The Department of Ungrateful Users

So iOS 8 is upon us and it brings many of the features that I've been waiting in iOS for a very, very long time.

So what's wrong with iOS 8? I've already criticised the bugs, and bugs are bad, but bugs get fixed. What about the design choices and feature set?

Safari and the Web

On our podcast, and online, Bradley and I have criticised Safari as one of the areas of iOS that is materially holding the platform back. Safari's compatibility with the majority of websites is very good. No real complaints there.

The remaining issues centre around two things: web designers being either too clever or too dumb for their own good and file transfer over HTTP.

The first is harder to fix. How do you convince web designers to take touch seriously? The current solution for most is to basically hive off touch compatibility into an m.example.org ghetto. It's not that the desktop web is unusable on an iOS device; it's more that many navigation designs that depend on things like mouseover actions on page elements are extremely non-obvious on touch devices. Despite the fact that a touch, then a second touch usually makes the element work, it's indistinguishable from "broken" in many cases.

The second issue is that the browser isn't just about loading and rendering HTML. Many productivity tasks involve downloading files from, or uploading files to, the web. It could be updating a website, filling in an online expenses form, or whatever.

The download part of this problem has been kind of solved for a while now. You can download one file and, when it's done, use Open In... to send it to another application. This is functional but basic: you have to wait for the file to complete downloading before you can do any action on it, or open another tab (which risks overwhelming Safari if you open too many).

A download manager for Safari would be most welcome. Even better - and Google is starting to do this in Chrome - would be a "download this URL into my iCloud Drive" in which Apple's servers would download the file directly into your Google Drive account from where you could later access it.

The big blocker right now is file upload. Since around iOS 6, it has been possible to upload photos to a website through Safari. This mechanism needs to be generalised to any file. Today, the procedure for any company wanting to accept arbitrary file uploads from iOS looks like:

  • Design, build, test and ship an iOS app.
  • Enable it to accept and upload files via Open In... or picking from iCloud Drive.

We now have a filesystem-like representation on iOS - it's called iCloud Drive - so it should be possible to pick any file from iCloud Drive and upload that through Safari.

All of this, by the way, should also apply to Mail on iOS when it comes to picking attachments.

Inconsistent File Presentation

I do a lot of work on iOS and I use a wide range of apps. What I see right now is a highly inconsistent approach to file handling in many apps. This is not unexpected as developers have spent substantial time over the years building custom integrations to services like Dropbox, Box and Google Drive.

What needs to happen soon is for Apple to seriously tighten up the App Store Review guidelines on file presentation. Everyone needs to use the iOS 8 document picker to present file operations to the user.

Here's a concrete example: I use Auria by Wavemachine to record our podcast. It's a great, powerful app for editing audio on iOS. When I'm done with the mixdown, I'm presented with a fixed range of export options that is, in full: Dropbox, Soundcloud, AudioShare, email or none. We use Google Drive to transfer the audio files for the show, but there's no way to get there directly from Auria.

Basically, all of these custom integrations need to go away and Dropbox, Google Drive, et al should be presenting themselves as iOS 8 Document Providers. To their credit, Dropbox already does but too many apps right now do not present the user that option when moving files around.

Back to the Mac

As iOS evolves, I keep using the same question to gauge its progress: what is it that keeps me going back to the Mac? The list is shorter now than it's ever been. Clipping to Evernote is now easy in iOS 8 with their Safari extension. Using 1Password is now as slick and integrated on iOS as it is on OS X. There remain a few stumbling blocks, but not many.

I ask myself what it would take for me to completely eschew owning a Mac. I'm not there yet and I'm not even all that close to it in practical terms. Like your pal that doesn't have a car but who can only do so because you give him a lift, I could possibly do without my own personal Mac only because I have access to Macs at school.

One of the reasons for this is that the Mac is how you recover an iOS device. If your device turns up its toes completely, one way to get it back is to plug it into a Mac and perform various incantations to revive it. If your iOS device ends up totally full of images and video, the fastest way to solve that problem is to plug it into a Mac and download them all through Image Capture.

You may wish to argue that a "mobile OS" doesn't need to have all the features and power of a "desktop OS" but I disagree. For many, the mobile OS is their first OS. It may even be their only OS. I argue that these devices need to be a superset of desktop functionality, not a subset. They can't be that today because of power, CPU, storage and bandwidth constraints but the gap is closing fast.