The next iPad: Software changes we'd like to see

You’ve already heard about the hardware changes we’d like to see in a new version of the iPad, if Apple unveils a new tablet at its special event Wednesday, as is widely expected. But what would new Apple hardware be without software changes also thrown into the mix?

As good as iOS on the iPad is—and it’s pretty darned good—there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially as Apple’s competitors in the tablet arena have finally started to get their acts together and produce devices that look more like contenders. Some of the most requested enhancements to the iPad—both in our office and among our readers—would involve changes to the operating system that runs on Apple’s tablet. Fortunately, as we saw last year with the release of the original iPad, Apple’s not above rolling out new iOS features to the iPad before delivering those features to all other iOS devices.

So here’s our list of iOS tweaks and enhancements—including a few holdovers we’ve wanted to see for a while—that we hope to hear more about on Wednesday. Apple, of course, has its own ideas about what changes to make, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Improve the iPad’s productivity features

Despite the common refrain that the iPad is made for content consumption, lots of people use the iPad as a productivity tool. But some new iOS features could offer major productivity boosts.

Improve file exchange: Right now, moving files around on the iOS is a mess. You can send files from one app to another (for example, Mail can transfer a PDF to GoodReader, and Dropbox can transfer an ePub to iBooks), and you can drag files directly into an app’s file space from within iTunes on your Mac. But these methods are hassles, and it’s easy to end up with multiple versions of everything.

Right now, moving files back and forth between your Mac and iPad relies on clunky interfaces like iTunes's File Sharing.

That’s why we’d like to see Apple re-think the iOS filesystem. We’re not asking for the iPad to have a hard drive full of folders like what you’d find on your Mac. But it would be nice to have a common, shared area for apps to save files to and open files from. And there’s got to be a more intuitive way for users to move files onto and off of the iPad than that confusing area at the bottom of the Apps tab in iTunes. Being able to mount an iPad’s shared-documents area as a hard drive, so you could drag files on and off, would be a nice step. So would built-in access to cloud-based storage—and not just MobileMe, but also popular systems such as Dropbox.

We’d also like to see the iPad gain a feature that we’ve liked since we first saw it on an Android phone: the ability to quickly transfer files and other data from one app to another. iOS does some of this now (the aforementioned “open in GoodReader” feature, for example), but we’d like to see a lot more. Imagine being able to tap to send an e-mail message directly to Evernote, or a Safari URL to Twitterrific, without having to use clumsy cut-and-paste operations or complex JavaScript bookmarklets.

Be a better presenter: The iPad can be a handy presentation device, most notably when you’re giving a Keynote presentation on a big screen or using a projector. But it could be even better. We’d like to see the iPad support system-wide screen mirroring, so you can demo any app (or multiple apps) without resorting to jailbreaking. If that feature’s useful enough for Apple to use in its presentations, it’s useful enough to be available for everyone.

We’d also like to find a way for the iPad to branch out beyond the limited stock of fonts currently installed on the system—there are few things more frustrating than transferring a Keynote presentation to your iPad and having all your carefully chosen fonts replaced. We realize that moving fonts along with your presentation files might bring up some font-licensing issues, but it’s worth working those out.

Communicate better: Given its always-connected potential, the iPad could be a better communication device. If the new iPad comes with cameras, it will presumably add FaceTime. What about extending FaceTime to support document display, like the iChat Theater feature on the Mac? And speaking of iChat, is an iOS version of iChat too much to ask for? Third-party chat apps are great, but instant messaging is an important enough medium that the iPad should support it out of the box.

Other productivity boosts: The iPad’s screen is much bigger than the iPhone’s, so we’d like to see Safari on the iPad support tabbed browsing. And while Apple has made a lot of hay out of artists using iPhones and iPads to create beautiful paintings and drawings, we’d like to see better support for pressure sensitivity in the iPad hardware and for Apple to give app developers access to that pressure-sensitivity data, so that creating art on the iPad can be a much better experience.

Make better use of the Home and lock screens

The iPad has a much larger screen than the iPhone and iPod touch, but its interface—most particularly on its home and lock screens—doesn’t really take advantage of the space.

To do anything more than the most basic Home screen organization, you need to turn to iTunes on your Mac—which is not without its own shortcomings.

