What does Apple have up it's sleeves? What will they reveal to us at WWDC? This series is a look into a few areas of iOS that I would love to see improved.
" />

The iOS 7 Crystal Ball Report- Part 3


As we move another week closer to WWDC, it’s time to take a fresh look at more areas that I hope Apple will address in iOS 7. In last week’s installment, I went through some ideas for and rumors of improvements to stock iOS apps, such as Calendar and Mail. This week, I am turning my attention towards two seemingly unrelated aspects of iOS: Messaging and Documents.


Odd Bedfellows

So, what do Messaging and Documents have to do with each other in iOS? Frankly, not much on the surface. However, while the two features do not directly overlap, they are both hampered by Apple’s walled garden approach. Apple’s reliance on their strong catalog of siloed apps, which are sandboxed for the sake of security, has long been seen as an advantage. However, as mobile devices have grown more and more robust, this design has become a double edged sword. It negatively affects both messaging and document management in iOS, although in different ways. Let’s start off by taking a closer look at messaging.


So Many Ways to Message


Let’s break down the different ways to send and receive messages in iOS:

  1. Phone- It’s not technically the same as the rest of the iOS suite of messaging apps, but it is related to this discussion, so it has to be considered. It can be used to initiate SMS/iMessages, as well as Facetime calls from the Contacts tab.
  2. Text- This was the original iOS messaging app, which was limited to only SMS messaging in the early years of the OS. While the look hasn’t changed much, plenty of functionality has been added over time.
  3. Mail- Yes, it’s just email, but emails are messages, too. Don’t discriminate.
  4. MMS- Not an app, but a feature added to the Text app in iOS 3. Apple was VERY late to the party on this feature, but only a handful of users seemed to really care. Apps and Jailbreaking filled the early void well enough.
  5. Facetime- Apple wasn’t the first to market with video chat, but they were the first to truly mainstream it with the iPhone 4 and iOS 4. This is a great feature, but the implementation can be confusing. You use the Phone and Contacts apps to initiate it on an iPhone, but there is a stand-alone Facetime app on the iPad and iPod Touch, making the experience inconsistent between devices.
  6. Messages- Which brings us to Messages, the renamed and updated messaging app that Apple delivered to us in iOS 5. It added iMessage, a no-charge, Internet-based messaging service that works between Apple devices. It also brought other new features, such as group messaging and delivery and read receipts.
  7. Twitter and Facebook- While the two most important social networks still operate out of separate apps in iOS, they have been integrated into iOS via Notification Center widgets, the Sharing menu, and Siri.

So, we have several different apps, and ways to get to iOS’ messaging services. We also have inconsistencies in how you get to these services from device to device. What started out as a pretty clean and simple, but segregated system has turned into a gigantic mess. So what is Apple to do?


Consolidation is the Key

I’ve heard several tech pundits complain about how far behind iOS has fallen in messaging, and I would have to agree. The primary competition, which has been pushing Apple for a while, has now pushed ahead. Apps and services can be linked together and granted system-wide access in Android in a way that iOS doesn’t allow. Then you also have Google’s recent cross-platform messaging consolidation under Hangouts, which makes Android’s offering superior at this time. And then you have Windows Phone and Windows 8, which handle things in an even more unique way with a consolidated People hub. Both of these competing systems are different, but both are also currently superior to iOS. At this point, Apple’s messaging system is untenable, so they need to pick a new direction and get behind it. It’s time for them to get moving, and sooner rather than later.

Considering Apple’s insistence on sandboxing of apps, the Android way isn’t a realistic alternative for iOS. However, Microsoft’s People hub concept is a much more realistic direction for Apple, since the way it brings different messaging sources together doesn’t violate the Cupertino playbook.

Siri-MacWhen you think about it, iOS already has different levels of consolidation in its current messaging system. You can send various messages from the Contacts app, or from the Phone app of the iPhone. You can also use Siri to send any type of message, even though you are limited to voice dictation for message creation. It will even read you text messages back to you. But, for whatever integration currently exists in iOS, there is no one place to go to handle all messaging needs, all the time. Turning the existing Messages app into a broader hub that allows users to send and receive SMS, MMS, iMessage, Facetime, Facebook, Twitter, and even Email messages would rid iOS of both clutter and confusion.

In addition to one stop sending and receiving, providing access to a breakdown of messages from your contacts, irregardless of what kind of messages they are, would be incredibly useful. Add in the call logs that are currently buried inside individual entries in the Contacts app, and you’ve got a comprehensive track of the majority of your mobile communications. I know that iOS’ existing Spotlight Search can currently search Messages and Mail, but this is quite limited, and has to be initiated by a user query. Having this information at your fingertips would be infinitely more useful.



