6 things iOS can learn from OS X

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The focus of Apple’s last two releases of OS X has been on incorporating features of iOS while refining the user experience, which has worked well so far. However, certain aspects of iOS, such as the lack of good inter-app communication, are making the platform look dated. Apple could solve that issue and others by bringing features from OS X back to iOS, starting with Services.

Services

One of the biggest differences between OS X and iOS is the way they treat inter-app communication. OS X’s little-known Services feature provides a way for applications to transfer data, such as currently selected text, between each other. Let’s say I’m typing a document and I want to search the web for a phrase I’m using. I can select the phrase, use the “Search With Google” service, and a new Safari window pops up with the results. Third-party apps can use Services as well, and users can create their own with the Automator app. This flexibility and customizability is what makes Services powerful.

Let’s switch to iOS. Apps are sandboxed, which means they can’t share files between each other, and the only way to share text is through copy and paste. Third-party apps can’t process actions from other apps without using URL schemes, which isn’t an ideal solution.

Implementing something as complex as OS X’s Services within iOS’s simplified UI isn’t easy. So far, Apple’s taken the approach of only including the most useful Services from OS X in its own apps. In iBooks, for example, I can select a word and define it, make a new email with it, or search the web for it: all the basic stuff you can do in OS X. It’s a sign that Apple’s at least thinking about the problem, and I’m hopeful that the coming iOS 7 update will address it more thoroughly.

Multiple user accounts

user_switchingMultiple user accounts were introduced with Mac OS 9, and they’ve evolved quite a bit since. Today, each user gets their own settings, files and associated iCloud account. If you click on the currently logged-in user’s name in the menu bar, a menu pops down with a list of other users. Choose one, and that user’s desktop rotates off the screen to be replaced by the other’s.

It’s true that you can sign in and out of iOS with different Apple IDs, but this only lets you download another user’s content from iTunes and not much else. You don’t get your iCloud data or settings, and any changes you make outside of iTunes stay with the other account. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for families that share an iPad or iPod touch. The latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, includes multiple account support for tablets, giving Android users one more feature to tout that iOS doesn’t have.

Slideshow wallpaper

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“Slideshow” wallpaper — background images that shift after a set period of time — was introduced to OS X with 10.3 Panther. iOS 4 introduced homescreen wallpapers on the iPhone, but you could only set one at a time; it remains so today. Considering that you can already run a slideshow on an iPad’s lockscreen, doing the same thing with homescreen wallpaper doesn’t seem like much to ask.

Mission Control

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Released with OS X Lion, Mission Control consolidates Exposé, Spaces and Dashboard into one UI. I’ll be talking about the Exposé part here, since I don’t see any need for Dashboard or something like Spaces on iOS. Exposé is the feature that zooms and arranges your open windows so you can see them all at once. Click on one, and Exposé switches you to it.

In iOS, switching between apps is accomplished with the multitasking tray. Double-tap the Home button, and the tray pops up, showing your most recently used apps. Unlike Exposé, the multitasking tray only shows you the app’s icon and not the app itself. Apple actually experimented with a more Exposé-like interface in an early version of iOS 4, and Jailbreak tweaks, such as Multifl0w, bring a similar interface. Android and Windows Phone’s task switchers also use app previews and not just icons, and with the multitasking tray making its debut almost three years ago, it feels like it’s time for an overhaul.

Gatekeeper

By default, Gatekeeper locks down your Mac so it will only run apps from the Mac App Store and developers registered with Apple. However, you can turn Gatekeeper off on OS X. On iOS, there isn’t a choice: you can only download apps from the App Store. Because of this, and Apple’s policy of reviewing every app before approving it, there’s been a few incidents over the years, starting with the blocking of Google Voice, which damaged the company’s reputation with some developers. By implementing a Gatekeeper-like system, it would be easier for Apple to defend criticism of its approval policies, as developers could still sell their apps on the web. iOS developers would also be able to get out updates even if Apple rejects them.

There are problems with this, however. Apple would have to allow downloading apps from Safari, which also means building an interface to manage them. App piracy, already an issue on jailbroken devices, would likely increase under such a system as well unless Apple implemented DRM. Malware is another possible concern, though as with Gatekeeper on the Mac, having the default be to only allow apps from the iOS App Store would leave people protected. With all of these negatives, I doubt we’ll be glimpsing over the walled garden any time soon.

Versions

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Versions, introduced with Lion, provides a Time Machine-like interface for looking through past revisions of a document. When you trigger it, the desktop slides away as the current app is placed next to its past versions, stacked together on the right. Browsing through past versions is accomplished by a timeline on the side. You can edit the current version right within the interface, as well as copy elements from past versions.

Versions hasn’t made its way to iOS yet, and that’s understandable given the size of iOS devices. How would you fit something like Versions’ interface on the smaller screen of an iPhone or iPad? On OS X, an app’s window can resize to fit comfortably within Versions, but they can’t on iOS. Versions would have to be rethought significantly for it to work on smaller screens, so I’m not optimistic that it’ll be in iOS 7.

Many of these features that work so well on OS X are admittedly a long shot for making it to iOS. However, with Craig Federighi placed in charge of both OS X and iOS software after the departure of Scott Forstall, there’s at least the possibility that OS X features may eventually find their way to the other side.

What other features from OS X would you like to see in iOS? Tell us in the comments. 

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