Depending on your perspective, Apple’s latest version of iOS 6 is either a mishmash of inconsistently designed apps sitting on top of the most antiquated usage experience available anywhere or just the latest in a long line of evolutionary iterations to Apple’s mature and familiar mobile OS.
Frankly, it’s a bit of both.
That said, it’s clear that iOS 6 is in need of a complete overhaul. Given Apple’s track record, however—the firm tends to innovate once a decade on core products and then iterate the hell out of ‘em—I just don’t see that happening. So each year we get a bunch of new features and fixes—and for free, which is hard to argue with—rather than the sweeping changes that are increasingly needed.
Give Apple some credit for marketing, which is its biggest strength. The firm refers to iOS as nothing less than “the world’s most advanced mobile operating system,” one that is both “elegant and intuitive.” That’s not just a stretch, it’s out of touch with reality. Put simply, iOS is not elegant or intuitive, it’s just familiar, because so many people have been using it for so many years.
Of course, the real reason iPhone users profess nothing but love for iOS is because of the apps that run on top of it: There are over 700,000 of them, according to Apple, though not all of them work on the iPad or in all locales. That’s a bit more than what’s available for Android (600,000) and about seven times the app selection on Windows Phone. And while think this emphasis on app count is irrational and temporary, and something that we as users will simply grow past over time, there it is.
But we’re not really here to talk about apps. We’re here to assess iOS 6. And the prognosis is mixed.
First, iOS 6 is simply iOS. So all the good and bad of previous versions is still very much in evidence. The lame grid of icons. The hunt and peck, “whack a mole” approach to app finding and launching, in and out we go, always having to run a different app to get things done. Assuming you remember which home screen it’s on.
Same as it ever was: iOS 6
That said, there’s a lot of good in iOS. The notification center that debuted in iOS 5 is well done and infinitely configurable. Safari is an excellent mobile browser, and the content apps and stores are full-featured and well-stocked, and backed by Apple’s iCloud online service. The OS provides best-in-class accessibility features, and excellent mail, calendar, and phone experiences.
In the new features department, iOS 6 is a lot less interesting than its predecessor, iOS 5, which actually threw in a few major new features, a rarity for iOS releases.
The Siri voice control feature, previously in beta, now offers app launching functionality, which Windows Phone has had since 2010, as well as other more unique capabilities. I’m not sold on people talking to their phones—in fact, out in the public, little annoys me more than having to participate in others’ all-too-loud and clueless phone activities, whether it’s playing music loudly through a device’s speaker or using speaker phone in public. I have never, not once, witnessed anyone using Siri in public. You don’t want to be there if it happens.
Hello, Siri. I actually think you're sentient!
Apple’s widely criticized new Maps app has gotten a lot attention, all of it bad. And yes, Maps lacks useful features like Street View and support for public transportation and replaces them with demoware features like flyover view, which would be handy, say, if you were piloting a UFO and needed to find your way (major metropolitan areas only). But Maps is pretty to look at (even in 2D) and does have free turn by turn navigation. I suspect Apple fixes this pretty quickly.
Apple finally integrated Facebook into iOS, and only two years after Microsoft did so in Windows Phone. (iOS 5 added less desirable Twitter integration.) I’m not sure what took so long, but it’s nicely done, so you can finally do obvious things like take a photo and then share it to Facebook without leaving the camera experience. (Again, yes, we’ve had this for two years on Windows Phone. Sorry, it’s true.)
The Photo Stream feature has been updated to support shared photo streams, providing iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV users with a way to automatically view photos shared from friends, family, and others. I’m not a huge fan of locking this kind of thing inside of Apple’s insular ecosystem, though, and think photo sharing should happen via more globally accessible services such as Facebook or Flickr.
Apple’s new Wallet feature, Passbook, will be hugely popular, I think. But it is perhaps the most limited of such solutions that will be available on mobile platforms this year, and there are few interesting apps available for it so far. Unlike more technically sophisticated and NFC-compatible services on Android and Windows Phone, Passbook appears to be not much more than an app container, much like Newsstand is for digital periodicals in iOS, though in this case it aggregates "passes" from other aps. That is, its primary function is to place one or more similar separate apps passes into a single visual container. This somewhat helps alleviate that “whack a mole” thing I always complain about with iOS. (And like Newsstand, you cannot delete the Passbook icon from the home screen, though you can at least move it into a folder.)
The FaceTime video chat solution supports cellular connectivity now … except when your wireless carrier blocks it, as AT&T Wireless is doing. Skype and Facebook Chat are more broadly compatible and thus preferable. (And they work over cellular data too.)
The Camera app picks up a panorama feature, which is even nicer than the one I’ve been using on the Nokia Lumia 900. (And unlike the Windows Phone version, it supports portrait orientation too, which is a more natural way to hold a phone.) This is a good feature, and well done, and should be cheered by everyone using iOS.
One weird thing about iOS 6 is that Apple’s built-in apps are suddenly even more inconsistently designed than ever. Some apps, like Safari and Settings, retain the old blue-gray look and feel, while others are dark gray with black accents (Photos, iTunes, App Store) or just dark gray, light gray with dark gray accents (Music), a new bluer-gray (Videos), or faux-wood (iTunes U and Newsstand, both of which—seriously—feature differently colored wood designs!). I await someone’s impassioned defense of this Crayola strategy.
If you are using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, iOS 6 is of course a necessary upgrade, even with the Maps silliness. Looked at from the outside, however, there’s not much here that’s worth fretting over. If you’re using Windows Phone or Android, you can at least rest easy knowing that only Apple’s devices are truly lust-worthy, and then only until you bring them out in the real world and scratch them or break the screen, which is especially a problem for iPhones. But the iOS software that runs on these devices is showing its age. And Apple shows no indication that it’s ever going change from that strategy. This is a big opportunity for the competition.