Trending: See you later, Swype: Popular text input keyboard discontinued as Seattle creators lament its demise

iPhone6_PF_SpGry_5-Up_iOS8-PRINT-2With a lot of its products, Apple has a habit of making things pretty, and then making them good. When the company unveiled iOS 8 in June, it seemed to me that Apple was in the back half of that cycle with the latest iteration of its mobile operating system.

iOS8MessagesAfter almost two and a half months of using iOS 8 in my daily life, I’ll happily stick by that snap judgment. Apple has stuck to most of the design changes it made with iOS 7, and spent this release adding a bunch of new features that make my favorite mobile OS even better.

People who are gun-shy about major design changes won’t have a lot new to learn with iOS 8. Apple has stuck with the aesthetic that it introduced in iOS 7 last year, with only a few tweaks. Save for a few key features, I doubt that average users will notice much of a difference between the two operating systems.

While people are out hunting for similarities and differences, they’re sure to find some with Apple’s competitors, especially Android. A several of the marquee features of iOS 8 – most notably new keyboards and interactive notifications – have appeared on Google’s platform first.

In the great tradition of platform partisanship, some people will say that Apple copied Google; while others will say that Apple refined features that were already on Google’s platform, and perhaps began developing them in parallel. At the end of the day, though, the saga of who copied who isn’t nearly as interesting as what the new features will mean for owners of Apple devices.

For them, iOS 8 is all upside. Here’s the breakdown:

New keyboards

IMG_2111After 5 years of using the iPhone as my daily carry smartphone, I’ve become a fast typist on the tiny software keyboard that has been around since the first introduction of the iPhone in 2007. iOS 8 brings a major change to that keyboard with the introduction of QuickType, which (as the name suggests) is designed to allow users to type faster on their iPhones and iPads.

The keyboard suggests three words to users as they type, based on both the content of their message, any letters they may have typed so far, and the context they’re typing in. For example, typing “org” in the Reminders app (which I use for a shopping list) suggests “organic,” but suggests “organization” and “organized” when I’m texting one of my friends.

QuickType handles all of the suggestions it makes client-side, unlike some other keyboards that send usage data up to a third-party server to refine their algorithms. That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s important: most users wouldn’t want to share everything they type with another party, but there are some keyboards that rely on exactly that to make their service better.

At first, QuickType’s suggestions intruded on my writing process when I was tapping out a sentence, but I’ve since found it to be a helpful addition. The key that I’ve found is not to try and enter every word as a result of one of the keyboard’s suggestions, but rather tap on useful words as they show up. Sometimes, QuickType will generate a perfect chain that accurately predicts what you’re about to type.

With two thumbs, I’ve found that I can usually type faster without QuickType’s suggestions, but it’s a significant improvement when typing one-handed. I also find it easier to type longer words, which were a chore on a standard keyboard.

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Swype’s keyboard for iOS

Alongside QuickType, Apple also rolled out support for new third-party keyboards, which allows other developers to offer their own takes on what they think an iOS keyboard should be. Swype has just launched its offering, and there are a number of other players in the market including SwiftKey and Fleksy. Those keyboards can run in a stand-alone mode, or request that users allow them to access a companion app that handles processing and saving data.

Notification Center and Widgets

IMG_2132One of the biggest areas of iOS 8 that Apple has improved is the company’s support for notifications. Gone is the never-used “missed” notifications tab. While I appreciated the intention behind its design, the missed notifications tab never quite lived up to its potential. Without it, notification center is significantly more simple, and new notification capabilities added with iOS 8 will make it easier to avoid missing notifications in the future.

The update also includes support for interactive notifications, so that users don’t have to unlock their phones to perform basic actions like responding to a text message. To get there, users swipe left on the notification on their lock screen, and then tap the blue reply button that shows up. It’s worth noting that QuickType is the only keyboard users have access to in this instance, so people interested in using a different keyboard will have to unlock their phone.

Users who already have their phone unlocked can still interact with a notification by pulling it down rather than tapping on it, which will allow them to stay in the app they’re working in and act on the notice.

Of course, all of this depends on third-party app developers supporting the new notification capabilities. When users first install iOS 8, they probably won’t have much to do in the way of rich notifications except for Apple’s built in applications. That said, there are already plenty of companies lining up to help developers integrate interactive notifications into their workflow, so it’s likely we’ll see a number of apps ready to go on launch day.

IMG_2112In addition to the loss of the Missed tab, the Today view has received a number of improvements, including support for third-party “widgets.” App developers can program their application to display information in the Today tab, so that users can look at their to-dos at a glance or check on their stock portfolio.

