Apple officially announced iOS 8 on Monday at its annual WWDC conference in San Francisco, following an annual tradition of showcasing the evolution of its software for the iPhone and iPad. Big-ticket announcements include "widgets," Touch ID for third-party apps, a brand-new keyboard that learns as you go, and software for home automation. Conference-goers get the iOS 8 beta today, while everyone else can get their fingers on the new software in the fall.
Before we get into those details, let's get one thing on the table: iOS 8 doesn't undergo changes to its visual design. Last year's major overhaul with its flat icons remains, and iOS 8 focuses heavily on building out software enhancements across the board.
What's this about widgets?
Widgets were a major iOS rumor, but don't go imagining that they look and act as enlarged home screen icons a la Android -- they don't. Instead, think of them as enhancements to the notification center by letting you respond from events, even from the lock screen. Beyond replying to messages, you'll also be able to interact with eBay bids, for instance. iPad users get this, plus a tab view for the iPad and a sidebar for handy-dandy access.
Here's a little navigational gem: in addition to seeing the apps you've recently used, double-tapping the home button gives you quick access to the people you've spoken to most recently. A few gestures can initiate conversations with them.
Home and health
Last year Apple promised that Touch ID would work with third-party apps -- and a year later, it finally can, while keeping fingerprints secure.
Apple is extending its digital fingers into two very personal areas: your home and your heart. HomeKit (the name of the tool pack for developers) is Apple's systemwide OS foray into home automation, letting iOS device owners control elements like your thermostat, alarm, garage door, and lights. Hooking in Siri means that uttering the command, "Get ready for bed" can engage them all to lock up the house, adjust the thermostat, and turn down the lights for the night.
Taking a leaf from Samsung's book on seeing digital health as the next frontier in mobile development, HealthKit and its corollary Health app will track your vitals by bringing together all your health data in one place. It'll work with third-party apps to notify the Mayo Clinic, for instance, to get word to your doctor in an emergency. It will also work with third party hardware such as the Jawbone UP or the FitBit.
Typing, messaging, and more
Apple has done some really promising work with the keyboard to make it extremely context-sensitive and adaptive to your lingo. Called QuickType, you get word suggestions (in the manner of Android) in 16 different languages. And since it learns your conversational style as you talk with certain people, it might helpfully predict words and phrases like "hecka" or "snoozer" when you chat with a friend, and pull from a different lexicon when you're talking to your boss or grandma.
The new keyboard still doesn't natively support tracing, as Android does, but there is now support for third-party keyboards, which is a big deal for iOS users who so far haven't been able to use keyboards like SwiftKey.
Another feature we like is tucked into Safari, where support for extensions will let you do a number of tasks inline. Here's a good example: when you open up a Web page in a different language, you can select the Bing translate extension from a dropdown menu, then get your translation inline on the Web page to read it naturally in your language.
A little more control over messaging should go a long way with iOS 8. You'll be able to send an audio message to any contact. Apple calls this Tap to Talk, and you can listen to incoming audio messages from the lock screen, which is becoming a busy place in iOS 8.
Here's another change: all your attachments, such as audio messages and pictures, appear in the details page for a chat thread. This means you won't have to scroll all the way through a conversation to get a specific photo, for example, because the details page keeps all attachments like photos and audio notes together in one place.
Also in the messaging realm, you'll be able to name group message threads, which will help you keep tabs on multiple conversations. Better yet, you can mute "noisy" chat threads that go off on tangents.
Email on the iPad gets some refinements as well, like even more sliding gestures in the sidebar to delete and flag emails. While you're composing a new message, you'll be able to tap and slide the menu bar to the bottom to get it out of the way so you can grab an image from elsewhere in your inbox. With the attachment copied to the clipboard, you can touch the bar at the bottom to reopen the e-mail, drop in your attachment, and send the completed email.
In this release, iOS 8 gets some feature parity with Mac's OS X 10.10 Yosemite, like iCloud Drive and the Spotlight feature. iCloud Drive works across Mac OS and iOS 8. What excites us more in terms of day-to-day use is Spotlight, which gives you a bevy of online and offline suggestions, including Wikipedia entries and suggestions for relevant apps you don't even have yet. Searching for a movie pulls up local theaters and showtimes, right on the phone, and without you having to fire up a browser.
