It’s been 51 weeks since Tim Cook introduced the world to iOS 7’s "stunning new user interface." We thought then that the radical redesign of iOS would be the biggest update in the platform's history. But in some ways, we were wrong. While iOS 7 brought a massive change in aesthetic direction, it remained functionally similar to its predecessors. iOS 8, on the other hand, is a subtle but important overhaul of the most important thing about the design of Apple's mobile OS: the way you use it.
The beauty of iOS has always been its simplicity. Apple gave users a springboard of app icons and taught them to jump in and out of apps to get things done. The introduction of the App Store with iOS 2, multitasking with iOS 4, and Notification Center with iOS 5 certainly shook things up, but the core paradigm remained. Many designers, including Apple’s Jony Ive, strive to make things simple, following functionalist principles of "less is more." But by not acknowledging a shift in the way people use their devices, iOS began to feel like it was stuck in the past.
BY NOT ACKNOWLEDGING A SHIFT IN THE WAY PEOPLE USE THEIR DEVICES, IOS STARTED TO FEEL STUCK IN THE PAST
Thanks largely to the App Store, we all use third-party apps — millions of them. We shoot and tinker in VSCO Cam, we share with Instagram, meaning something as simple as editing and uploading a photo on iOS presently means trawling through multiple applications. That’s just one example. Everyone has their own workflows, their own ways of keeping in touch with friends, sharing information, and getting things done. Apple added white space to apps and switched to cleaner fonts in iOS 7, both of which improved the overall user experience, but that improvement is lost when we’re required to jump through hoops to perform basic actions. In the meantime, Microsoft and Google have strived to put third-party apps at the center of their OSes through systems like Android Intents and Windows Charms. With iOS 8 App Extensions, Apple is finally acknowledging that its age-old concepts of user behavior needed to be brought in line with its competitors’.
App Extensions allow apps to interact with one another. This interaction can be as simple as editing a photo with VSCO Cam filters before sharing it — without leaving the Photos app — or as complex as translating a webpage in Safari using a third-party app like Bing. Extensions can also allow apps to act like widgets, letting users bid on an eBay auction or like an update on Facebook directly from the Notification Center. Apple is yet again taking simple ideas that can be found in Android and elsewhere and remixing them with aplomb.
Sharing information between apps is one of the cornerstones of the Android experience, and bringing that to iOS in an intelligent way will truly change the way you use an iPhone or iPad. This appropriation of features has been going on for years, and can be found elsewhere in Apple’s latest update, with third-party keyboards lifted from Android, self-destructive messaging from Snapchat, and better threaded conversations from WhatsApp finally coming to iOS 8.
With a shift in UX taken care of, iOS 8 also attempts to patch some holes in Apple’s new design language. The company made some missteps with iOS 7, both visually and mechanically. Some of those missteps were implicitly acknowledged: the iOS 7 Apple showed developers last June was quite different from the one it pushed to consumers months later. The system font was replaced between beta and commercial release, the incoming call screen was redesigned, and the shiny new Control Center was slightly decluttered, to name but a few changes.
Earlier this year, iOS 7.1 brought with it more refinement, as the shutdown screen changed significantly, the incoming call prompt was switched up again, animations were changed, and default apps saw a number of design tweaks to Jony Ive's original formula. But there were still niggling issues with 7.1, which 8 goes a long way towards addressing. The most significant fix comes to notifications. Just like in Android, they’re now actionable from either the lock screen or Notification Center. That’ll allow you to quickly respond to messages or accept calendar invites — something that’s always required you to jump into an app until now — but also facilitates more nuanced uses like swiping down on an email you don’t care about and quickly marking it as read.