The moment Craig Federighi showed off home screen widgets and App Library, everyone in the tech sector chimed in with something on the lines of how iOS was now like Android. While the comparisons are undeniable, there is something to be said about the restraint Apple has to put in adding features. Imagine it took Apple 14 iterations of iOS to add home screen widgets, something Android or even operating systems like Symbian, have had since the late 2000s.
For many, the App Library reeks of a consolidated app space like the App Drawer on Android which has also been a signature feature differentiating the two platforms. Even this comes to iOS 14 after so many years that one had reached a point with the belief such user interface paradigms weren’t part of the iOS user experience philosophy. Apple always indulges in new features at the right time — when it is confident of the performance, battery life, privacy and usability trade-offs. It also doesn’t make the change for the heck of a change. This is what grants iOS-based hardware, Apple’s hardware, the unique ability to compete against Android-based hardware on more frugal hardware touch-points like battery size and RAM.
Apple’s mobile platform was always built around the maxim of efficiency and frugality. That’s why for the longest time the iPhone didn’t indulge in freewheeling multitasking. So to call iOS 14 an Android inspired visual refresh would be a huge disservice to it. It is also fascinating that iOS 14 is making so much buzz as the pre-WWDC rumour mill called it a minor update. It was to stick with Apple’s tick-tock cadence, indicating that this would be a performance and stability focused update building on top of the numerous new feature additions of iOS 13. All this makes it a much bigger update than what many believed it to be, almost like iPadOS which came out of nowhere in 2019.
- Going by the developer beta, the first one that too, its performance credentials are undoubtedly well-founded. I have never tested a developer beta of an operating system this stable or as widely adopted by enthusiasts. It still isn’t for the faint of heart, but apart from some unreliable app behaviour and crashes, most of the things work as they should. You don’t even run into issues of WiFi or Bluetooth baulking out or battery life taking a huge hit. This could of course change as there will be a series of feature additions with the coming developer beta builds till it reaches the public beta stage in July. If you don’t believe it, then I’m sure iPhone 6S users have some faith as this update even touches them, five years after the launch.
- For those who have pages and pages of disorganised applications, the App Library concept isn’t just an Android concept of the App Drawer, but an intelligent reworking of it, freeing one from the endless right scroll. Remember, even the App Drawer on Android is just space where all the apps can be scrolled. App Library instead allows you to stack all apps in coalesced folders using the intelligence on the device which means there is no work needed at your end. It also tries to predict what you will use next, mostly successfully so far in my use.
- Widgets on Android are like the Wild West. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Some scale well, while others don’t. Widgets on iOS will not be part of the Wild West that’s Android. These are intelligent, reserved and constrained by the parameters Apple has laid out for developers. The biggest thing here is again, it adds a much-needed refreshment to the core springboard of applications by breaking it up with dynamic glanceable information. Call it whatever you want, but this works.
- Glancebility is a big theme in iOS 14. Siri and the Calls app have been two culprits of taking over the entire screen real estate and stopping you in your tracks during work. Siri gets a new compact user interface where it lights up more gently with answers to queries coming in like notifications. Similarly, calls can now be ignored as they will come in like WhatsApp or iMessage notifications instead of taking over the entire screen which is very irritating when you don’t want to cancel or receive a call. Now, finally, you can simply ignore it by doing nothing and getting along with your work.
- The messages app receives are full redo. Firstly, you get a bunch of features inspired by Slack and WhatsApp. This includes threaded conversations, @ tagging, starting of important conversations. Memojis also get upgrades with 20 more styles and faces which are younger and older while also incorporating face masks. But even as a general SMS management application, it borrows a couple of features that have been there on Android phones. Its filtering mechanics have been segregated into message type – financial, junk, personal, promotions which makes this app way more useful.
- Siri is smarter. This may sound like a joke, but Apple has increased the number of resources it can tap into which makes it faster and more useful. Compared to the Google Assistant Siri seems silly, but it is not all bad considering the biggest Android smartphone vendor Samsung preloads its Bixby assistant which is useless hiding the Assistant in the background. Siri also powers the new Translate app which is neat considering it can do everything on-device. Apart from this, now Siri can be called into doing voice notes and voice dictations which also use its machine learning chops.
- Like every release of iOS, Apple builds another wall for advertisers and trackers. Now, users can transition third-party apps to Sign In with Apple. Safari has more detailed and aggressive tracking embedded at its core. There is this new App Clips feature that doesn’t even need you to download the full app if you just need it for a random singular event. In case, it needs to make transactions it can use Apple’s payment protocol. To me, that’s one more reason to not install an app.
- The ability to set third-party apps as defaults are going to be a big deal for many people. Of course, this has been there on Android forever — but the ability to set Spotify as the default music app, Gmail as the default email app and Chrome as the default web browser will be a big deal for a lot of people. Apple probably hasn’t done this for the right reasons. It has done it to fend off some anti-trust scrutiny which has been bubbling for a while, but regardless, this will be very handy.
- This update is also a case in point for Apple to flex its muscles. It can show that its accessories will also get better. Case in point, the new AirPods Pro which now gets spatial audio with iOS 14 supporting Dolby Atmos, 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound. This will be a challenge for other true wireless earphones as Apple has flipped a switch here. Additionally, now all AirPods will seamlessly switch to the Apple device you are using if you have multiple. This also a case of intelligence and some arm flexing of how good it can be for you if you just use Apple products.
- Apple Music has received a massive update almost inconspicuously. The user interface has been simplified. There is a new listen now screen, followed up by browse and radio. They have taken some inspiration from Spotify here. There is even a new search bar at the end which allows you to search based on the really neat genre it allows you to surface new music based on the type of stuff you like. A good example of this is that I just realised that there is a new Lamb Of God album out there which I started blasting while writing this piece.
This is just scratching the surface with iOS 14. There are tons of big features buried here.
Apple has rebuilt Maps which anyway had become quite good. This is US-centric supports EV recharging stations and marks out pollution zones so you can navigate around them. CarPlay now gets more apps and wallpaper backgrounds.
In the US, you can even now unlock cars with digital keys like on the BMW M5 which can also be shared with your friends and family over iMessage.
There are tons of new accessibility features including one which allows one to tap the back of the phone a couple of times to launch apps. There is a new picture in picture mode which will automatically convert the video you’re watching into a movable blob allowing you to work and play.
There is also a new voice memos app that’s doing noise cancellation for ambient noise which records audio in a very very clear way.
The Android influence is hard to deny, but Apple does it in its way. This means, it is more elegant than what you get via Google, it is more curated and standardised and it is performant. The biggest compliment I can give to iOS 14 is that it supports a five-year-old phone like iPhone 6S. Hey Google, which Android phone from 2015 is up for the Android 11 update or even Android 10? Nada!