Four subtle changes that would improve iOS

Though Apple first introduced the iPhone (and iOS, née iPhone OS) just a scant four years ago, the multitouch operating system already feels impressively mature. That maturity doesn’t mean iOS is flawless; there’s certainly room for improvement.

Apple says it will reveal some of the details of iOS’s next iteration during the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June. I'm optimistic that many long-awaited, high profile features will get announced at that time—the kind of features Macworld has devoted a lot of virtual ink to, like an overhaul for push notifications, cloud-based storage, wireless iTunes syncing, and such. But I’d find a few other, more subtle features just as exciting, and equally capable of improving the overall iOS experience.

The down-low on downloads

A few weeks ago, Navigon released an update to its MobileNavigator GPS app. Since the app packs in all of the map data for the United States, the upgrade weighed in at 1.56GB. But Navigon discovered a bug: The app was prompting users for their Apple IDs too often. So the company released an update—which weighed in at another 1.56GB.

I have a decent Internet connection at home. But downloading that much data takes hours—and gobbles up all kinds of bandwidth, too. It can’t be cost-effective for Apple to send that massive download to millions of iOS users, either.

The software world solved this problem a long time ago with software patches. Patches are incremental downloads that include only the minimum code necessary to update to a new version—the equivalent of a downloading a few grammar tweaks instead of grabbing a new, full copy of a book.

Software patches were especially useful in the slow dial-up era, but just because we have more bandwidth now doesn’t mean we ought to waste it. Hundreds of thousands of app updates are downloaded millions of times. It serves both Apple and its customers to make these downloads smaller and more efficient, and I hope such a patching approach makes its way into iOS 5. (It would be great if Apple applied the same approach to iOS updates, so that fixes for a simple location-caching bug wouldn’t require a full 666MB download.)

Cast a spell

You can bet cash money that no Apple iPhone will ever sport a tactile keyboard. I’ve previously written that the best way to become proficient on the virtual keyboard of your iOS device is by trusting it more; tap near the letters you want, and let auto-correct take care of the rest. But though iOS offers great auto-correction, it could be even better.

Spaced out: Auto-correct sometimes detects missing spaces, but too often does not.
My most common typing issue on iOS devices occurs when I miss the space bar. On a real keyboard, my thumbs rest on the space bar, but that’s of course not possible on an iPhone or iPad. That means I end up tapping “m” or another letter when I intend to type a space, leaving me with words that lookmlikemthis. iOS can already detect issues like this sometimes, but I’d like to see it get even better on that front.

The second most common typing error I make on iOS comes from over-reliance on auto-correct. Sometimes, auto-correct substitutes the wrong word entirely, and I don’t even notice. There are two tweaks Apple could make to auto-correct to help alleviate this issue. The first would be to highlight—faintly—those words that iOS corrects. That way, when you’re on a typing tear, you could more easily look back and know which words to give the closest attention to before you tap Send or Save.

Along those same lines, I wonder if a more modern take on a grammar checker could help with iOS typing, too. Sometimes, I mistype (or iOS auto-corrects to) a real word, but one that’s entirely out of place. Like any self-respecting writer, I hate all software grammar checkers, but I suspect that similar logic could be used to detect out-of-place words. If iOS could highlight such words—again, faintly, but differently from how it would highlight other auto-corrections—spotting and correcting those mistakes would become much simpler.

Everybody get inline

Copy that: Cut and paste isn't hard to use—but Apple could surely refine the process more.
The iPhone famously launched without support for copy and paste. The feature finally arrived in iOS 3.0. It was a clever implementation—for a 1.0 release. To the feature’s credit, using copy and paste on the iPhone is no problem… for any tech-savvy user I know. For “regulars,” though—my friends and family, at least—it’s inelegant, unintuitive, and sometimes undiscoverable.

The same goes for making inline text edits. Backspacing is easy, but tapping and holding and waiting for the loupe to appear before finally making your edit? That’s less awesome. (Text selection challenges are big part of what makes copying and pasting so difficult for some.) When you use the iPhone or iPad with a keyboard, text selection and cursor movement becomes much easier, thanks to the arrow keys. There’s currently no room on the virtual keyboard for such navigational keys, although some third-party apps do offer their own.

These are tougher challenges to solve for, but I have no doubt that Apple could make the process for each easier.

A little less pushy

As I said at the outset, with each successive iOS release, I hope for a push alert overhaul. But besides the showier changes I'd like to see to push notifications, I'd like a simpler change, too. I want the ability to schedule quiet time when push alerts don’t bother me.

Some apps—notably push notification service Boxcar—already support such scheduling. My iPhone blasts a satisfying ding whenever I get new Direct Messages on Twitter... but only between the hours of 6:30am and 10:30pm. Outside that range, Boxcar remains silent.

I want a systemwide way to apply that thinking to all my push alerts. I already mute my iPhone and iPad when I go to sleep, but push notifications can still be a bit annoying. My exposed iPad screen briefly lights up the room if an opponent plays a turn in Words With Friends; breaking news alerts light up my iPhone—and make it vibrate, to boot.

A simple screen in Settings could let me set “quiet time” windows, and probably should include an option to dictate whether alerts for calls and text messages override that quiet window.

So it goes

Don’t get me wrong: I have a long list of more dramatic, flashier iOS changes I’d like to see. (Better push alerts! Lock screen widgets! Better push notifications! Cloud-based syncing! And did I mention better push notifications?!) With a handful of subtler, less showy changes, however, Apple could make the iOS experience—already great—markedly better. I’m optimistic it will.

[Lex Friedman is Macworld's staff writer.]

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