There’s really nothing like September in Silicon Valley. This is Apple’s time, and this year they did not disappoint.
But rather than go over the lack of headphone port for the millionth time, let’s take a dive into the new software layer that Apple put out for iPhone users this month (did you forget?).
With iOS 10, Apple has made some subtle, divisive—maybe underappreciated—changes. And in the right light it looks like a preview of a very different future.
iOS 10—The Subtle Foundation
The majority of the changes made in iOS 10 are, in the words of Ben Thompson, “practical.”
Notifications are significantly more helpful and easy to access, for instance. “Raise to wake” shows them to you the moment you lift your phone out of your pocket and new inline functionality lets you respond to messages and cancel Ubers from your lockscreen or from other apps.
3D Touch capabilities have been expanded to the flashlight (used to adjust brightness) and made better in Safari (used to close all tabs). And notably, you can now delete some of the stock apps that come with every iPhone out there.
No, you still can’t get rid of Clock, which had new watch faces and a new “Bedtime” feature added onto it—but more on that at the end.
Excitingly, iOS 10 marks the opening of the API for Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant. This may well be transformative for apps where developers can narrow the range of expected input down to “get me a Lyft” or “pay Discover card bill.” But if Siri still seems like more of the same—like something “everyone raves about but nobody uses for anything”—then look under the hood.
The Rise Of Siri
iOS 10 may not be coming out and screaming about it, but Siri—or at least the idea of Siri—is everywhere in iOS 10. Siri will tell you who’s calling when your phone rings in your headphones. Ignore the call, and she’ll transcribe the voicemail. At night, she’ll remind you to go to sleep.
From pins dropped automatically to help you remember where you parked your car, to machine-learning based photo indexing, to the fully-fledged Internet of Things platform in the Home app, iOS 10 is the closest Apple has gotten to implementing a truly virtual assistant.
It might be easy to shrug this off now, as people are doing—Google Now’s been leagues ahead in the virtual assistant race for some time—but that would miss the real importance of what Apple is doing.
The Operating Organism
In the Wall Street Journal’s review of the new iPhone, they declaimed “the killer integration” of iOS 10 to be “third-party messaging and music services that can be used in the car, where we need voice assistants the most.”
Voice assistants? Third-party? Is this Apple we’re talking about? To Joanna Stern, iOS 10 “proves that Apple may have the smarts to compete with Google, Facebook, and others in the arena of online services.”
“Being able to remove Apple’s apps seems symbolic,” David Pierce of Wired wrote in a review entitled “With iOS 10, Your iPhone’s Basically Just a Lockscreen Now.”
“The iPhone finally feels like more than a beautifully decorated home for your favorite apps. It feels like a single organism, shifting and changing to meet your needs.”
But the organism here is iOS, not the iPhone. This tenth anniversary release of Apple’s mobile operating system represents the first time that it has so obviously outshined its ostensible vessel—the new iPhone. Every review of the iPhone 7 and iOS 10 (that isn’t just about headphone ports) focuses almost exclusively on features and services. There just isn’t that much to talk about on the hardware side.
Soon, however—iOS 10 is proof—there will be a lot to talk about when it comes to Apple and hardware.
Two major usability trends underlie the changes in iOS 10:
- A move to keyboard-free computing—sending stickers or handwriting rather than typing out sentences in iMessage, simply raising your phone to see notifications, a Smarter Siri
- A freer, more distributed platform—the universal clipboard, optional removal of stock apps, increased integration with third-party applications
Think back to the skeuomorphism that was a hallmark of iOS design pre-iOS 7. The Books app that actually looked like a bookshelf. The Notes app that looked like a legal pad. Shadows, textures, and other physical references. Then it all changed. We got a razor-thin UI made for the new Retina screens and ultralight Helvetica Neue everywhere.
“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” designer Jony Ive said in 2013, “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific.”
That journey into indistinction has reached a zenith this year, as reviewers throw up their hands and wonder why anyone would buy an iPhone 7. iOS 10 does so much. It can be downloaded onto every iPhone since the 4. It seems like Apple is almost trying to make the iPhone irrelevant and disconnected from the services it can offer through its own ecosystem.
Perhaps loosening their walled garden, allowing more extensive third-party integration and putting the full brunt of its efforts behind voice assistance and other AI is meant to do just that. Because there’s another vessel that Apple owns, one that would benefit massively from an operating system run entirely off taps and voice commands: the Apple Watch.
Maybe the greatest things about iOS—the opening up of the iPhone ecosystem and the increasing intelligence of its virtual assistant, Siri—are part of Apple’s play for the future of computing. Calling a cab, taking a video, responding to your texts, paying your credit card and more, all from your wrist. If Apple can get people to put their watches on their wrists, they’ll have the OS to go with it all ready.
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