Improve app organization: The Home screen in iOS has slowly evolved over the years, gaining features such as folders for collecting apps, as well as easier, drag-and-drop organization from within iTunes. But since the app onslaught shows no sign of subsiding, we could use some fresh help from Apple in keeping our Home screens tidy. The ability to categorize pages or folders so they automatically collect relevant new apps—say, a games page for the creative new ways to not get work done, or a utilities page for new weather apps and unit converters—would be nice. We’d also welcome the option, in iTunes, to prevent iPhone and iPod touch apps that aren’t optimized for the iPad from automatically installing on our tablets.

Add support for home-screen widgets: While we’re on the topic of Home screens, the iPad’s larger size and longer battery life make us wish we could get more use out of all that screen real estate. How about providing a framework for apps to display certain information at a glance, such as the day’s appointments, the week’s weather forecast, and the most-recently-received e-mails—right on the Home screen?

Put more info on the lock screen: The request to display small, useful nuggets of information goes double for the iPad’s spacious lock screen, which currently contains a time, date, slideshow button, and an image of your choice. That screen could be the perfect place to get a quick glance at key bits of information—the day’s appointments, local weather, and recent e-mail subject headers—without having to repeatedly unlock the device and tap into a bunch of separate apps.

Better multitasking and notifications

Apple finally gave iPhone and iPad users the ability to multitask in iOS 4, and while it’s definitely been an improvement over the way things used to be, the iPad’s larger screen real estate cries out for a more powerful way of working with multiple applications at once.

iOS notifications demand your immediate attention, interrupt the task at hand. The iPad's larger screen real estate is an invitation for a better solution.

Find a better way to do notifications: Whether it’s getting a calendar reminder, receiving an instant message, or presenting an alert from an app, the iPad takes a one-size-fits-all approach to notification—and that size, unfortunately, is aimed more at the iPhone. Despite the iPad’s large, gorgeous display, notifications remain confined to a tiny little box that pops up in the middle of the screen, disrupting whatever task currently has your attention. And if you have more than one app vying for your attention, pretty soon you’ve got a stack of dialogs that you have to step through one by one. Contrast this with the approaches found on Android and WebOS tablets, which represent notifications as icons in one corner of the screen, letting the user expand and dismiss them at will. At this point, iOS notifications feel as antiquated as voicemail before Visual Voicemail came along.

Let content download in the background: There’s also room for multitasking improvement when it comes to getting content on your iPad. We hope to see a way for newspaper and magazine apps to periodically check for, and download, content updates in the background. That way, the freshest news (or current issue) is always at your fingertips when you launch each app—a real improvement on the experience of browsing those publications on the Web. (Amazon’s Kindle, for example, automatically downloads daily newspapers in the dead of night, so they’re ready to read when you wake up in the morning.) Apps such as Twitter clients, RSS readers, and Instapaper could also benefit. Improvements here would be in Apple’s interest, as well, as they would surely increase periodical and newspaper subscriptions, and thus increase the revenue the company gets from its cut of those subscriptions.

Better multitasking interface: While iOS 4’s multitasking shelf and quick-switch tactics were initially embraced by iPad users—one way to switch an app is better than none, after all—after a few months of use, there are definite improvements to be made. Currently, while switching between apps is doable with the multitasking shelf, the Home button double tap adds an extra level of complexity: tap too quickly, the device may not register; tap too slowly, and you’ll find yourself back on the Home screen. Apple has been toying with alternatives—in its developer build of iOS 4.3, the company introduced a preview of four- and five-finger multitouch gestures for pulling up the multitasking shelf and direct app switching—and we would love to see these gestures (or a variation thereof) permanently implemented in a future version of the OS.

In addition, the multitasking interface itself can be clunky and confusing. The shelf shows every opened app’s icon—even if it’s not actively running—and if you tend not to reboot your device, that chain of icons can grow uselessly long. Instead, it would be great to see a more visual representation of open apps, á la HP’s WebOS interface or Apple’s Exposé.

