In anticipation of the release of the public beta of iOS 14 for the iPhone and iPadOS 14 for the iPad today, I used the developer betas and faced a strange mix of well-being and overwhelming.
Unless you take into account the major changes to the iPhone's home screen (and I only partially), neither of the two operating systems offers a new vision of how your phone or tablet can look. And yet both of them have new feature lists for so long that I wobble at the idea of enumerating them all, let alone giving you impressions. Are there technically a thousand new functions in iOS 14 and iPadOS 14? I don't really know, but the number is so high that it's overwhelming.
Since I used iOS 14 (so I refer to both platforms unless I have to specify iPhone or iPad), I had a little story in my head.
I imagined Apple executives brought all the engineers into one room last year after WWDC and said, "Phew, what's next?" And the engineers looked at each other quietly until one of them said, "Um, I have this function that you keep putting me in the background," to which one manager replied, "Sure, do that."
Then there was pure, glorious chaos when everyone at Apple pushed to get their thing back on the roadmap. Every time the executive said, "Sure, why not?"
New home screen widgets in iOS 14.
The new iPhone home screen
The iPhone (but strangely and annoyingly not the iPad) has three major new functional concepts on its home screen. You could argue that Apple borrowed from Android – or maybe Windows Phone – but all I'm interested in is that the iPhone finally allows for some complexity and customization on the home screen. Here are the great new features:
- There is a completely new widget framework that works for iOS, iPadOS and MacOS. On iPhone, you can use Apple to place these widgets anywhere on the home screen anywhere on the grid. You can also create "batches" of widgets that you can scroll through and "smart batches" that try to place the most relevant widget on top.
- There's a new "App Library" that shows all of your app icons, which Apple automatically (moderately) categorizes. This means that for the first time, app icons can appear in multiple places on iPhone. And for the first time, you can get rid of that annoying "junk" folder with apps you never use. Unfortunately, you can't re-categorize apps in the app library, you can't move the category folders, and strangely, it's not available on iPad.
- Finally, you can switch to overview mode and disable entire pages on your home screen, so you can effectively set up home screen pages for specific tasks (like work or practice, or whatever) that you can show or hide at will. Unfortunately, an app icon cannot appear in multiple places on your home screen, as is the case with Android. Therefore, this feature may not be as useful as it appears first.
I've already written a piece and made a video detailing the iPhone's new home screen and Apple's encouraging trend to allow (but not require) complexity on the iPhone. Instead of repeating myself, I'm just showing you there.
Scribble allows you to write quick text, but it is not suitable for long writing.
The Apple Pencil stays in your hand
In its second iteration (fortunately called iPadOS 14 instead of iPadOS 2) Apple takes a break from trying to teach us brand new metaphors for moving app windows around a screen. While I still think the iPad's window system isn't intuitive, I'm relieved that Apple isn't playing around with it this year – though Apple is taking a little more care to make third-party apps work in multiple sizes.
But the iPad still gets a flagship: Scribble. This is Apple's trademark for the ability to type text directly into any text field using Apple Pencil. We have seen other platforms do similar things, but usually handwriting recognition is done in a separate field.
To use Scribble, simply place the tip of the Apple Pencil in a text entry field and start writing. You don't have to keep your point of view in the field either. Once the iPad detects that you are writing (and that's pretty good), you can move around the screen as you type.
Scribble is good for short text, but no longer
Your handwriting is resolved into text in this field after a delay of about half a second when you have finished a word. It is impressive and frustrating at the same time. It's impressive because iPadOS 14 is just as good or better than anything else I've tried to recognize my terribly bad handwriting. (Interestingly, Apple says it doesn't use real-time machine learning on the device to improve your handwriting recognition over time. A static model has been developed that applies to everyone.) It's frustrating because of this delay long enough that you will not immediately recognize a transcription error and you will have to go back and fix it.
Going back and correcting a mistranscription is not quite as elegant as you probably want it to be. You can circle words to select them, or scrape them out to delete them, but placing the cursor and inserting words feel a little random. It's almost awesome, but there is some kind of scary valley of interaction that it falls into.
All in all, I love Scribble for short sections of text, like writing down a search in the Safari URL bar or a short text in messages. This allows you to keep the Apple Pencil in your hand more when you're already using it. There's a better “flow” to borrow a term from Microsoft Panos Panay (who knows a thing or two about typing on tablets).
Apple Pencil support in the Apple Notes app has also been improved. Now you can select text from your handwriting and then copy it as plain text to paste it elsewhere. This makes taking notes with the Apple Pencil a much nicer affair, since it's finally easier to put this text in a place you might want. It's not a unique trick – the Samsung Galaxy Note did it last year – but it's a necessary feature.
The new look for Siri in Compact UI.
Compact user interface and universal search
Apple appears to have decided that users will no longer be bothered by things that appear above other things on iOS. Several new functions have been introduced that fall under the heading "Compact user interface". As far as I can tell, this means that apps display content over other apps without taking up the entire screen.
Incoming calls are therefore only displayed as a special notification at the top of the screen, instead of being accepted entirely. (Finally!) The same function is offered for third-party VOIP apps. FaceTime and other apps can create a picture-in-picture window that remains when you switch apps – and the size of which can be changed. (Finally!) The PiP feature works great with YouTube in Safari (you'll need to work in full-screen mode first to get Apple's standard video buttons), but I'm assuming it's TBD, like other video apps quickly, this feature use. If there is hope, Netflix and other video apps have been supporting PiP on the iPad for years. Hopefully they'll do it on iPhone too.
