If you've come anywhere near a tech site in the last year or so, you've heard it all before. "iOS is getting stale compared to Android! It needs some new ideas!" Whether that's actually true is up for (heated) debate, but those with an open mind are usually willing to acknowledge that Apple and Google could afford to swap a few ideas when it comes to their mobile OSes.
So in a fantasy world where we could bring over some of the better Android features to iOS, which features would those be? Among the Ars staff, we sometimes have spirited "conversations" about what aspects would be the best for each company to photocopy. So, we thought we'd pick a few that might go over well with iOS users. Don't worry, we have a companion post of features that Android could afford to steal from iOS. The copying can go both ways.
No one wants iOS to become Android or vice versa. This is about recognizing how to improve iOS with features that would be useful to people depending on their smartphones for more than the occasional text or phone call. We recognize that Apple tries to keep an eye towards elegant implementation, too. So which features are we talking about? Glad you asked...
Google Now-style contextual services
For those who aren't familiar with Google Now, it can be a little complex to explain due to its wide range of services. (Check out the Ryan Paul's write-up about it last August here on Ars.) On one side, Google Now does Siri-like voice actions, but that's not the part we want Apple to take from Android. The part we want is Google Now's ability to provide notifications and other services based on a range of contextual information, such as your location, whether you're physically moving or not, your schedule, and so on.
"Google Now can display similar routing and traffic notifications for places that the user intends to go, by scanning the upcoming appointments in the user’s calendar. When the user approaches a mass transit station, the software displays transportation schedules. It can also inform the user when they are close to points of interest—but living in the incredibly dull suburbs outside of LA, I have yet to see this feature in action," Paul wrote in his piece.
But Google Now can do other things too, like examine your past search history in order to find out which sports teams you follow regularly or whether you've looked up a flight recently. The service will then start offering you notifications with updates about this information. Or, as Ars Technical Director Jason Marlin pointed out, Google Now can remind you that visitors are in town based on forwarded itineraries in your e-mail, or alert you that a package is out for delivery—all without you having to set up those kinds of notifications.
There will certainly be users who don't like the idea of Apple automatically filtering through their e-mail or constantly reading their GPS location. But it should be something you can opt in and out of easily. And for those of us that are more comfortable with such a feature, wouldn't it be nice if Siri could perform these same (or similar) functions?
Quick settings in the Notification Center
There are some device settings we just plain use more than others on a daily basis. For me, it's the Wi-Fi on/off toggle on my iPhone, because my very Comcastic home Internet connection can't seem to stay up when I need it. For others, it might be the screen brightness control, the Do Not Disturb switch, or the Personal Hotspot toggle.
Android users are able to access certain settings via their own version of the Notification Center, allowing them a quick and easy way to toggle these without having to jump all the way out of an app, into the Settings app, and back. As reviews editor Florence Ion said, "It’s frustrating having to switch back to the settings to take care of the brightness if I’m in the middle of watching something on Hulu."
If you could pull down the Notification shade while inside of a third-party app, you could adjust the brightness (or turn off Wi-Fi, or turn on Do Not Disturb) without having to leave the app in the first place. At the very least, a feature like this would greatly reduce the number of taps required in order to get a task done, thereby simplifying the usability and making the iOS experience that much more enjoyable.
Autocorrect and spelling suggestions
It's no secret that Apple's method of offering spelling suggestions and autocorrect can be a huge frustration for iOS users. You're just typing along with your thumbs when iOS decides something you've written—perhaps street names or just plain obscure words—isn't right. At this point, iOS begins to tell you what word it's going to autocorrect to if you don't tap on your original word to tell it "no." If you're like me, you tap on your original word over and over and over with your fat fingers, but iOS autocorrects to its own word anyway. Then you have to backspace over the entire thing and start over—usually battling with iOS yet again over the spelling of your original word. Wash, rinse, repeat.
And, of course, there is no directly user-editable word dictionary in iOS. You either have to enter your obscure words as text macros (which is not exactly the original intention of that feature), or simply hope the app in question eventually figures out the spelling you wanted after entering it a thousand times.
There has to be a more elegant way of doing this, right? Android users seem to have the better end of the stick when it comes to handling autocorrections and spelling. When typing out a weird word, the OS will offer alternate spellings as buttons above the keyboard. But more importantly, if it manages to autocorrect your word to something you didn't want, a single backspace will restore the original spelling. And, it will ask you if you want to add that word to your dictionary to boot. For the sake of all our sanity, Apple should adopt this kind of autocorrect behavior, stat!
The ability to set default apps
You know the drill: perhaps you prefer Chrome over mobile Safari on your iPhone, but every time you tap a link from e-mail it opens in Safari anyway. Or perhaps you like Google Maps or Waze, but anytime you try to get directions from another app, it forces you to use Apple's Maps app. There's no way to change which apps are used by the OS as defaults for these actions—you're held hostage with Apple's own apps as the default.
Do iOS users know how to beat a dead horse on this topic? Yes. But that doesn't make this feature any less desirable, especially since our Android-using friends get to throw it in our faces all the time. When they launch a new browser, the OS asks them if they want to set it as the default—thanks to the fact that Android can recognize when you have multiple apps installed to perform similar functions. Alternately, they can change their default apps in their settings by going into an application manager to choose whether that app launches by default for certain functions.
"The nice thing is that with pictures, for instance, I can select which app to edit in without going into another app and looking it up in the gallery," Ion said. Indeed, while perhaps not every iOS user wants this feature, enough of us care about it to make it a worthwhile addition to iOS.
Home screen shortcuts to places within apps
iOS allows users to set home screen icons that act as quick bookmarks to Web apps or other Web pages in Safari. This is pretty convenient, but you can't use that same functionality to set a shortcut to a "page" or functionality within native apps. Our Android friends can, though, giving them easy access to certain information without having to navigate there every time.
"I can set a shortcut in Google Maps Navigation as an icon on my homepage. For instance, if I’m lost in the car and need to get home, all I have to do is press the icon that I made and it launches the Navigation to my home address," Ion said. "I know that iOS has this for bookmarks and the like, but I like being able to do this with specific applications."
Indeed, there are numerous iOS apps I use on a regular basis that force me to navigate all the way through several screens before getting the information I want. If I could create a new home screen icon that links directly to a certain functionality within an app—third-party or otherwise—it would significantly cut down on taps. (And in the winter when it's 11°F outside, that means less time with my poor, uncovered flesh being exposed.)
This may be the least likely of all the suggestions here, but it's one that could be potentially useful to the greatest number of users. Just think: how many of you have at least one iOS home screen shortcut to a Web page? Exactly.
We're sure you're eager to tell us which features you think should be brought over from Android. Or perhaps you have ideas on how to better implement some of the suggestions we offered. Either way, let us know in the comments what you think. The most interesting, weird, or just plain creative ones may make their way into a followup post.