01 October 2012

iOS 6: plus 200 semi-useless features, minus the Maps

Apple iOS 6The sensation of the autumn until now in the tech world was – as usual in the last couple of years – the launch of the new iPhone and the accompanying mobile OS from Apple. I updated my iPhone a week ago and so far a haven’t been at all impressed by the ‘improvements’. I’ll go through some of the updates from my perspective:

  • Better call-handling options, like replying with a predefined SMS message or sending the call to voicemail. Always nice to see how supposedly the most advanced mobile OS is catching up with 5-year-old Symbian – I had something like this in my previous phone, a Nokia N81. Speaking of that: setting any music track as a clock alarm: Symbian feature too, years ago.
  • Do not disturb’ is a nice improvement: it’s somewhere between turning the phone off and turning on vibration switch; you can still grab the phone and see what happened since you last checked it and let calls from important people through, but otherwise the phone won’t bother you. You can set this up with a schedule as well so you don’t get notifications during sleep hours, but it’s a bit odd that you can’t define a different schedule for the weekend. I attended a funeral last week and I found it very convenient to just turn on ‘Do not disturb’ – it’s also nicely placed in Settings just a couple of clicks away.
  • Better privacy controls (contacts, photos): always nice to keep tabs on what the apps on your phone are trying to do with your data.
  • Several – more or less subtle – design changes; you can read a more in-depth analysis in this article. Personally I don’t like the new blue status bar in the system apps, it looks too washed out, with poor contrast between background and text. As most of the third-party apps I use haven’t adopted this change – I hope they won’t either – this breaks the consistency of iOS. The same happens with the new ‘pull-to-refresh’ gesture Apple implemented in its core apps, from Maps to Podcasts, because most other apps had their own visuals for this action. A thing I noticed and haven’t seen mentioned anywhere online is how, after being turned off, the screen doesn’t go directly to full brightness like in iOS 5, instead there is a subtle transition from all-black to ready-to-go.
  • The Mail app received some updates, from attaching photos and videos to messages to custom signatures for each account. The most advertised is VIP, a customized inbox for the people you define as important. It’s somewhat useful because you can define specific alerts for those messages; on the other hand you need to receive a large volume of mail on a daily basis for this to have a significant impact on your productivity. For my personal use this new feature is mostly negligible. But I discovered another thing that will save me many more clicks: ‘mark as unread’ has been moved from the header to the flag button in the mail toolbar. And, for some strange reason, my Gmail account – set up as Exchange – doesn’t support flagging messages…
  • The Reminders app also got a visual refresh that threw me off at first. But it now has notification badges with overdue tasks – something on my iOS wish list – even though I suspect the number only shows overdue tasks from a single list, not all of them. Location-based reminders can be set for any address, not just those from contacts – another unnecessary limitation in iOS 5! In iOS 6, third-party apps can integrate Apple reminders, create new ones, set due dates and sync them; maybe this way I will start warming up to apps like Any.DO.
  • The now-standalone Podcasts app got some minor improvements over the version launched a couple of months ago. If finally fixed the nonsense behavior of playing episodes from newest to oldest; it has an option to control this – and it actually defaults to ‘old to new’! The silly icons of hare vs. tortoise to set the playback speed have been replaced with a more conventional button. The controls on the lock screen now include two buttons to rewind or advance 15s into the podcasts, replacing forward and rewind – a good idea also!
  • Deep integration: I was weary of the contact sync with Facebook at first, because of the many articles screaming how this is supposed to screw your address book with the dreaded Facebook e-mail address. It turns out this actually creates a new contact set and tries to link them together with your existing ones, so it doesn’t clutter the address book, in theory. In the real world people like to use different names on Facebook (both their first names for example) and I like to keep my (Gmail) address book tidy, so there were a lot of cases where the automatic matching didn’t work. In that case you can link the contacts manually, so there is only a single entry in the address book. If this seems to messy or too much work, you can always turn off the integration with contacts and calendar without removing the ability to post to Facebook from the Notifications screen.
