Your iPhone and Other Apple Products Are About to Get Easier to Use
Commentary: Widgets in iOS 17, MacOS Sonoma and WatchOS 10 could help keep us from having to switch between so many apps.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
These icons for showing the weather, calendar appointments and other handy data points have been available on the iPhone, Mac computers and iPad for years. But they're getting a major upgrade in Apple's upcoming software updates that puts them more front and center on your iPhone, Mac, iPad and Apple Watch.
During the mobile portion of the keynote, Apple showcased the new interactive widgets we can expect to see in iPadOS 17 and iOS 17. When these updates arrive in the fall, you'll be able to take action directly from the home screen or lock screen just by tapping widgets instead of diving into the full app. Apple's examples include controlling smart home devices, pausing music and checking off to-do list items. The goal is to make it easier to complete simple tasks without having to open yet another app.
It's a small change, but one that could save you a few taps and swipes at times when you just want to skip to the next song in your playlist or adjust the temperature in your home. It's Apple's latest attempt to improve the usability of its gadgets more than a decade after apps inundated our phones and became a crucial part of everyday life.
There's another way Apple is making widgets a bigger part of the iPhone experience in iOS 17: StandBy. This feature essentially turns your iPhone into a miniature smart display when tilted sideways and plugged into power. When it's in this mode, you'll get a full screen view of the time, music, photos, your calendar and other tidbits, like your calendar or the weather. That bigger view is meant to make it easier to see your phone when it's farther away, such as when it's propped up on your nightstand or desk.
Widgets are bound to be a major part of StandBy because they're already designed to prominently show useful information on the home screen. In StandBy mode, they get even more of the spotlight by becoming the focus of the entire screen.
MacOS Sonoma, the next major update to Apple's laptop and desktop software, is getting more widgets too. They'll now be available on the desktop instead of being hidden away in the notifications center.
During its presentation, Apple showed how you'll be able to pin widgets for your photos, the weather and shortcuts right to the desktop. These widgets fade into the background when opening an app to avoid becoming distracting.
This should make the Mac's desktop more useful and dynamic. Instead of just hosting frequently used apps, files and other shortcuts, it becomes more of a destination for viewing information at a glance.
Apple is also making more of an effort to bridge the mobile and desktop experience by bringing iPhone widgets to the Mac. Simply hold your iPhone near your Mac, and you'll be able to access those widgets without even having to install them on your computer.
When it comes to the Apple Watch, there's a big opportunity for the new widgets in WatchOS 10 to improve ease of use. You'll be able to rotate the digital crown to reveal widgets straight from the watch face, making it easier to find relevant details like activity progress and the weather without sorting through your list of apps. The watch will also surface relevant widgets as needed throughout the day, such as medication reminders and calendar alerts for upcoming meetings. If you're in the middle of a workout or a timer, that widget will be displayed above the others in the stack.
This change that should make using your Apple Watch a lot easier. Navigating apps on such a tiny screen can feel cumbersome, so I've been using Siri to quickly check my timer or start a workout most of the time. Having widgets accessible with just a twist of the digital crown should solve that issue.
Apple wants to simplify how we interact with apps…again
The proliferation of widgets in iOS 17, MacOS Sonoma, iPadOS 17 and WatchOS 10 is Apple's latest attempt to make multitasking easier across devices. It's not the first time the company has tried to reduce the need to download, launch or switch between apps so often.
Remember 3D Touch? Apple launched this feature with the iPhone 6S in 2015 and has since replaced it with Haptic Touch. Both features allow you to access a miniature menu full of app shortcuts directly from an app's home screen icon. Long press the Wallet app icon, for example, to tap a shortcut to your last transaction.
Then there was App Clips, which Apple introduced as part of iOS 14 in 2020. As the name implies, this feature lets you access a portion of an app (i.e. a "clip") for specific in-the-moment use cases, enabling you to buy a coffee or pay for parking without installing the associated app. The iPhone 14 Pro's Dynamic Island also shows Apple is trying to make juggling multiple apps more seamless by putting the iPhone's display to use in a different way. The Dynamic Island acts as a sort of secondary screen for showing time-sensitive information, like the status of your Uber arrival or sports scores, as you jump between apps.
There's a good reason why Apple is trying so hard to simplify the app experience; data shows we spend our time buried in apps. Consumers in the US and other major markets now spend more than five hours per day in apps, according to data from market intelligence firm data.ai. Insider Intelligence also estimates that 88% of time spent accessing the mobile internet among US adults happens within apps, further showing that apps dominate most of the interactions on our devices.
A lot has changed in the 15 years since the App Store arrived in 2008. The expansion of widgets in Apple's new updates just shows how software is catching up to the new ways we've been using our phones, watches and laptops over the last decade and a half.