Software, Hardware, Silverware

On iOS 6’s Omnibox Omission

A few people have been talking lately about Mobile Safari lacking an omnibox in iOS 6, despite the equivalent desktop Safari (coming in Mountain Lion) finally getting the feature pioneered by Google’s Chrome. At first I also thought it mysterious, but in processing it, I think that Apple has good reason for this “omission”.

One of the things Steve Jobs emphasized in his 2007 MacWorld keynote was the iPhone’s dynamic soft keyboard. When the user needs to enter a phone number, the keyboard is a number pad. When the user needs to enter an email address, the keyboard sprouts ‘@’ and ‘.com’ keys. And when the user doesn’t need the keyboard at all, it disappears.

So in Mobile Safari, when a user taps on the domain field, up pops a keyboard with specialized keys (period, forward slash, TLD) in lieu of the spacebar. This makes sense, as URLs don’t contain spaces but often have periods and forward slashes, and always have a TLD. But when the user taps on the search field, the standard iOS keyboard appears to fulfill all space-ful and .com-less Boolean desires.

If these two fields were unified, which keyboard would be presented to the user? The omnibox works on the desktop where there’s a physical, fixed keyboard. On a touchscreen, with the standard iOS keyboard behaviors, the omnibox doesn’t work. Chrome for iOS solved this by adding a row to the top of the standard keyboard with URL-specific keys. That may sound ideal, but in practice that extra row is kludgy and inelegant. Adding an extra row is common practice among text editors, but even there I’m not fond of it.

Further, whereas on the desktop switching between the two fields involves hitting the tab key or moving the mouse, on a touchscreen the user has to tap a field either way. Having a singular field really doesn’t speed anything up for the user.

The omission of the omnibox in Mobile Safari isn’t so much of an omission as it is a feature. Based on the standard behavior of iOS and the good design sense of Apple’s designers, I think it was a conscious decision on their part. I think—and I think Apple would agree—using two fields results in a better user experience than an omnibox could offer.