My iOS 7 Wishlist

by Tom Dale

Actually, it’s not a list at all. There’s just one thing I want from iOS 7.

I want it to expose sufficiently powerful hooks that Google could implement Google Now for iOS.

A few months ago, I switched from my iPhone 4S to a Nexus 4. This was quite an aberration for me, as I have been a dyed-in-the-wool Apple fan since the age of 7. The first computer I ever used at home was a Color Classic II (33MHz 68030, 80MB hard drive, 4MB of RAM), I read every issue of MacAddict magazine since issue 1, and landing jobs at Apple (first at an Apple Store in college, and then on the MobileMe team afterwards) were some of the most rewarding moments I’ve ever experienced.

As proof, here’s a photo of me, age 15, right after Macworld Expo, wearing my Mac OS X t-shirt (it had just been announced):

tom-at-macworld

The first few versions of Android were awful, awkward, ungainly things, not too unlike the chubby teenager in the photo above. But everyone grows up and matures. Jellybean has been a dream to use. There are some rough edges, but the moments where I wish I still had my iPhone are few and far between.

I’d rather be an iPhone user, though. The build quality of the hardware is still far superior, and I prefer the smaller size. I don’t have small hands, but they’re not overly large, either. Trying to tap elements near the top of the screen single-handedly on the Nexus 4 feels a bit too much like yoga for my tastes.

When I was driving home from the holidays this December, I hit a pothole and blew out two tires on a remote stretch of highway about 100 miles south of San Francisco. It was that moment that made me realize just how important battery life is. I can mitigate the Nexus 4′s poor battery life in my day-to-day by just leaving it plugged in at the office. But outlier events like traveling and emergencies can be a wake-up call that sometimes you will be away from a power source for extended amounts of time, and I for one depend immensely on my phone in those situations. I was glad my travel partner had an iPhone, or I’m not sure what I would have done.

Yet, my entire digital life runs on non-Apple digital services. Through a combination of technical and business restrictions, Apple has made using those services on iOS terrible. Two examples:

I love reading books on Kindle. Having constant access to my entire library has dramatically increased the amount I read. But Apple prevents Amazon from integrating a storefront into the Kindle app for iOS, because they want a 30% cut. I’ll let others argue over whether that makes sense from a business perspective, but I want to offer this data point: I’d buy another Android phone instead of an iPhone, because developers can offer me the experience they think is best. I don’t want to think about how many man-hours startups have burned trying to dance as close to the edge of the rules as they can, figuring out ways to avoid the Apple tax. Thirty percent is significant.

Second, Google Now is an amazing feature that I think Apple is going to have a hard time competing with. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the introduction video does a good job of explaining it:

Let me emphasize why this feature is amazing. Let’s say I’m traveling to Prague for a conference. Let’s also say that I’m an AT&T customer, so data rates abroad will be usurious. More than likely, I’ll keep data off, unless there’s an emergency.

The conference organizer books me my airline ticket and hotel, and forwards the confirmation e-mail on to me. Assuming I’m using Gmail, this single event can trigger the following:

  • On the day of travel, my flight status will be displayed prominently.
  • If there is a change to the flight, it sends a push notification.
  • One-tap navigation from my current location to the airport.
  • It will send a push notification when it is time to leave for the airport to arrive on time, taking traffic conditions and flight status into account.
  • If I’ve checked in online, my boarding pass will be cued up automatically.
  • When I land, it will have already pulled up directions from the airport to my destination hotel.
  • It will have already downloaded vector map data for the destination city, so I can still navigate despite my lack of data.

This is groundbreaking. It will change the way people travel. And this is just one small facet of Google Now, which I view as the vector by which Google has figured out how to weaponize the stack of PhDs it has been accumulating for the past decade.

And it’s getting better all of the time. The culture inside Apple is one of a giant metronome, which ticks once or twice per year. The whole company is oriented around secrecy, followed by a big bang release. That works tremendously well for hardware, and for big software launches like an operating system. But it’s just terrible for web services; especially heavily data-driven ones.

The companies that are best at web services are less like a synchronized metronome and more like a group of crickets, each team releasing incremental improvements that over time amount to something quite significant indeed.

I’m not optimistic that Apple’s culture can change, and I’m not sure I want it to. But I do want iCloud (and Siri, and Apple Maps) to have to compete on an even playing field. Mobile devices aren’t the grand experiment they were in 2007. At the time, and in the years afterwards, I was supportive of the restrictions Apple put in place to guard the user experience. It’s a different world, though, and people are chafing against them. It’s hampering innovation. Android is effectively the escape valve for mobile developers that want to do cool new stuff that doesn’t fit inside the box that Apple gives you.

And that’s a bummer. There will be more products like Google Now in the future, not less. I want to be an iPhone user, but I also want access to all of the cool new stuff.

So, that’s my hope for iOS 7: make public the OS hooks that things like Siri and Maps use. Let me run different browsers. Let me replace the built-in e-mail app. We’ve appreciated the guidance, but we’ve all got the hang of this smartphone thing now. Let us do what we want.

And for the love of God, figure out a way to get Google Now on my iPhone.

Tell me why I’m an idiot for having this opinion by tweeting @tomdale.