ve update all the stock UIKit widgets.
Changes to UIKit
Gloss is officially deprecated. Stock toolbars are now an appeasing gradient of blue that makes the old toolbars look dated and ugly. Seriously, use iOS 6 for a week and then try going back. Additionally, pintripes are beginning to fade away. Literally, pinstriped are now muted and dispersed in such a way that they don’t actually annoy me just for being there anymore.
While a unified interface was a big theme for Apple in 2007, five years later the trends have changed and diversification is in. The new stores introduce a black theme, the refreshed Music app brings a white variation, and the new Maps app for iPhone brings an iPad-style silver theme.
All the new themes are nice on the eyes, but leave me wondering whether Apple will pick one for the future of iOS’s interface or if the move is for an indefinite diversified GUI.
That Status Bar
The job of the status bar has always been to deliver a few essential bits of information at all time to the user. On a phone, that means signal strength indication, the time, and battery level. Although the status bar needs to be omnipresent, it should also disappear into the background when you don’t need it.
In previous versionsof iOS, there have been two status bar types: a light gray bar with colorful ideograms and black bar with monochrome ideograms. In iOS 6, the gray bar has been replaced by a chameleon bar that changes color based on and individual app’s navigation bar. This is done by sampling the bottom row of pixels from the navigation bar and averaging them, as demonstrated by developer Simon Blommegård.
It’s your host’s opinion, the status bar should be as non-intrusive as possible: when you need it, it should be obvious and clear, but when you don’t it should disappear. In the past, developers have had three options, the best of which was the black bar with gray glyphs. On black iPhones, this bar did a fine job of staying out of the way because it blended in with the device’s bezel. On iPhones with white bezels, however, it didn’t do so well. The chameleon bar takes a different approach by blending into the app itself instead of the bezel of the phone, eliminating the importance of bezel color. It is now safe to dye your iPhone pink.
That Gorgeous Settings Icon that I Never Realized Looked So Terrible Until I Saw How Good It Should Have Been From the Start
If you are reading this on an iPad or iPhone running iOS 6, then you’ve already noticed the new Settings icon. And you probably don’t need me to tell you that it is gorgeous. If you want my advice, avoid looking at the old icon for you rest of your life.
In 2007, OS X Leopard gave us a new, 3D-ified dock to the Mac. Some loved it and some hated it. Regardless, just this year Mountain Lion shipped with a gorgeous brushed aluminum dock that makes the Leopard dock look silly and downright stupid by comparison6. iOS, which got the Leopard dock when version 4 shipped in 2010, didn’t get updated to the new dock. If iOS 6.0.1 doesn’t rectify this situation, I’ll be pissed. If 6.1 doesn’t, I’ll probably switch to Android.
Here are some shorts that don’t fit in the other sections.
The New Stores
The App Store, the iTunes Store, the iBookstore, the Podcasts catalog, and the iTunes U catalog have all gained a refreshed, unified interface. While the functionality of these stores remains the same, the darker and richer color scheme definitely presents a more pleasing experience. The window chrome is now black and the bottom toolbar sports a new look with each item divided by a vertical line.
On the iPhone, each store presents a series of banners at the top, advertising for new and noteworthy apps, albums, books, or podcasts. On the iPad, these banners present in a cover-flow. On both devices, the banners can be flicked through and tapped on to reveal additional and purchasing information. On the iPad, tapping on album artwork, an app icon, or a book cover no longer jumps you to a separate page within the app with additional information. Instead, an overlay pops up with all that good stuff and purchasing options. This is similar to the way tapping on albums has always been in the iPad Music app, though notably without the flipping animation.
In my experience, the new stores seem more stable than their predecessors. Signing into accounts is much more likely to work on the first time, and buttons seem much more responsive (something the iTunes and App Stores have fought with for a long time). Best of all, tabbing back to a search now brings you back to where you had scrolled, instead of jumping you back to the top.
Unfortunately, “more stable” does not translate to “stable”. All of the stores are still rendered in HTML instead of native Cocoa, a practice even Facebook finally gave up. That means that the weird one-off glitches that we’ve been accustomed to over the years are still there, lurking behind every curve. On top of that, Apple has revamped search to take advantage of their Chomp acquisition from February, and while I personally don’t hate the new user interface, search results appear to be even less relevant than before. A search for “Twitter” brings up Instagram, and SpaceEffect FX, and Sky Burger within the top ten hits. Hopefully Apple can work that out soon, and hey, since it’s all a glorified web interface it will be really easy for them to push out those updates. So there’s that.
There has been an increasing desire among gadget people and minimalists to have smartphones replace wallets for credit cards and other necessary cards you carry with you. While the other side is investing in near-field communications technology, Apple has been a bit more conservative with Passbook. The Passbook app shows up on the first home screen for new iPhone owners, but there’s a fear in me that it will be the Newstand of iOS 6. That is, a headline feature pushed by Apple that quickly gets relegated to the last folder on your eleventh home screen. I’m going to try to remain optimistic.