Picture-in-Picture finally arrives on the iPhone
There is also a new "compact Siri" interface that displays a small multicolored bubble at the bottom of the screen on both iPhone and iPad. It's nice that it doesn't block whatever you see on the screen, but there is still no interactivity between the screen and Siri.
But for my money, the new search bar is the best new feature for compact user interfaces. It is now better to be universal by typing apps, documents and (finally !!) web searches and then just pressing Enter to finish your search. It starts searching and filtering with every letter you type, and the whole thing feels faster and better.
You can still get there by swiping down on the home screen or pressing CMD-Space on an external iPad keyboard. This last option is great for my workflow as this search also includes Siri links. I use it for a couple of custom web searches, and it's wonderful to get to quickly.
Apple's new translator app.
New app functions
Apple has developed a new translation app for the iPhone (but, strangely enough, it is also missing on the iPad). It supports translations between English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, German, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Arabic. In my very short tests with my very (very) bad Spanish, it seemed to work just as well as Google Translate in conversation mode.
Apple's version of the app is a bit bare, but for me this could be a feature given in a situation where you really need a translation app. You want it to be as simple as possible.
Siri adds new languages between which it can translate, and Safari does native website translations for English, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Russian, and Brazilian Portuguese. Again, it seems to work just as well as Google Translate to get the core of an article.
Messages now support threading, which seems exaggerated to me. On the other hand, I'm not in large iMessage group chats. You can also specifically mention people in these chats, which is helpful for people who turn off all notifications for them. Both features are significantly affected if you write with people using an older version of iOS.
Apple Maps adds bike instructions, but there's no road overlay with bike lanes like you can find on Google Maps.
Apple's map app will get its new, more detailed map information for Canada, the UK and Ireland. If I live in the Bay Area, I can tell you that it makes a big difference. I am less impressed by the new "guides" that seem little more than an opportunity for quick content partnerships. Speed cameras, overload zones and routing of electric vehicles also come.
However, the heading for Maps is the bike route, and Apple did a decent job with it. You will get an overview of the altitude on your route and some details of how accurate the cycling friendliness of each road will be.
However, Apple Maps doesn't support overlays like Google Maps. So all you have to do is trust the route provided by Apple, rather than making up your own mind about what Google can show you. Cycling in the city is stressful and it is important to be able to see all the cycle routes on the map. With Apple you can already switch between traffic, transit and satellite overlays. You also need a bike.
Safari tells you how many trackers have been "prevented", although it is not clear what to do with this information.
Typically, this section is where I would list a number of interesting, but possibly inconsistent, features and updates. But this year, "everything else" feels like it makes up most of the new material in iOS and iPadOS 14. There's a lot here (some of which I haven't really been able to test yet), and it's difficult to give you big thematic buckets.
At the system level, the biggest changes could be privacy. Apple requires apps to request permission for certain types of tracking, and app manufacturers to create an RDA-style information sheet for the types of privacy policies their apps have. There is also a warning when apps look into your clipboard. This has already caused some apps to clean up their actions. Everyone will put pressure on the app ecosystem to change.
Similarly, Safari will now display a report of the trackers that have been "prevented". Note that the word here is "prevented" and not "blocked" because completely blocking some web technologies would damage many things. However, the effect is largely the same: Apple's more aggressive smart tracking prevention framework goes much further than Chrome when it comes to stopping tracking on the web. The number it shows you is nothing you can do anything about except use it to shame websites. (I think the number doesn't tell the whole story, but that's … another story.)
You can change your default browser and email app, but you can't change maps
These are just a few of the privacy features, but I'm also excited about so many accessibility features. Apple has added machine learning to its VoiceOver accessibility feature so it can read the screen in apps that haven't been updated to officially support it (just like Android 11). There are also headphone accommodations, spatial audio for AirPods users, and “sound detection” to alert you of a fire alarm or doorbell. The back tap function has also attracted a lot of attention. You can tap the back of the iPhone to trigger certain actions. It's fun, but in the early betas I accidentally triggered it all the time.
In addition, as I said above, the list of features is so long that apparently everyone at Apple has been given permission to just send their pet feature. We'll finally get the option to set alternative browsers and email apps as the default. (I haven't been able to test this yet.) The watch app has a nice bedtime feature, Memoji has been improved, the camera can take photos faster after the first shot, you can lock the exposure longer, there's a redesign of image selection, you can Use your iPhone as a car key for certain cars, and just way too many other things to go into here.
Hell, I haven't even mentioned app clips, which are small, temporary versions of apps, which are either little used curiosities (as instant apps for Android seem to be) or one significant change in our attitude to apps and their persistence on our phones. What if an app was as easy to use and close as a browser tab?
Here's another example: Captions. This is a big deal for me as it can be used to label certain photos that I'm constantly looking for (the local train ticket, the good photo of a haircut that has a hairdresser depicted, etc.). This makes finding these photos much easier. As feature 637 (or whatever) it is only lost in the shuffle.
iPadOS 14 and iOS 14 should be available this fall, but the public beta is now available.
Nothing in iOS 14 will overwhelm you, not really. There are a thousand new features to discover, but I suspect many people won't make this discovery. As with Android, iOS is a mature operating system, so the findability problem may be inevitable.
My completely unsolicited advice to Apple is to finally do what every other platform company does: publish app updates more often and save the annual cadence for the big things at system level. Why an update to Memoji or the home app (which also offers new functions) has to wait for the major operating system updates from Apple is a mystery. But it's one that can be easily solved by only releasing app updates when they're done.
If this meeting that I envisioned from last year is now happening again, I hope that some of the answers when executives ask what comes next will come when they are ready, rather than when iOS 15 is on.