Hands-on with the new, proactive Spotlight in iOS 9

The update to Spotlight should save you loads of time getting to where you want to go.

ios9 proactive

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Spotlight in iOS has never gotten a lot of respect, even as it’s become more powerful. Hidden as a swipe-right option from the home screen before iOS 7: The Flattening, it’s only starting with iOS 8 that it went beyond a rough way to find stuff within a set of Apple’s apps to become a more robust combination of deeper searching and suggestions of what you might want.

iOS 9 takes it a step further, integrating suggestions from Siri and opening up to third-party developers including their results. It makes for a much richer experience, and more is to come as apps are updated.

Proactive search and app search

iOS 8 brought in information from the rest of the world: Wikipedia results, information from current news, places and movie showtimes near you, appropriate matches from things Apple can sell and give you (apps, books, music, movies, and the like), and websites that might match your search.

In iOS 9, Spotlight goes further with Siri Suggestions, which incorporate contextual information about apps, contacts, places, and the like—who you’ve talked to recently and where you are provide clues before you even tap in a character of your search, just as they prime Siri when you speak.

But Apple provided a bit of misdirection. After retraining us in iOS 7 to swipe down from any screen to bring up Spotlight, iOS 9 brings back swipe-right on the home screen. The difference?

  • From the main home screen, swipe right, and “Proactive Spotlight” with Siri Suggestions appears, showing everything.

  • Swipe downward from the top of any home screen, and only suggested apps are shown.

spotlight ios 9 suggested apps

The Spotlight swipe-down results show just Suggested Apps.

Retrain your brain! The idea ostensibly is that swiping down means you’re looking for apps; swiping right, you’re looking to…party? Well, you’re looking for more.

Just swiping right brings up a useful potpourri of things you certainly want. In my case, I see my wife first and foremost at the left, and then recent and frequent pals. The apps list the four most recent ones I’ve used for more than a moment here and in the downward-swipe screen.

spotlight ios9 proactive search

iOS 9’s new Proactive Search brings up potential matches even before you type.

The Nearby section isn’t filled out. Rather, tapping Restaurants, Coffee, Shopping, and Gas opens the Maps app with the appropriate results. Finally, the News section ostensibly shows recent and useful results (with links opening in Apple’s new News app), though in my case it was just the top four recent CNN stories.

Tap in a search and get third-party results

Tap the search field, whether you swiped down or right, and start tapping in names, words, or terms, and Spotlight begins to pull in local matches and those that require an Internet lookup, such as Bing search results. These results are very similar, if not identical, to what you would have seen in iOS 8.

spotlight ios9 macworld text search

Searching for “macworld” brings up results across multiple Apple apps.

However, it’s what’s to come that you’re going to love. App developers will be able to build in two kinds of Spotlight searches: private, on-device indexing of information you enter or behavior you engage in within their apps; and global information related to their app that they’ll publish to a website that Apple can index and then include in Spotlight results. Apple says the private index is kept on your device and not shared with the company.

For example, you might install a bike-route program that lets you name and mark favorite routes, but that also has a catalog of 10,000 routes you can choose from within the app. When you use Spotlight, any routes you’ve marked would come up from the local, private store, and not be shared with anyone else. But Spotlight will also spider and index all the information about routes that the developer formats to be included. Search on Willamette River, and you find your favorite set of paths, but also a list of every route that the app includes with that name in it.

Or, picture a revised version of Netflix, so that when you search any movie or TV show, everything on your “watch later” list comes up from your private store, but Spotlight also searches against each of these services’ databases of all video content.

spotlight ios9 app integration

Items from 1Password (left) for “apple” and Dropbox (right) for “copyright” appear as results in Spotlight.

Apple lets app makers include deep links within the app, so tapping a Spotlight result takes you directly to the right place. And developers can also index content via their website and use a specially formulated URL so that if you don’t have the app installed, Spotlight can still pull in results: a tap takes you to the appropriate webpage or web app service function instead of opening a deep link in the app.

This last part is quite interesting, as it lets app developers show you what they have through Spotlight without having already convinced you to install their app. This should help you discover apps, and could help developers find customers.

spotlight 1password enable

1Password will incorporate your saved items into Spotlight’s results, but only if you opt in with this switch.

In some cases, apps may require that you turn Spotlight search on. For instance, the 6.0 update of 1Password for iOS, shipping today, has you visit Settings > General and flip on the Enable Spotlight Search. In others, only a subset of items appear: Dropbox indexes only files that have been marked as favorites, because it only retains those in local storage.

You can also always tap Search Web and Search Maps at the bottom of Spotlight. Search App Store only appears if there are any matches, as Apple knows the entire contents of that store.

Keep it secret

spotlight ios9 preferences

Spotlight Search settings let you disable search for iOS features and individual apps.

You may not like these innovations, including some that predate iOS 9, such as the inclusion of Bing Search Results. Fortunately, you can pick and choose what you want by going to Settings > General > Spotlight Search. Disable Siri Suggestions to remove the pre-search “proactive” results you see for apps, people, and other elements.

Every part of the system, every extra, and every app in iOS 9 has an on/off switch under Search Results. This can be absurdly long if, like me, you have a lot of apps installed. And Apple doesn’t group these by iOS-specific items, into app categories, or the like.

In my list, I see Calculator (an app), Calendar (an app but also a service), and Camera (an app but also information associated with your photos) one after the other.

The items you might be most interested in turning off are Bing Web Results and Spotlight Suggestions, both of which send information about your search and device elsewhere. For Bing, Apple says that Microsoft receives limited information that’s passed through Apple’s servers, and doesn’t store the queries.

With Spotlight Suggestions, however, you’re potentially sending Apple your current location, details about what music and video subscriptions you have active—and which suggestion you tapped on, if any. Disabling both Bing and Spotlight Suggestions limits searches to data stored on your iOS device.

What’s missing

Spotlight lacks a feature that will be coming in part to Apple TV and that’s neatly incorporated into Google products: find out where I can watch or purchase a given movie or TV show. While each video app can expose its own library of stuff, Spotlight doesn’t match the same kind of thing outside of Apple’s own services across multiple categories. Can you imagine asking Siri or tapping into Spotlight, “Where I can watch Pitch Perfect 2?” and getting a list starting with apps you have installed and active subscriptions you pay for?

Apple filled in most of the gaps with this update to Spotlight, but we won’t see its full flowering until developers start to take full advantage of integration through apps, local data, and web-based results. Because this benefits Siri results as well, you may find yourself no longer hunting for the right results: the first matches could be just what you wanted.

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