Unfinished iOS features hint at future plans

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Like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, some folks just can’t help themselves from digging deep into the mysteries of time—or, for those of us stuck at our desks, into the mysteries of our iOS devices. Digital treasure seekers have recently uncovered a pair of unimplemented features in iOS 5 that can be enabled with a little technical trickery, without even requiring you to jailbreak your phone.

Hack to the future: A program called iBackupBot lets you alter an iOS device's backup file to enable hidden features.

The workaround for enabling the two features—a panoramic photo mode and an alternative text-entry mode—involves using the Mac or Windows application iBackupBot to edit property list files stored in your iOS device’s backup, then restoring your device from the altered backup. You can find full instructions for enabling them at a couple of websites.

(A word or two of warning: These features were left hidden for a reason. I enabled both of these features on an older iPhone, and found that neither of them worked completely. In addition, even though this shouldn’t cause any problems with your iOS device, I strongly suggest you make a backup of your iOS device’s backup before editing any of these files. To do so, back up your device in iTunes, then go to ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup and make a backup of the most recently modified folder. Then you can always have a clean backup from which to restore your device.)

Hidden secrets of iOS

Entertainment 360: A hidden panorama mode is not ready for primetime, but may still be in the cards.

The first of these buried mysteries is a panoramic photo mode for the iOS Camera app. If you’ve used apps like 360 Panorama, you’ll be familiar with the concept: You tap the shutter button, pan the camera around the scene, and the software stitches the images together into a 360-degree photo that you can pan around. In theory, anyway—when I tried it, it crashed every single time; also, the feature only at present appears to support portrait mode, not landscape mode.

Type casting: An alternative typing method bears some resemblance to the old T9 text entry on cell phones.

The other disabled feature is an alternative text-entry interface. Rather than have spelling suggestions pop-up as bubbles underneath your word, iOS instead provides a list of guesses in a row above the keyboard. Tapping any of those will choose that word; or you can cycle through by swiping on the row of suggestions.

Strangely, this mode alters the spacebar to become a Next key that cycles to the next suggestion, while the return key becomes a Confirm key that selects the currently highlighted suggestion and inserts it. There’s also an up-arrow button on the right-hand side of the keyboard, but every time I tapped that, it crashed the current app. I also had problems entering passwords, because the feature kept wanting to autocorrect my password into some other string of text.

Look into the crystal ball

Both of these features were extremely unreliable and crash-prone—that’s no surprise, though, since Apple clearly chose not to implement them in this release. But might they tell us something about what’s in store for iOS?

Of the two, the panorama feature seems like a sure-thing to make its way to iOS eventually. It’s a popular function for third-party photo apps, and it certainly seems like the kind of enhancement that Apple would be interested in bringing to its Camera app. As for when that might arrive, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Apple to release a new feature in a 5.1 or 5.2 update—after all, the company introduced HDR photos in iOS 4.1, just a few months after iOS 4 shipped.

As for the text-entry system, I’m not convinced that it’s really intended to supplant the current autocorrect system—as frustrating (and hilarious) as it might sometimes be. Though the system is clearly untested, my impression was that it made typing much harder; it reminded me a bit of the T9 predicative input system used on older cell phones. Then again, perhaps we’re simply not seeing the whole picture of this feature.

All in all, I certainly wouldn’t recommend mucking with your iOS device’s backup files to implement features that are clearly unfinished, any more than I’d recommend disturbing ancient remains in a sealed tomb. Some things are better left untampered with. After all, there’s a reason they call it the “bleeding” edge.

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At a Glance
  • We've not yet met the iOS update that we wouldn't recommend, and iOS 5 is certainly the most far-reaching and feature-rich upgrade to date. That said, it's not without its bugs and strange behaviors. But it's clearly paving ground for a lot of key functionality in the future, and even a lack of polish shouldn't keep you from upgrading.


    • Finally makes iOS devices viable without computer
    • Notification system is vastly improved
    • Massive update plugs many feature holes


    • Reminders app missing logical features
    • Lack of dictation on older hardware disappointing
    • Twitter integration buggy in places
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