Photos and Siri
Photos are always a big deal with Apple, and iOS 8 adds a heap of new features to help you edit, perfect, and find photos. Autostraightening and cropping are two headline tools in the new Photos app, but you also get a couple of automatic color correction tools to make your photos look better. Fans of manual photography also get thrown a bone, because Apple announced that those controls will be available for developers to tap in iOS 8.
To make your photos look better, Apple has added two new sliders for lightness and color. But don't think of them as basic brightness controls; With each slider, the app analyzes the photo at hand and makes adjustments across several categories to give you the best looking shot. So lightness includes varying adjustments to shadow, highlight exposure, black-point, and contrast. You can still adjust each of these individually, but for a quick fix to your photos, the slider seemed to work surprisingly well.
Now, every photo you take through iOS is available on any other iOS device (with the Mac getting the same experience sometime early next year), and edits to photos and video show up across devices as well. Search filters at the top of the app help narrow down categories like location of the shot or the date. You can search for pictures taken a year ago, or grouped by location, singly and in albums.
As we guessed it might, Siri supports Shazam music recognition for identifying songs as well as your speech, and plug-and-play compatibility with Siri in cars means that you don't have to press a button to use it, you just speak -- whether you have a Siri button built into your steering wheel or not. Siri will also support streaming voice recognition for quicker results, with support for 22 new dictation languages.
In the app store...
Another addition is to the iOS 8 App Store that lets developers create short video app previews, and sell multiple apps in bundles, which means that device owners can buy groups of apps at a discounted rate. Apple's editors' choice insignias also pop up to guide user choices, and integrated TestFlight lets developers beta-test apps to interested users without them having to buy anything or side-load apps.
Now, on the money side, parents who want a little more control over how many apps their kids buy get a little more say-so with a new feature called Family Sharing. When a kid, for example, requests to buy an app on a family account, the card owner can approve or decline the purchase. This works for up to six family members who pay for apps through the same credit card.
Like every iOS announcement, Apple covered some of the more prominent new upgrades, but -- with hundreds of new changes -- there simply wasn't time to talk about everything. Fortunately, Apple let gamers and game developers know about a behind the scenes change that could really take mobile gaming to new heights: Apple has pledged to amp up iOS gaming with Metal, a new graphics engine that promises 3D graphics rendering that Apple says will be as much as 10 times more efficient than before.
So while Metal is not a new app or interface element, we now know that third-party developers have some really cool tools to work with for making graphics-intensive games in the future.
Also, like every iOS announcement, there was a slide during the keynote that displayed numerous iOS 8 "hidden features." These are all things you'll get with iOS 8, but weren't talked about during the keynote.
- Auto night mode in iBooks
- Panoramic photos on iPad
- Battery usage by app
- Travel time notifications
- 24 new dictation languages
- Camera timer
- Instant burst mode
- Separate focus and exposure in Camera
- RSS feeds in Shared Links
- Improved zoom for accesibility
- In Case of Emergency card
- Purchase iTunes content with Siri
- Rich text editing in Notes
- Touch ID to exit from Guided Access
- Indian, Tagalog, Irish Gaelic, and Slovenian keyboards
- Private browsing per tab in Safari
- See your books as a series in iBooks
- DuckDuckGo support in Safari
iOS 8 in a nutshell
From what we know about it so far, iOS 8 is shaping up to aggregate a raft of minor but useful additions to the OS. There's no one feature to dominate headlines. Instead, we see Apple expanding a lot of existing features for the iPhone and iPad, and starter movements into health and the home.
Users of both iOS devices and Macs will see a lot more cross-device compatibility where information like text messages, photos, and even phone calls jumping seamlessly from one device to another.
Now, Apple has been known to withhold software surprises that would give away iPhone and iPad secrets. In fact, we'll expect to learn more about what iOS 8 can do when Apple launches its new mobile devices -- and the OS -- this fall.