To add a widget, open up Notification Center, switch to the Today tab, and scroll all the way down to the bottom. Once there, tap on the “Edit” button, and enable any of the apps that you want to see in the Today view. Again, that capability is dependent on developers choosing to implement it, so it may be a few days after the update before many apps support it.

I also think that one of the great challenges for users going forward will be deciding which widgets to add to their Today view, and which to skip. While it has potentially infinite space (from what I can tell) the view’s biggest advantage is in providing users with an at-a-glance look at what’s important. There are going to be a lot of apps that support it, which means that users will have to manage their real estate for Today items very closely.

Messages

IMG_2114Thanks to the rise of apps like WhatsApp and Line, consumers are expecting more and more out of their messaging tools. In an attempt to compete, Apple rolled out a smorgasbord of features to its Messages app as a part of today’s update, which catches the company up to its competition in the messaging space.

Users who want to respond to a message really quickly have a couple of new options for rapid replies. The first is a new voice messaging capability that lets users reply by either tapping and holding the microphone icon next to the message box, and speaking into the phone’s mic, or by putting the phone up to their ear when they’re looking at a message. Once they’re done recording, the message will automatically fire off to the recipient.

Users can also invoke the voice messaging feature just by holding the phone up to their ear once they’ve chosen to reply to a message from the lock screen, as well. It’s an easy way for people to dash off a message, without having to tap out a long missive.

People who are concerned about their slower-to-upgrade friends missing a message won’t have to worry: iOS 7 devices receive the voice message as an attached file that will play when they tap on it. It’s not as snazzy as the user interface Apple released with iOS 8, but the backwards-compatibility means that users can send voice messages freely.

Of course, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution: text messages can be preferable in situations where people don’t want to talk, or if they’re in the midst of a noisy environment. But running off one of the voice messages is definitely far easier than

IMG_2116
Not pictured: the author manuvering his hands to take a screenshot while trying to stabilize this image

Selfie-happy users are going to appreciate the new camera functionality, which automatically switches on the phone’s front facing camera when users tap and hold on the camera button. If a user swipes up slightly when a radial menu appears, they’ll take a selfie and automatically send it to the person or people they’re conversing with. If they take a video, they’ll be able to review (and potentially discard) it before it gets automatically sent.

It’s hard to say whether the new multimedia messaging features will catch on – I definitely felt awkward sending a voice message whenever I bothered to test it – and I’d imagine that adoption will be mostly managed by social norms rather than technical ability. It’s also worth noting that people on restricted data plans will probably want to avoid super-frequent use of the new features, since they will eat up a data allowance.

The update to Messages also has a new feature that’s great for people who always find themselves getting looped into big group conversations. iOS 8 now allows users to enable “Do Not Disturb” on a particular thread, which means that they’ll still get messages, but their phone won’t buzz every time someone replies to a 30-person conversation.

It’s a real boon if a conversation is no longer relevant to you, but it’s continuing unabated anyway. It’s also a lot less complicated than pleading with a group of friends to shrink their conversation.

When it comes time to meet up with those friends, users can switch on the new location sharing feature in Messages. When someone decides to share their location data with a conversation, they can choose to send a snapshot of where they are at that exact moment, or share their data for a longer period of time (1 hour, 1 day, or indefinitely).

Again, I’m not sure how much the feature will see daily use, but it opens up a whole lot of potential use cases that weren’t built in before. People who want to share their whereabouts during a vacation can easily hand that over to their family, and friends can more easily coordinate a get-together in the middle of a massive park.

Overall, the new features add up to a greatly improved Messages app. It may not be enough to attract people who are already hooked on WhatsApp or Line, but users who haven’t yet pledged allegiance to one of those messaging platforms will find a lot to like with the improvements shown here.

Extensions

The 1Password extension in Safari
The 1Password extension in Safari

One of the major components to the iOS 8 update for developers is the ability to create extensions that can, as the name implies, extend the reach of their application into other apps. It’s a move that makes it possible for devs to extend experiences on iOS in a way that wasn’t possible before because of Apple’s strict controls on how and when apps can operate.

Case in point: AgileBits software gave me access to their beta version of 1Password for iOS, which has a new extension that allows users to unlock their password locker from inside another app, and insert the login information they have stored inside 1Password.

It’s not the only example of what extensions are capable of, but that shows off the sort of future this new feature brings to iOS users. There are plenty of companies building all sorts of extensions for the new OS: Tumblr has a sharing tool in the works that will allow people to post to their blogs straight from a browser, while Box is launching new capabilities that allow users to access their files outside of the Box app.