When you open Passbook, you are presented with a list of your “cards” which can be anything from gift cards to event passes to plane tickets. Anything that can be accomplished with a barcode can be accomplished with Passbook. While I haven’t been able to use it for anything real, I’ve played with the app quite a bit and I have to say it feels like the future. Everything Apple could have done with the app is there: it is attractive, it is incredibly easy for companies to make cards and deploy them, and cards can be updates on-the-fly with push.
Passbook’s success, then, will come down to who Apple can strike up partnerships with at the beginning. If they could get a few big names like Virgin America, Starbucks, and Ticketmaster on board, then maybe the idea of using an iPhone for such things will stick and then everyone else will be forced to support it. If, however, Apple can’t lock in anyone at the beginning, I foresee Passbook relegated to a slow and drawn-out death on my last home screen until something better comes along.
Shared Photo Streams
Photo Stream was announced last year as one of the means for cutting the tie between the iPhone and the PC. It allowed for instantaneous transferring of photos between your iPhone, your iPad, and your Mac. When you take a photo with either iDevice, it is instantly pushed to the other two devices. iOS 6 allows for the creation of curated Photo Streams that can then be shared to all of your friends.
This can be done in one or both of two ways: if you share a photo stream with someone running iOS 6, it’ll appear in a list of Photo Streams on that person’s iPhone, iPod touch and/or iPad. Alternatively, you can share public iCloud.com URL that will show every photo in the Stream in a nicely-laid out fashion.
Combined with Find My Friends and Facebook/Twitter integration, I think we are beginning to see the coming-together of Apple’s social network. There’s is not one that relies on a common location that everyone must go to catch up, but instead a social web of several different applications and networks with a different commonality: iPhone/iPad/iPod touch ownership7.
The LG dumbphone I from four years ago had a panorama mode. I could take three widescreen photos and lace them together, but I had to line up each image by myself, putting such a difficult task in the hands of a human really isn’t a good idea. For that reason, I’m not surprised that a native panorama mode in iOS took so long. It is an easy thing to do, but it is a difficult thing to do right. That said, there is a healthy market of panorama apps on the Store, including great one like (my personal favorite) 360 Panorama. I confess, however, that after installing iOS 6, I have deleted all panorama apps from my phone. Panorama mode in iOS 6 is that good.
It’s been an open secret for awhile now that Apple has been working on a panorama mode for the iPhone. Hackers found it and were able to enable it in iOS 5.1, but back then it didn’t work all that well and no one questioned why it wasn’t available in the final release. Now though it works beautifully and as it should. Drag your phone across a landscape and iOS 6 takes care of it all: taking the photos, lining them up, and stitching them together into 28 megapixel stills. For the most part, the pictures turn out great.
The Phone App
The Phone app has received it’s most notable improvements since its introduction with the original iPhone. Borrowing from the lock screen Camera slider, when a new call comes in a phone slider now resides next to the answer and decline button/slide to answer slider. Swiping up on it reveals a list of options for declining the call, including sending a text to the caller or reminding you to call them back later.
The second improvement, or change really, is for the ‘real last century’ folks. The dialer has got a fresh new coat of white paint. I can’t really imagine any reason for the change other than some designer thought it looked nicer this way. I agree.
Last year, Apple added native Twitter integration to the entire OS. iOS 6 adds to this with Facebook sharing in all the same places. Additionally, Notification Center has gained a new widget with buttons to quickly tweet or post to Facebook. While it takes a week or so to get used to updating your social status from Notification Center, it really is very handy.
iPhone 5 Features
iOS 6 includes support for the brand new iPhone 5 and its taller screen. Apps that have been created with standard UIKit widgets will automatically stretch to fit the new dimensions, just like how stock widgets automatically scaled up to fit Retina resolutions back in 2010.
Games and other apps with completely custom interface will require more developer attention to get to look right on the new phone. Until then, apps for old iPhones will be letterboxed like a widescreen movie on a fullscreen TV, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I expect most developers to support for the new screen within a couple months.
Interestingly, Apple hasn’t announced any big iPhone 5-only software features. In the past, new iPhones have received not just new hardware but also new software features that would never see the light of day on older phones. This year, the iOS 6 is bringing the 4S very nearly up-to-par with the 5, and perhaps reducing incentives for you to upgrade. But then again, those of us who will upgrade each and every year probably aren’t thinking about one new software feature. I doubt Apple will lose sales over this.
Conclusion and a Big Fat Asterisk
While I won’t try to claim I touched on every detail of iOS 6, I think I hit many of its highlights. So my review of iOS 6 ends here, a few features short. But what fun would it be if you could stop here?
Internally codenamed “Sundance” after the Sundance ski resort in Sundance, Utah. ↩
The icon lacks, shall we say, vision. ↩
Nothing is more frustrating then when your search didn’t present the result you had already found. ↩
With a surprisingly long list of friends. ↩
My best guess is that Apple didn’t know how to reconcile having a tabbed toolbar on a slide up pane that originated from a button on another toolbar. Look, I said it was my best guess, I didn’t say it was a good excuse. ↩
I said aluminum, not brushed metal, and trust me when I say there is a huge difference. ↩
That being said, I’d love to see Apple buy Twitter, hire Loren Brichter to build the native application for it, and then leave it alone. ↩