As expected, Apple announced the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, at its annual WWDC event in San Francisco on Monday. In contrast to the major visual overhaul presented in iOS 7, this update is more subtle in its improvements.
While there aren’t a lot of new design changes, there have been major improvements to several areas which are less apparent: in particular, Apple has opened up several areas of iOS to third-parties that were previously off limits, including the keyboard and TouchID. Apple’s typically understated press release calls it the “biggest release since the launch of the App Store.”
The first thing users will immediately recognize is that notifications are now “interactive,” which means users can reply directly to them without leaving the app they’re in or the home screen. Double tapping the notification will also bring up a little floating head to get access the person who sent you the message.
iMessage, which is the most-used iOS app according to Apple, has also received a lot of tweaks that eliminate annoyances. If you’ve ever been in a noisy group iMessage, you’ll discover there is no meaningful way to remove yourself on iOS 7. In iOS 8, there have been a slew of tools added to control the iMessages you receive. There’s a new “Do Not Disturb” button added on a per-thread basis, and you can finally remove yourself from group threads. In addition, users can now name group threads. Finally, Apple demoed a feature called “tap to talk,” which allows you to send short voice memos through iMessage.
Photos — the app you most likely haven’t touched since you put it in a folder — got a lot of new iCloud integration. Photos now shows all photos stored on iCloud, and lets you search by location, time, and album names. Those photos will be synced with desktop computers through iCloud, and there’s a new pricing structure: 20GB for $1, and 200GB for $4 per month.
Both Spotlight and Mail got improvements similar to OS X Yosemite. Mail got a few swipe gestures: swipe a message down to include images, or swipe left and right to delete or mark as read.
The iPhone keyboard has received word prediction abilities, bringing feature to iPhone after years on the Android and Windows Phone platforms. The keyboard learns how you type, eventually learning whether your communication style is formal or informal. One aspect Federighi highlighted is that the learning is done locally, on the device, which Apple considers a privacy feature. This feature is called QuickType.
One major focus of this version of iOS is a greater willingness to open new APIs to to third-party developers. For instance, the new version of iOS can use new, third-party virtual keyboards, but according to Apple VP Federighi, they will be in the most restrictive sandbox, which will need to ask for permission to the web.
Third-party apps also got access to TouchID for logging in, which will be great for banking apps. Camera APIs now let developers control things like exposure, white balance, and focus.
One minor feature which is pretty handy is an improvement to the multitasking screen. Above the window switcher, users find favorite contacts with a few buttons to quickly call or text. It’s a clever use of empty space and a good virtual place to put a speed dial.
One of the biggest new additions is a new app called Health, which was previously rumored as Healthbook. Health runs inside a new framework called Healthkit. We didn’t get a great look at how it will work, but Apple is billing it as a platform where health apps can communicate with each other, and it will work with apps from Nike, the Mayo Clinic, and Epic Systems.
In iOS 8, it’s possible to call Siri without pressing the home screen button. Siri now listens for the term “Hey Siri,” which sounds a lot like Google’s “OK Glass.” Siri can also identify songs courtesy of new Shazam integration.
Apple also added a feature called Family Sharing, which makes it easier for parents to manage iPhones given to children. Six family members can use the same credit card, and parents get push notifications to approve App Store purchases.
There has been no sign of a larger iPhone screen in any demo given today. iOS 8 will be available in beta to developers today and everyone else in the fall.