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Photos

The iPhone and iPad’s picture-taking and editing capabilities got a boost with this update, making it easy for people to quickly improve their photos and dive into the nitty-gritty if they want to make finer changes.

Users can now search their photos based on what album they’re in, as well as where they were when they shot the images and when they were taken. When people first open the search screen, Photos will suggest images they might be looking for, like those taken nearby, or what people shot a year ago.

Photos also contains support for more detailed editing, so users can adjust the lighting and color down to specific exposure, contrast and saturation values. The app can also automatically adjust photos to straighten horizon lines and perform other edits to make things better without a lot of effort.

As someone who shoots photos with his iPhone fairly regularly, it’s not nearly as powerful as some of my preferred apps. I won’t give up VSCO Cam or Camera Plus because of Apple’s new features in Photos, but it does provide good tools for people who aren’t interested in having a whole folder of apps on their home screen just for processing images.

Spotlight

IMG_2120Apple’s Spotlight search service got a facelift and some new capabilities with the update, making it easier for people to find what they’re looking for from a variety of sources, including emails, messages and online services.

Users can now find movie showtimes from Fandango, and news stories from a variety of searches just by pulling down on the middle of their home screen to open up the search box. Spotlight also incorporates searches from the iTunes Store, iBookstore and App Store, so people can find products to download to their device with a couple taps.

Personally, I haven’t had much use for Spotlight in the past, so I never quite developed the reflexes to open it when I needed to search for something in the first place. Because of that, I didn’t find myself pulling down to open it in daily use, even when I had a search that would have been helped by Spotlight’s capabilities.

Part of it had to do with what it takes to invoke Spotlight in the first place: I can’t get to the search box unless I’m on the home screen, at which point I might as well go into Safari or some other app to find what I’m looking for.

All of that said, people who already incorporate Spotlight into their daily workflow will probably find the changes much more useful. The new Spotlight is quite powerful, and worth a look.

Siri

IMG_2121Like the past iOS updates before this one, Siri got a handful of new capabilities with the update to make Apple’s virtual assistant even better.

One of my favorite new Siri functions is the “Hey Siri” feature, which allows an iOS device to listen for users to call upon Apple’s virtual assistant while it’s plugged in. It’s great for controlling audio playback from an iPhone in the car (“Hey Siri, play ‘Random Access Memories,’”) as well as firing off reminders when an iPad is plugged in to charge halfway across the room.

It’s not perfect, though – I once had to interrupt an important conference call that I was handling on my iPhone because my charging iPad thought that I needed it to search the web for something. Listening to podcasts while my iOS devices are plugged in is a similarly fraught activity. Still, I’d much rather have the voice activation than be without it, even if I have to shut Siri up from time to time.

IMG_2122Music fans will find a new favorite feature in Siri’s ability to identify songs using technology provided by Shazam. The virtual assistant will listen to the music that’s coming through the radio, and then inform users about what’s playing.

Like Shazam’s mobile app, it’s pretty good at detecting studio recordings and live music that has been released as an album, but it’s not going to tell you what song the band on stage is playing.

Siri is still missing some of the things that make its competitors special, like integration with third-party apps and an ability to surface relevant information when it’s appropriate without user action. In that way, both Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now have the upper hand over Siri.

Though I imagine that the combined forces of Apple’s continuing push to deliver features people want and the fact that its two largest competitors in the mobile space are already providing those features will push the company to improve Siri along those lines.

If there’s anything that iOS 8 proves, it’s the fact that Apple will do things that its competitors have done, but the company has to execute on those things its way. In much the same way that Apple waited to enable third-party keyboards, I’d wager it’s waiting to unlock some of that other technical potential.

Improved dictation

IMG_2123Even with QuickType, jotting down long messages on an iPhone or iPad can be a pain. Ever since Apple first released speech-to-text capabilities, they required that a user speak into their device’s microphone and then wait to have the resulting audio file processed in Apple’s cloud and then sent back to their phone as text.

Now, users who hit the dictation button on their keyboard get instantaneous feedback for what they’re saying. I’ve found that it’s still best to keep talking even as the device is making errors rather than try to go back and fix things mid-dictation, but it’s nice to spot errors as they appear, rather than have to wait for the results to come back.

App Store

IMG_2136The App Store has provided great opportunities to a lot of developers since it was first introduced with iPhone OS 2. People and companies have been made thanks to successes with selling bits to iPhone and iPad users, though it’s becoming harder and harder to do that now. With iOS 8, Apple has rolled out a couple new features designed to make it easy for people to discover great apps that they’re looking for.

