iOS 11

Last week, at WWDC, Apple unveiled the next major iteration of their mobile operating system — iOS 11. Due to my busy schedule this month, I wasn’t able to finish watching the keynote for nearly two weeks. But thanks to the fine folks I follow on Twitter, I was well aware of all the announcements.

Since the event, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what exactly these updates will mean for iPad owners. And while I’m certain that iOS 11 will be a huge win for productivity, I still have a hard time foreseeing how I’ll be using my device after the update ships. What I do know is that iOS 11 is a big deal and will help propel the iPad into a serious contender when compared to Macs and Windows machines.

iOS 11 is the first time the iPhone has really taken a back seat to the iPad in terms of major features. The iPad received Split View, Slide Over, and Picture-in-Picture with iOS 9, but those pale in comparison to what iOS 11 brings to the table. Apple focused their efforts on features that will make the iPad more viable for real work and I think it’ll payoff in a big way once the software ships this fall.

Taking a step back for a moment, iOS 11 includes several solid improvements that both iPhone and iPad owners will benefit from. The first of those announced on stage is adjustments to the interface for iMessage Apps. Instead of swiping through each of your apps individually, you’ll be presented with a scrollable list of the iMessage App icons. This should speed up the process of finding the app you want and encourage more people to actually use iMessage Apps.

There’s some minor updates to Siri in iOS 11. Apple has used deep learning to create a new, more natural voice for Siri and there’s a new translation feature, as well. You’ll be able to translate words and phrases from English to Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish at launch with more coming in the future. It would be nice if Siri could translate from those languages back to English, though. At first glance, this feature would be great for traveling, but what do you do when someone tries to respond and you have no way of translating it to English?

Apple is moving to a new video and image format with iOS 11. All video will be saved in H.265 or High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) and all photos will be saved in a format based on HEVC called High Efficiency Image Format (HEIF). This will allow for much smaller file sizes at the same quality. With Apple adopting these formats, I hope Google and Microsoft follow suit and add support to their browsers and operating systems — I wouldn’t mind using HEIF for the images displayed on Initial Charge.

Apple has completely redesigned Control Center. The visual design is hideous, but having everything on a single page again is worth the eye sore. And I’m thrilled that we’ll finally be able to customize Control Center to our liking. Within Settings, you can choose what you want displayed and in what order. All of the familiar Control Center options are available, but Apple has added some new ones as well — an easy-access Apple TV remote, a screen recording toggle, and a shortcut for timers, to name a few. This has to be my favorite feature coming to all devices in iOS 11. I’ve spent years looking at a bunch of Control Center functionality that I never used, now I’ll be able to cut the chaff and have a simple, compact Control Center with just the features I need.

The new Control Center may be my favorite feature, but the Lock Screen redesign is the worst. I like the idea of moving Notification Center to a new location, but I would rather it live alongside my widgets in Today View. Just place a permanent widget below the date that can be expanded to a full screen view by tapping the “Show More” button. Admittedly, this might be a terrible idea, but I think I’d rather have that than an OS that throws me into my Lock Screen when I slide down from the top of the screen — a gesture that I have come to expect will take me to my widgets. I hope Apple spends a lot of time refining this experience before iOS 11 launches to the masses because, as it is, I absolutely hate it.

With iOS 11, Apple is introducing a completely redesigned App Store. It features a new “Today” tab which highlights new apps everyday alongside stories about some of the developers behind the apps. Games will have it’s own dedicated section, which means apps like Things, Ulysses, and Airmail won’t have to compete with Angry Birds Evolution, Dungeon Boss, and Big Bang Racing. I must say, I’m continually impressed with what Phil Schiller has done to the developer ecosystem since he took over the App Store in late 2015. These updates all seem like major wins for developers and I don’t know if any of it would have happened if Schiller didn’t take over. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

And, of course, iOS 11 will also be bringing Live Photo editing, Maps improvements, Do Not Disturb While Driving, HomeKit updates including AirPlay 2, machine learning APIs, and ARKit. But the star of the show in iOS 11 is the new features Apple is bringing to the iPad — a redesigned Dock, an improved app switcher, Drag and Drop, the new Flick Keyboard, the Files app, a new screenshot workflow, and the document scanner feature in Notes.

With the new Dock on iPad, Apple is borrowing some design cues from macOS. The Dock is now persistent — no matter where you are in the OS, a simple swipe from the bottom of the screen will bring up the Dock. It is no longer limited to just six applications and can hold about a dozen user-chosen apps on the left with three Siri-predicted applications on the right.

The Dock can be used to switch between your frequently used applications, which is reminiscent of the early iOS app switcher with the linen background. I was never a big fan of the full screen app switcher that we’ve been stuck with since its debut in iOS 7. Seeing a thumbnail of the application seems like a neat idea on paper, but in practice, it often isn’t all that helpful. The icon is typically good enough and allows the system to display a much more dense app launcher that doesn’t clutter too much of the display. And letting me choose which applications live in the dock is much nicer than having to wade through a never-ending list of apps sorted by most recently used — which often makes it far too difficult to find the app you’re looking for — or forcing me to jump back to Springboard.