Upgrade the Mail app

From the iPad’s 2010 release, Mail has stood out as solid app that gets most of the basics right and excels at the most important tasks—viewing and composing messages, displaying attachments, and connecting reliably to nearly any e-mail server. But for the most part, it’s the same Mail app you’ll find on an iPhone, especially now that both devices are running iOS 4 Mail. And that can be frustrating, especially for those of us who need to do more than just the basics.

The iPad’s large screen and connectivity options would seem to make it an ideal device for keeping in touch on the go. But after nearly a year of iPad Mail use, we think the lack of some of the Mail-handling features we take for granted in a desktop e-mail client keeps the iPad from being as capable as it could be.

You can move or delete multiple messages on the iPad, but Mail provides no option to flag them or mark them as read.

We’d love to be be able to mark everything in a mailbox as read; delete all messages in a mailbox; flag messages (and have that status synced between devices); send to contact groups; save attachments to an area accessible by other apps; and have more control over text when viewing and composing messages. We’d also like to see a few desktop-inspired features such as mail rules and smart folders (ideally synced from OS X Mail), multiple signatures, folder editing, and local spam filtering. Finally, we hope to see Mail’s two-pane view when the iPad is in portrait orientation.

Other improvements

Our wishlist is probably long enough as it is, but we can think of a few more iOS improvements that defy categorization.

More wireless syncing and sharing: For a device that can do so much when untethered, it’s still frustrating how many things you can’t do wirelessly. The most obvious example is syncing data with iTunes, which still requires a physical connection. But there are plenty of other things relating to data sharing we’d like to be able to do wirelessly—for example, instantly sharing a URL or a bit of text from your iPad to your computer (or vice versa) or sharing a Google Maps route from your iPad to your iPhone. There are third party apps that handle some of these things, and you can sync other types of data if you’ve got a MobileMe subscription, but imagine if your computer and your iOS devices kept close tabs on each other, making it simple to share and sync data instantly.

Accounts and more-flexible app restrictions: Far more than the iPhone or iPod touch, the iPad has turned out to be a shared device—everyone in the family has a favorite use for it and wants a turn. While iOS provides a number of ways to restrict or allow particular actions or access to certain apps, the iPad’s version of iOS would do well to provide more options for multiple users and finer control over app restrictions.

First and foremost, we’d love to see a basic version of user accounts that would allow each family member can have his or her own Safari bookmarks, e-mail accounts, and app settings. (Multiple Words With Friends accounts, anyone?) But we’d also like more flexibility when it comes to restrictions—for example, the ability to restrict access to specific apps besides Safari, YouTube, and iTunes, and to restrict in-app purchases on a per-app basis. And if we do get user accounts, we’d welcome better parental controls for Safari, Mail, and other apps, similar to the options Mac OS X provides.

iPhoto for iPad: The iPad is an even better photo browser and presenter than the iPhone or iPod touch, but its beauty in this regard is only skin deep. We’d really like to be able to use our iPads to create albums, manage our library, and add metadata, then back up that data to a computer or use those changes for a true sync with iPhoto. A mobile, two-way-syncing version of iPhoto built into iOS would make both consumers and professional photographers quite happy.

Untether the iPad from the computer: When you first start up your iPad, you have to connect it to your Mac or PC before you can use it. That made sense when Apple launched the device, since it was a totally new category at the time, but now that the iPad is firmly embedded in the consciousness of the masses, it may be a good opportunity to let the tablet become self-sufficient—not dependent on the conduit that is iTunes. If the iPad really is the future of computing, it needs to be able to pave its own way. Like a fledgling bird, it’s time for the iPad to leave the nest and prove that it can fly.

Dreams, meet reality

As much as we’d like the company to, Apple won’t make all of these changes to the iPad’s software—it may not even make any of them. But there’s no question that the folks from Cupertino know the stakes: New iPad hardware is only half the battle. As nice as more RAM and a faster processor are, it’ll be doubly good to harness those resources into providing an even better experience for iPad users—and that’s all about software.

Apple set the bar for a tablet experience when it introduced the iPad in 2010, but as competitors struggle to meet with last year’s product, it’s the improvements to Apple’s software that stand the best chance of helping the device maintain its lead. We’ll see what changes Apple has in store on Wednesday.

[Macworld editors Christopher Breen, Serenity Caldwell, David Chartier, Dan Frakes, Dan Moren, and Jason Snell contributed to this article.]

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