iOS 8 showcases widgets, a new keyboard and more

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In a move that surprised precisely no-one, Apple announced their latest mobile OS revision, iOS 8, at the annual WWDC conference on Monday. Billed as one of the biggest iOS releases of recent years, the largely functional and aesthetic upgrades were perhaps overshadowed by software announcement such as HomeKit and the news that the recently released xcode6 beta contained code all but confirming a supposedly “resizable” iPhone 6 and new iPad. One of the most surprising pieces of news was perhaps the reveal of Bing as the new standard search engine for all iOS devices, illustrating that Apple views separating itself from any Google/Android dependancy as more important than its competition with Microsoft.

However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that the iOS 8 news contained some interesting announcements, and perhaps some clues as to how Apple are going to proceed with iOS development on iPhones and iPads in the future.

Swift:

Understandably, a large part of the announcement was taken up by an explanation of how Swift, Apple’s new language for native app development (in place of Objective C), will interface with iOS 8 to deliver significant better cross-app performance. Last year the big emphasis, performance wise was on how Apple’s new SoCs were going to deliver high-tier graphical acceleration to push gaming on the mobile platform forward (something which was built upon at this year’s WWDC with “metal”, a new graphics engine), and this year Swift was the buzzword. To what degree it will deliver on its promises remains to be seen, but it was at least novel to see Apple’s marketing team attempt to market an (admittedly closed garden) programming language.

Keyboards:

A drawback of iOS, as compared to Android was very obviously its lack of third-party keyboard support. Initially, in the very early days of the first few iPhone models Apple cited its desire to maintain control over key areas of the user interface as the reason for not opening this up to development, however, developments such as SwiftKey on Android have outdone native competitors such as Google Keyboard so convincingly that it has become of the most-downloaded apps. Apple have now reversed this decision and decided to allow third-party keyboard apps. In an effort to sure-up their keyboard software support, they’ve developed new predictive text software called QuickType alongside this which promises greater learning capacity than before.

iCloud Drive:

In the “more of the same vein” category, Apple is pressing forward with its plans to standardize the use of the iCloud drive on both the iPhone and the iPad. It actually lies behind a lot of the changes within iOS 8 as a whole. Cloud synchronization is clearly a big deal for Apple, and there’s very obviously a play for what Apple see as a massively important area of the market, given the scale of competitor activity in building cloud infrastructures over the past five years.

Put simply, iOS 8 now means that photos, videos and other media content will now automatically sync to the iCloud Drive, this comes alongside a new, more intuitive suite of photo editing tools which allows for some fairly powerful (for a mobile device) photo editing of cloud-synced photos on the go. This full synchronization of content has been on the cards for some time but it actually represents a fairly bold move from Apple, and keenly underscores the advantages they possess as a hardware and software company by being leverage the hardware side to segue neatly into the operating system itself. It also shows that Apple are committed to feature-parity on a broad-level, as this level of clound synchronization support has been a part of OSX 10.10 since early last year.

Widgets:

Apple’s announcement of widgets, certainly something a long time coming when compared to Android devices, offers a quite unique view into what’s possible with future versions of iOS. Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior Software Engineer, was keen to stress that these aren’t the enlarged home screen items we’re used to. Instead they’re “enhancements” that allows the user to respond to events. iPad users will benefit from a tab view as well, which opens the door to further UI home screen fragmentation between iPhone and iPad variants of iOS later down the line.

Conclusion

There were a host of other, minor announcements, revisions and a few surprises. In a move that will doubtless thrill many music-lovers, Apple also announced Shazam music recognition for identifying songs as part of their new and improved Siri offering. There’s also a host of other harmonized features, such as Panoramic photos on iPad. In general, the pattern seems to be one of a series of fairly small updated, new features and so on that don’t individually capture any headlines, but when aggregated actually constitute what users will probably feel is a pretty significant update.

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