  • iCloud Tabs in Safari: as a Windows user – like the majority of iPhone owners, I suspect – how can I benefit from that?! In case this slipped your mind, great Apple, you kind-of killed Safari on Windows – not that anybody was still using it – so we have no desktop browser to sync those tabs to. No matter, Chrome for iOS already syncs tabs to the desktop and doesn’t artificially limit itself to the tiny Mac universe. I was somewhat hoping for an unified address & search field, but supposedly there’s good reason why that’s not happening. Safari also gained the ability to display the browsing history (!): hold down the Back-button until a list of previous visited webpages pops up. Leaving aside the mind-numbing fact that iOS didn’t have such a basic feature after five years, the design is positively spartan - I expected more from Apple, who prides itself on design; this just feels like an after-thought. The full-screen mode in landscape is nice though.
  • Panorama mode in the Camera app: just like HDR sounds good in theory, but it’s not a core function you need on a camera, more a gimmick to show off to your friends once or twice. The first time I used it I almost laughed when I discovered that it’s not possible to take panorama photos in landscape mode, the screen just won’t rotate. Maybe it’s justified from a technical point of view, but it’s a stupid limitation nonetheless. Also, the resulting files don’t seem to sync via PhotoStream – maybe the file size is too large – but that just generates more confusion for the users and goes against the idea of doing everything ‘in the Cloud’. iOS6 Panorama in Herastrau Park Bucharest
  • Shared Photo Streams: with so many other photo sharing options out there, including the social networks built in the OS itself, it’s hardly a must-have feature.
  • Passbook: first of all I’m not going to benefit from this here in Romania for the foreseeable future due to lack of third-party support – just like Siri. On top of that, from the reviews I read, the general feeling I get is that it’s confusing to use and not yet ready for wide-spread adoption. It’s basically just a wrapper for other third-party apps, so why not just use those apps directly?
  • Redesigned iTunes store: meh. It’s something developers should care about, as the new Store displays less apps on a single page. For users Apple finally removed the password prompt when updating apps – seriously, who ever thought than was a good idea?!
  • And last, but not least, the new Apple Maps! Don’t even get me started on that! It’s like Apple just decided their customers all live in the US and use cars to get around – it’s alright, if you prefer public transport you probably can’t afford an iPhone anyway! And no, an apology and a promise that “we’ll make it right sometime in the future” doesn’t cut it! The worse thing: every other app on the iPhone from now on is bound to these incomplete maps. To finish with the example I used before about the funeral from last week, I searched for the cemetery on Apple Maps and found no results; there were also no visual clues that there was a cemetery there or anything else for that matter, it was just like walking in an empty field. Maps on the other hand (Nokia Maps as well) has no trouble pointing me to the right spot.
Its map database isn’t perfect either. But if you plug in a street address, you can pretty much count on Maps taking you to the actual corresponding map location, via streets that probably actually exist. Just don’t ask it to find a location without an address. There’s an excellent chance that it’s either never heard of the place, or it’ll take you to the wrong location entirely. And if you’ve asked Siri to advise you on the location of the nearest post office or sandwich shop, thank her for the information but then check it carefully on a satellite map while she isn’t looking. Andy Ihnatko

The bottom line? Many updates are just minor changes that could have just as well been delivered as a minor update, not a full-blown version change; very little real improvement and one giant step backwards with Maps.

  • iOS 6 Podcasts on the home screen
  • iOS 6 Mail new Mark as Unread
  • iOS 6 Apple Maps no results for large retail store
  • iOS 6 Google Maps results for Kaufland in Bucharest
  • iOS 6 Nokia Maps can save maps for offline use
  • iOS 6 Apple Maps misses lake in Herastrau park
  • iOS 6 Google Maps shows the lake in Herastrau park

To me, this whole Maps blunder highlights the areas where Apple has been and continues to be vulnerable and where their legendary customer focus fails:

  • first: Apple is unable to cooperate on services, unwilling to use standards rather than their proprietary solutions and ‘walled garden’ (see FaceTime, iMessage, iCloud; the perfect counter-example would be WebKit: very successful, but also open-source and not an Apple product to begin with) – with this approach their services will never get traction outside the Apple world and will never generate critical mass;
  • secondly, Apple is poor at scaling to customers internationally (Siri, Maps, US-only LTE). Microsoft exploited the first vulnerability to take over the PC world, now Google is doing the same in mobile.

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