The Explore tab takes the place of iOS 7’s “Nearby” tab in the App Store’s bottom bar, and provides users with a new “Explore” tab that allows them to brows collections of apps from the different categories available on the App Store.

It’s a more concise, easy-to-access system that makes it easier for people to find different apps without having to go wading through the different category pages themselves.

For me, I didn’t get a whole lot of use out of the Explore tab, but part of that has to do with my app-buying habits. I have to stay on top of the latest developments for my work, and that means I’m usually purchasing new apps based on what’s brand new in the App Store, or an article that I’ve read.

But people who want a concise look at what apps they might want to buy in a particular category will get a lot of mileage out of the Explore tab, and app developers will see a benefit through greater exposure to users.

The App Store also now suggests what it considers to be related searches, and users who open the search tab will see a list of trending queries that they can tap on to see what all the fuss is about. The search results are also laid out in a new format that makes it easy for people to see that there are multiple apps available for their search. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s something developers have been requesting.

What remains to be seen is if these changes will be enough to shake up the App Store economy. A number of Mac and iOS developers have bemoaned how difficult it is to succeed in the current App Store as an independent creator, so it will be interesting to see if these changes help any.

Touch ID

IMG_2119In keeping with this release’s theme of providing some excellent new tools for developers, Apple allowed third-party app makers to start using Touch ID to authenticate functions within the app. That means that developers who typically put a password gate over certain functions can also use an iPhone’s fingerprint sensor to provide a similar service.

It’s not necessarily better or worse security (since both passwords and fingerprints have their issues) but it does provide an extra layer of convenient security for people who are using the most recent versions of Apple’s phones. 1Password integrated the new service into its software, which allows people to re-open their password locker within a set amount of time after entering a master password to unlock it. Other apps like Mint and LastPass are incorporating the new functionality in a similar manner.

The good news is that the new APIs provide convenience without sacrificing security. Apps will know if a user’s fingerprint matches one on file, but iOS won’t tell the more than that. Assuming the system works as built, it should be impossible for a third-party developer to get a user’s fingerprint data by incorporating Touch ID.

In my experience, using Touch ID to authenticate in an app is just as easy as using it to unlock your phone. Apple has refined the algorithms that it uses to determine whether a fingerprint is legitimate in iOS 8, which means that users of the iPhone 5S (and soon the 6 and 6 Plus) will be able to unlock their apps straight away rather than having to re-scan their prints multiple times.

Location tracking

In addition to the new location tracking features in Messages, Apple has also re-vamped the way that third-party apps handle location tracking and sharing.

Memoir-Request-Photos-1Apps have been taking greater advantage of their ability to track customers’ locations in the background in order to provide context-sensitive information about where people are. It’s great for quickly hailing a ride from Uber, or easily finding a happening place for a night’s festivities.

That said, not every app needs to know where you are at all times. That’s why iOS now asks users through a notification if they want to continue allowing an app to access location data in the background after using it a couple of times. Users can take the opportunity to opt out of the collection or re-affirm that they want an app to be tracking their whereabouts.

Along with that new notification comes new developer tools that make it easier for companies to make the most out of location information. One such developer is Memoir, which is using a new set of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to make it easy for people to share photos with friends who were in the same place at the same time.

These may seem like small changes, but they simultaneously give users and developers more power to manage the way smartphones interact with the physical context around us. I fully expect that we’ll see more developers take advantage of the location services improvements going forward, and giving users an added nudge about other apps that can see where they are at all times will be a useful tool to managing that impact.

Health

IMG_2125Apple’s much-anticipated foray into the health tracking space is here, and it’s an interesting one. The Health app is designed to provide users with an at-a-glance view of all their health and fitness data in a single app that can knit together information from a variety of other apps that use Apple’s new HealthKit framework.

I haven’t had a chance to test any apps that work with the new system, but Apple also allows users to manually enter data points into the Health app itself. Once the app has data, it will display it in the form of graphs on a dashboard that users can view to get a sense of their fitness and health at a glance.

I’ve tried a number of fitness apps, and Health seems like it’s best designed to act as a data warehouse. Developers are sharing all this data with HealthKit, so Apple will let users view it in the form of graphs and lists of data points. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it seems like a good way to pull together information from the variety of different sources that people can use.

If there’s one thing I think Health is missing, it’s a layer of insights that uses all the data that people feed it. Right now, I can graph my weight, my exercise and my calories taken in side-by-side, but Health won’t provide me with stuff that it can divine from all that data.

