iOS 10 preview: A sad present for a milestone birthday

A misguided redesign of several screens to accommodate widgets and a small set of enhancements detract from iOS's 10th anniversary

iOS 10 preview: A sad present for a milestone birthday
flickr/normanack (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Apple's iOS is in its tenth iteration and nine years old, believe it or not. In tech years, that's, what, 63 years old? At that age, you're about as mature as you can be, and you really slow down the changes you make to yourself. That's certainly the case with iOS 10, which has to be one of the smallest updates ever to the iPhone's and iPad's operating system -- in the first public beta version, anyhow.

iOS 10's version number seems misplaced given how minor the changes are this time around, and if the intent was to celebrate iOS's double-digit milestone, this version doesn't do that.

Most of iOS 10's "big" changes are cosmetic, centered around its newfound love of clunky, overly bound Android-style widgets in the lock screen, notifications screen, Control Center, and what used to be the (useless) Search screen (swipe all the way to the leftmost screen).

iOS control center

The Control Center screen: iOS 10's two screens are at left and iOS 9's single screen is at right.

iOS lock screen

The lock screen: iOS 10's two screens are at left and iOS 9's single screen is at right.

iOS search screen

The search screen: iOS 10 is at left and iOS 9 at right.

iOS notifications screen

The notifications screen: iOS 10 is at left and iOS 9 at right.

Although the previous versions of these screens could have stood improvements, they at least were clearer and required less scrolling around to get things done than the new versions. The Android-style fixed widget containers overly constrain some features, like the calendar widget, into unusably small spaces.

They also take way too much space for many features, requiring (for example) extra scrolling in the Control Center for exactly the same functionality as before. (Why does the Night Shift mode now get such a big button? It's not something you toggle on and off frequently, after all.)

Some widgets also work in oddly limited ways. For example, the new Mail widget shows you whether you have new emails from people in your VIP list. But if you tap a person with a "new mail" badge, you don't get that person's email. Instead, it opens the Mail app in the VIP folder. It's better to go to the Notifications screen and open the message directly from there.

To me, this ungainly, rigid new design is a mistake that goes against Apple's history of elegant simplicity. I wonder who's minding the user experience shop at Apple these days.

One change does make sense, and that is the elimination of the swipe-to-unlock gesture on the lock screen. Not only did Apple lose that patent, the prevalence of Touch ID on its devices makes the swipe unnecessary; just tap and go.

On the (now) fairly old pre-Touch ID devices supported by iOS 10 (the fourth-generation iPad, iPad Mini 2, iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, and sixth-generation iPod Touch), you have to press the home button to get the password screen to unlock the device -- no more awkward than side-swiping to get that password screen. (With an option in the Settings app's Accessibility section, you don't even have to press the button; just rest a finger on the screen for these older devicEs.)

Beyond these changes, you have to look hard for changes in iOS 10. None is earth-shattering or even enough to stop traffic:

  • Web support for Apple Pay is one new capability.
  • Also new is Note's ability to share notes with other people, which the iWork apps got a few years back.
  • Messages gains a lot of gewgaws such as Apple Watch-style heartbeat messages and stickers certain to appeal to tweens and to adults needing a silly break.
  • Safari supports iOS 9's split-window iPad view. (That should have happened in iOS 9.)
  • The Phone app can now transcribe voicemails, and third-party phone apps are now integrated into Contacts and other core services.. 
  • iOS gains MacOS's dictionaries for spell-checking, as well as the ability to select the ones you want to use. Now autocorrect will be less likely to "correct" foreign words and phrases.
  • Settings separates the configuration of Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, and Reminders, which had previously been set up in the same Settings window.

Maybe the biggest is the new ability to tap the Filter button in mail to see only unread messages in your inbox, and to change that filter to another attribute if desired. Much handier than typing Unread in Mail's search box, but fundamentally a minor "finally!" refinement.

mail filter ios10

iOS 10's Mail app adds a new message-filter button whose filter you can change as desired

These are all welcome, but hardly big deals.

Still missing are important functions for mobile users: the ability to create and edit groups in Contacts and use them as addressees in Mail, and to at least import Mail filters via iCloud from your Mac if not create and manage them directly. In a world of spam, it's criminal that iOS devices can't filter out all the junk themselves. They certainly have the processing capacity to do so.

I wish Apple would invest in Mail, Calendar, and Contacts as it does in Messages and Maps -- communications are core to mobile users, and these old technologies are ripe for major advancements. Here's one idea: Look at all my calendars and tell all the affected servers when I'm busy, not merely the one the specific appointment is in.

iOS 10? More like iOS 9.5. Oh well, there's always next year.

The good news is, that outside the revamped lock, notification, and Control Center screens, iOS 10 doesn't damage what has long been a world-class mobile OS. This is no Windows Vista or Windows 8 tragedy, but it is a missed opportunity.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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