Freshening Up: iOS Could Use Some Time in the Powder Room

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It’s official. Apple has set a date for what’s sure to be the most important tablet announcement of 2012: the unveiling of the third-generation iPad. The coming week will bring a flurry of media anticipation and commentary, with some retrospectives on the iPad’s legacy, and speculation on what’s to come.

Before the inevitable lines start forming at Apple stores around the country, though, we thought we’d take a look at some changes we’d like to see in the next iteration of the iPad’s OS. Let’s chat.

Multitasking

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The two dominant tablet OSes on the market today have a number of differences, but none so great as this: one was built with multitasking in mind (Android), and one wasn’t (iOS). It’s easy to forget that the original iPad launched without the ability to run more than one third-party app simultaneously. It was maddening to be forced to quit listening to a song in Pandora just to answer an IM or to browse the web.

With the release of iOS4, Apple fixed this glaring deficiency. Over several updates since, users have been given the freedom to run as many apps as they like, all at the same time. While it can be fun to debate whether Apple’s implementation is “real” multitasking -Apple does some magic hand-waving in the background that freezes/tombstones certain apps- the end result is that most iPad users today PERCEIVE that they are able to run more than one app at once. And in this case, perception is the reality.

The problems start cropping up in the most recent iteration of iOS (5.0.1 as of this writing), which offers some gesture-based interactions to control the iPad’s multitasking behavior. I want to be clear on this: these gestures are VERY COOL, and a far more intuitive means of shuffling between apps than other approaches. But a few tweaks would deliver a much better experience.

To access the ribbon of recently-used apps on an iPad, users can double-tap the home button like their iPhone-toting compatriots … OR they can make use of the much-more-fun four-finger swipe-up (hyphen-hyphen). Placing four fingers anywhere on the screen and sliding up will reveal the task switcher, and users can go from there. Additionally, a four-finger swipe to the side will jump users directly into the next app in the recently-used list.

It’s a fun approach to multitasking, heavily reminiscent of Palm’s webOS, whose multitasking paradigm was almost universally praised. But in clumsily poaching those ideas from Palm’s carcass, Apple has created a rare rough patch in its user experience.

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In webOS, users could employ similar “advanced gestures” to swipe between active applications with a sideways drag of a finger. But because webOS used something closer to “true” multitasking, the experience was better: in most cases, the next app would slide into focus and be ready for use almost instantly. In iOS, where the behavior of suspended apps varies according to what permissions it’s been given, you’re sometimes left waiting for up to 5-7 seconds while an app comes out of hibernation. This creates a disparity between expectation and reality that’s quite jarring.

Exposing the task switcher is another sticking point. Requiring four fingers makes sense, as it helps the software differentiate your input from other multitouch gestures, but it’s not always easy to pull off, particularly in portrait orientation. Once again, the approach used by webOS on the TouchPad (and by QNX on the Blackberry Playbook) is instructive: a single finger, dragged onto the screen from the bottom bezel, reverts to card view or launches the task manager. This applies in portrait or landscape modes. While the difference seems trivial, with repeated gestures like these, used hundreds of times in a week, the increased simplicity that this more intuitive gesture offers is measurable.

I’m working under a word limit here, so let’s not even talk about the absurdly cumbersome five-finger inverse-pinch to revert to the home screen. Strong but wrong, Apple.

Notifications

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It must be said: they’ve come a long way since 2007. The rage-inducing blue bubble that interrupted every game, app, or movie in iOS has finally been shown the door, replaced by a “Notification Center” that’s basically the jailbreak community’s “MobileNotifier” with some tweaks and a visual overhaul.

Steve Jobs’ usage of the memorable Picasso maxim “good artists copy; great artists steal” became closely identified with him after a 1994 interview, and its influence can be seen in some of Apple’s most visible moves with iOS. In the case of Notification Center, most consider the source for Apple’s inspiration to have been Android, with its unique “lampshade” notification drawer. Visually, the two approaches are actually quite different, and each offers its own opportunities for expansion and tailoring; but their general layout is the same, as is their placement at the top of the screen.

It’s the latter detail that, frankly, sucks. Here’s the thing: tablets are not smartphones. While tablets are sometimes used on a desktop or in a lap, where both hands have ready access to the entire display, they’re also often used while standing, walking, lying down, and in a host of other positions and situations. It’s not always convenient to reach a hand across the entire display to drag down a notifications bar. One of the few bright points of Android’s Honeycomb revision was moving this notification area to the bottom-right corner of the screen, where it’s easily accessible with a quick flick of the thumb. Apple’s Notification Center is great, but it needs to be moved to a similar easy-to-reach area.

You’re So Predictable

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“When the original iPhone launched, it marked the beginning of a revolution in the mobile technology sector.” I put quotes around it because that tired old sentence has probably been trotted out about 500 times in tech articles all over the internet, and I wanted to be sure I covered my bases. We all know what the iPhone did for the industry, and it’s true that iPhone OS 1.0 represented a paradigm shift in mobile communications. Even as a glorified featurephone platform, it was unlike anything that had come before it.

That was in 2007.

Apple, it’s time to be revolutionary again. Your home screen, a grid of static, equidistant app icons, made sense on a phone once upon a time. That time has passed. It’s NEVER made sense on a tablet, where the screen real estate is begging to be used for something more worthwhile than the same unchanging field of dumb rounded cubes.

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Things that also don’t make sense: adopting phone-sized UI elements for your tablet. Apple, you’ve had almost two years to give the iPad its own unique identity. Please stop using tiny unlock sliders and security code windows on your tablet. All the wasted space hurts my head.

The first time I was exposed to something called a “widget,” it was on a Powerbook. Apple almost single-handedly sold the idea of widgets to the public. People have been clamoring for their implementation in iOS for years. But for some reason, it took Android to bring them to market.

Of course, you can’t just throw a flashy widget on the screen and expect it to deliver value; truly building a UI to its fullest potential takes a tightly-woven tapestry of intuitive notifications, discrete-but-informative widgets, and cherry-picked UI risks like smart wallpaper. It’s this kind of ground-up rethinking that needs to be done every so often, because as the technology explodes around us, our usage patterns change. Before we even realize it, something that seemed satisfactory, even amazing, a few years before now seems cumbersome, slow, and outmoded. It happened to RIM, Microsoft, Palm … and without some modernization, it’ll happen to Apple.

Of course, none of those sweeping changes make a single bit of business sense, at least not yet. For years, Apple’s desktop OS revisions have been the picture of incremental iterations. They didn’t start fundamentally changing the way OS X operates until very recently — and even then, the changes aim to bring it more in line with the existing iOS design language. For all their bluster in their more roguish “scrappy underdog” days, the Apple of 2012 is a very conservative company. They believe their customers want what’s comfortable and what’s familiar, and for the moment, they’re right.

But Google’s recent transition toward a more aesthetic focus in Android is slowly chipping away at one of the few advantages Apple still enjoys over its rival. Granted, iOS is still worlds ahead of Android in some important respects, but if the Mountain View team beats them to the punch in delivering a truly modern tablet OS experience, Apple might find itself flat-footed. And a company like Apple finding itself bested by a company like Google in a field like user interface would be a very embarrassing defeat indeed.

Start bringing iOS into the modern era, Apple, and please do it soon.

Finally …

Siri on the iPad

Give me her. That is all.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!