But if you need access to more than what’s available in your Dock, Apple has redesigned the app switcher on iPad with an Exposé-like view that can be accessed by continuing the Dock’s upward-swipe gesture further toward the top of the screen. The new app switcher displays Control Center along the right and a grid of app thumbnails that overflows past the left edge of the screen. That alone is a huge improvement over iOS 10’s app switcher, but Apple didn’t stop there, the new app switcher preserves app pairings. That means, if I had Instapaper and Ulysses open next to one another in Split View, I can tap on a thumbnail of those apps and find myself right where I left off.

One of the biggest downsides to using an iPad instead of macOS is the clunky app switching system. When you’re on a Mac, you can use ⌘+tab, the Dock, and launchers like Alfred to fly through the operating system. Jumping from app to app is a breeze on macOS, but often feels like a hassle on iOS. The new Dock and app switcher should go a long way toward eliminating the deficit, perhaps not entirely, but this is a huge step in the right direction.

After Craig Federighi spent a few minutes discussing the Dock and the new app switcher, he announced the feature that we’ve all been clamoring for — Drag and Drop. Another one of the major barriers to entry for anyone interested in using an iPad full time is moving data between applications. iOS 8 brought third-party sharing extensions a few years ago and that made passing data from app to app a lot easier. For many users like myself, share extensions were a pivotal moment for the iPad, turning it into a fairly usable productivity machine. But Drag and Drop blows share extensions out of the water.

You can use Drag and Drop on images, text, URLs, files, app icons, and just about anything else you can think of. Imagine having Photos and Ulysses open in Split View and dragging screenshots from the Photos app into Ulysses while you’re typing an article. Or you could be creating a presentation in Keynote and dragging in images from the web, quoted text, and reference URLs. Drag and Drop changes the game an big way.

Full time iOS users like Federico Viticci, Ben Brooks, and myself have been very productive utilizing the features available in iOS 10, but I can imagine we’ll be able to get a lot more work done in less time because of Drag and Drop. What Workflow did for automation on iOS, Drag and Drop will do for sharing data.

The new Flick Keyboard, while not as monumental as Drag and drop, didn’t get as much time on stage as I think it deserved. I suppose it’s understandable, given how packed the keynote was, but the Flick Keyboard is going to make typing on the iPad’s screen nearly as efficient as a hardware keyboard when typing special characters. You’ll no longer need to switch to a separate keyboard to type numbers and symbols, just tap on a key and swipe downward to type the special character displayed at the top of that key.

I’m not sure why they decided to use a downward swipe for the Flick Keyboard, especially when there’s already precedence for upward swipes on the comma and period keys for typing apostrophe and double quote characters. My only guess is that the folks at Apple were inadvertently triggering it too frequently during testing.

The last of the landmark features is the Files app, which is essentially Finder for iOS. It gives you access to all of you’re files without revealing the operating system’s underpinnings — you can’t mess up you’re system by deleting anything in the Files app. It can also be used to browse files available through third-party document providers like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or Google Drive — anything that can be used in the document picker should be supported out of the box.

This is a feature that many users have been begging for and I’m glad they finally built it. It’s not something I expect to use very often, though. I’ve had Transmit for this sort of functionality for years and it works great, but I just don’t need it as often as other people do. If you spend a lot of time sending and receiving attachments in email or moving documents to various locations for sharing or collaboration, the Files app will be invaluable to you.

While not as earth-shattering as the other features in iOS 11, the new screenshot workflow, which throws an image thumbnail at the bottom of your screen for markup and sharing, alongside the document scanner feature in Notes, help round out the release. These are the kind of features that everyone will forget about until they happen upon them a few weeks after installing iOS 11. They’ll be great to have, but easily ignored because of the magnitude of everything else in this release.

I’ve already seen a lot of iPad skeptics reconsidering the device. With Drag and Drop, the new app switcher, and the Files app, the iPad is becoming a viable productivity machine to a far wider range of users. And it has me wondering if Apple was a little too quick to pitch the iPad as “The Ultimate PC Replacement”. Imagine if Apple started using this terminology after debuting all of the power-user features in iOS 11 rather than boldly doing so at the original iPad Pro event. It would have made for a much more powerful message coming out of WWDC and perhaps would have elicited fewer jeers than it did back in 2016.

Even as a full time iPad user, I can admit that calling iPad “The Ultimate PC Replacement” last year was a tough sell. For the majority of users — those that spend their time browsing the web, sending emails, and watching YouTube — it’s probably true. But positioning it as such felt a little tone deaf when the OS was missing so many features that felt like they naturally belonged. But with iOS 11, Apple’s proclamation just feels like a foregone conclusion — the iPad is the ultimate PC replacement.