When I feed a fitness system my sleep data and my exercise data, I’d like it to tell me how those two things correlate. Do I sleep better after hitting my exercise bike? Do I walk less on days that I’m sleep deprived? These are things that I want a fitness app to tell me, and I was hoping Apple would take more steps in that direction. As it stands, that seems like a pipe dream, at least for now.

A little-discussed feature of Health is Apple’s new Medical ID. It takes up one of the tabs in the Health app, and allows users to input important information about themselves like chronic health conditions, their blood type, and emergency contacts. If something goes wrong, a person can hit the “Emergency” button on the iPhone’s lock screen and tap the Medical ID to get that information right away, and without unlocking a user’s phone.

Obviously, Health’s impact is going to depend a lot on third-party apps supporting Apple’s ecosystem. One of the things that helps lock users into a particular ecosystem is the fact that one company holds a vast treasure-trove of their health data. (For example, I have roughly two years’ worth of activity saved to my FitBit account.) By moving all that data to Health, users will have an easier time migrating to another device, like the Apple Watch, which is slated to launch early next year and features fitness tracking capabilities.

Unfortunately, apps that rely on HealthKit are in limbo right now. Apple found an issue with the framework on its end and have pulled every app that supports it from the App Store. It’s unclear when they’ll be back, or what the issue is, but it’s clearly something serious.

Mail

IMG_2127Mail received a number of improvements with the update, including support for gesture-based actions – something third party applications have supported for a while, but Apple has ignored. Now, users can mark emails as read or delete them with a single swipe, rather than having to filter through menus or tap a bunch of buttons.

The changes make it easier to quickly deal with messages on the go, which is particularly nice for people who rely on Mail for managing their daily torrent of emails.

Mail’s design also saw some slight tweaks, including the ability to slide out a view of users’ mailboxes while an iPad is in portrait mode and mail messages on the iPhone that have a slight shadow to them that makes them stick out from the background app. It all feels fairly minor on the devices that I have, but both tweaks will probably look better on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus when they launch on Friday.

All of that said, I don’t see myself giving up Mailbox (my preferred mail client for iOS) any time soon. Mail has gotten better, but not by enough to justify using it full time.

Continuity

Yep, that's what you're looking for. It's tiny.
Yep, that’s what you’re looking for. It’s tiny.

iOS 8 is also the beginning of Apple’s move to more tightly stitch together the devices in its ecosystem. iPhones and iPads got several new features under the Continuity umbrella that allow people who have multiple devices made by Apple to more easily use them together.

The most obvious example is Handoff, which is designed to make it possible for a user to, well, hand off an activity from their Mac, iPhone or iPad to another device with a comparable app running on it. Right now, it only works between an iPhone and iPad unless users are running OS X Yosemite, but even that limited interaction is useful from time to time.

To use Handoff, people should look for a miniature app icon that shows up in the bottom left-hand corner of their iOS device that represents what they’re doing on their other device. Once users swipe up on that icon (and unlock their device), they’ll be able to pick up where they left off.

It’s not a perfect system – text saved in a web form and unsent messages aren’t preserved across a Handoff, but it’s a good way to transition from working on one device to another. When Apple launches OS X Yosemite, which also has support for the feature, it gets even better, allowing users to pass information back and forth from their Mac to their iOS devices.

Under the same umbrella, Apple also launched a new SMS Relay feature that allows users to see text messages on their iPad that they received from people who aren’t using iMessage. It’s a useful feature for users with lots of friends who don’t use iPhones. Apple has said that it won’t launch until October, but it’s still working on my iPad, so it’s unclear what’s going on. No matter what, users will bealso able to also use SMS Relay with their Macs running OS X Yosemite when it launches in October.

Overall, the Continuity features aren’t pushy – users can easily ignore them, or switch the system off in settings altogether. But I found them to be incredibly useful at knitting together all of the Apple devices I own, and making all of them work better together.

One of Apple’s great advantages is the fact that it owns the complete device ecosystem, and Handoff shows what it can do with that level of power.

Wrapping up

It’s not as flashy as iOS 7, but iOS 8 has a lot going on under the hood. While last year’s update was divisive because of its new design and frustrating bugs, I’ve had incredibly positive experiences with what Apple is releasing this year.

It may not be revolutionary, and it may have features that have been done before, but this is the best version of iOS that Apple has released to date. I wasn’t able to unambiguously recommend that people jump ship to iOS 7 right away last year, but iOS 8 is a completely different animal. It feels polished and ready for prime time, with a lot of features that I know people will love.

For more, check out our stories on how to prepare for the update and install it.

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