There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Documentation

One of the constant complaints that tech writers and those of us of the geek persuasion have with iOS is the lack of access to the file system. It makes the OS simple and easy to use for those who are new to smartphone, or are less technically inclined. However, many power users see no end of irritation with Apple’s purposeful ommition.

Evernote_iOS_logoI’ve learned to get along without file system access in iOS without many issues. Most of the document and note taking apps that I use include integration to third party services such as Evernote, Google Docs, Dropbox, or Box, so I am still able to share my documents across several apps. Unfortunately, these integrations are left up to individual app developers, so your mileage will ultimately vary based on the apps and services that you use.

With the advent of sandboxing of apps and data, even at the OS X level, it seems that Apple’s aim is to decrease the ability of apps to interact and share information with each other in the name of security. Considering this current direction, it seems that Apple is not going to be allowing iOS apps to have any direct connections to each other. While system and data security is vital, Apple’s current system is too much of a tradeoff for many advanced users. Android, Windows Phone, and even Blackberry have provided these users with increased flexibility, and many have changed platforms to take advantage. Unfortunately, once you lose this kind of user, it can be rather difficult to get them back, so Apple would be wise to find a workable middle ground.



Beating the Dead Horse of Consolidation

photos-app-iconWhile Apple’s sandboxed app framework may seem impenetrable, there is actually a perfect example of a workable document solution already in iOS: the Camera Roll. One idea I have hoped to see Apple implement over the last two years is a consolidated and shared document storage area within iOS that functions the same way as the current Camera Roll. For example, any time you open an app that uses either your device’s camera, or the Camera Roll (Facebook, for instance, when you upload a picture) for the first time, iOS prompts you to give the app access to the Photo Library. Users can then disable that access later on by going to Settings-Privacy-Photos.

This is an ideal situation, because the user has full control over which apps have access to what features at all times, not just upon installation. Even more important, the user gets the benefit of third party social, camera, and photo editing apps being able to work from the user’s existing library of pictures. It’s no mystery why camera and photo apps are so incredibly popular on iOS. Take a great camera and pair it with a flexible system for integrating, managing, and backing up photos that is still secure, and you have a winning formula.

It just makes sense. So much sense, in fact, that I can’t for the life of me think of a reason why Apple hasn’t already brought this system to documents in iOS. It’s not like power users haven’t been begging for a better way to manage files between Apple devices. The fact that is hasn’t been done by now makes absolutely NO sense.



Productive Productivity

logitech-easy-switch-keysApple’s second-class treatment of documents in iOS is very strange when you consider how the iPad has gained popularity as a productivity tool. Despite the early knock that the device was only good for consumption, Bluetooth keyboard cases and covers have become some of the most popular accessories available for it. I wonder why that is? Let’s see, an instant on/off device with flash memory and automatic cloud backup that is fast, and has a huge library of powerful document editing and note taking apps. Some people just don’t get it.

However, while I mentioned earlier that most of the powerful document apps in the App Store include integrations with popular cloud services, this is never a guarantee. The fact that your documents are sandboxed into the apps in which they were viewed or created by default IS guaranteed. Anything in addition is just an optional workaround of this limitation. For the iPad to continue to grow as a legitimate productivity tool in the face of competition that is making real strides in usability and quality, Apple simply HAS to address this problem. As with the current state of messaging, the document system has to start evolving for iOS to move forward in the eyes of power users.



Realistic Solutions

It’s easy to get carried away when you start thinking about a new version of iOS. The bump in new features only comes once a year now, so there is always a lot of anticipation and build up to it. Despite this, it is wise to remember that this is Apple we’re talking about. They are all about the slow and steady, tried and true approach. However, after a conservative, and ultimately disappointing release last year, there is a lot out there to wish for.

With this in mind, I have chosen to look for realistic and fairly conservative steps that will give users a substantial usability upgrade, without stepping too far outside the lines of how Apple currently does things in iOS. Revamping a single Messages app that already gives users some level of access to most of iOS’ messaging capabilities, and taking the unified Camera Roll system that already exists in iOS, and applying it to documents are not wild, out there suggestions. Rather, these are very realistic solutions to two big bottlenecks in the current version of iOS.

I sincerely hope that we see these features, or something like them, introduced in iOS 7 in a few weeks. Who knows, maybe Apple will surprise us, and go even further with messaging improvements. I wouldn’t expect anything wilder when it comes to documents, but there’s always a slim chance. However, bear in mind that we are supposed to already be getting a substantial cosmetic overhaul in iOS 7, so conservative is the way Apple will probably go.

Hopefully Apple will not continue to put these two important facets of iOS on the backburner, because whether it is conservative or comprehensive, change is definitely in order when it comes to messaging to documents. What do you think about these potential upgrades to messaging and document handling in iOS? What would you like to see changed or added? I would love to hear your suggestions. Feel free to let m know in the comments below, or on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+.


Continue reading:

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,