iOS 10 gives apps room to grow

Apple’s mobile OS turns oft-used apps into mini-platforms

Let's start off with this simple notion: iOS 10 at its most basic level is a platform for mobile devices. It allows developers to build things - apps -- on top of it that do certain and specific things. One app takes photos. Another takes and makes calls. Another lets your browse the web. Apple builds the iOS foundation, frameworks and apps; third-party developers build apps and services on top of the platform. Users pick and choose what they want to do with each one.

But with the advent of iOS 10, which is in public beta now and expected to arrive in finished form next month (along with new iPhones and an updated Apple Watch), that old notion of "platform" is getting increasingly blurred. Because Apple has, in a sense, gone meta with its mobile operating system, allowing what were once simple, discreet but limited apps to perform functions and do things that are only tangentially related -- at best -- to what they were originally designed to do.

In essence, apps themselves are becoming mini-platforms, built atop iOS 10 in ways that extend their abilities in myriad useful ways.

It started in Photos a few generations ago: Apple opened the app to third-party filters and other functions, enhancing it beyond its original capabilities. That's what's happening throughout iOS 10; users who upgrade will find they can do much more than before in their favorite apps without ever having to leave the app.

It's a subtle shift, but it's going to make iOS 10 a much more meaningful upgrade than users expect.

Here's a look at some of the important changes coming.

Messages

In iOS 10, Messages is one of the apps that becomes a platform unto itself. Yes, there are the usual user interface tweaks and a new functionality to make it more user-friendly and expressive. The improvements are both subtle and blatant. For instance, if you're bilingual and constantly swapping keyboards, iOS 10 supports automatic language switching on the fly -- no keyboard swap required. The feature includes spelling corrections and word suggestions contextually based on the language being used.

iOS users are accustomed to squinting to see emojis. But now you'll see much larger versions -- three times larger, in fact. Shared attachments display as rich links with in-line previews of websites and videos. And you'll now be able to add quick reactions -- like a thumbs up, laugh, or an expression of bewilderment -- to specific messages with Tap Back. Videos and photos sent through Messages can also be modified using the Mark Up option, a feature that first appeared in Notes and Mail in iOS 9.

messages emoji Apple

One of Messages' new features translates words into emoji.

For added emotion, messages can be sent with Bubble and Screen effects; the former applies animation and behavior to texts such as Slam (which lands a message with an impact animation); Loud (which enlarges text momentarily); Gentle (which sends a message using small text, denoting a whisper); and Invisible Ink. The last behvior keeps a message or attachment secret until you wipe away the effect with your finger; it's pretty neat for building additional suspense in texts.

Full screen effects are also available to apply balloons, confetti, lasers, fireworks, or shooting stars to the background of your messages, again, adding an explicit layer of nuance to a medium in which tone must often be implied.

message balloon Apple

Messages offers a variety of new effects.

Messages also inherits some of the functionality found in the Apple Watch, including the ability to send a heart beat as well as sketches and doodles using Digital Touch. Digital Touch in Messages also lets you send taps, fireballs, kisses and heartbreak animations using gestures and taps. It's another way to express emotions in a medium that is generally limited to text and emojis.

As if that weren't enough -- and this hews to the point I made earlier about apps becoming full-featured platforms -- Messages also takes strides to ensure that soon you won't have to leave the app to get things done.

Like any good platform, you can extend the functionality of Messages by adding third-party extensions. These include simple items like sticker sets or more complex ones like the ability to look up restaurants and book tables, order rides from services such as Uber, or share music -- all without having to jump to another app.

Best of all, this kind of added functionality will only increase as more third party developers get in on the action.

Maps

Like Messages, Maps is now host to a variety of smarter features. To start, the Maps interface features larger text, less cluttered elements, and it lets you see more data at a glance during navigation. This includes compass and weather data, as well as visual indicators of traffic flow and congestion while in Directions mode.

In previous versions of iOS, overviews in Maps would display traffic conditions -- orange for congestion, red for heavy traffic -- but in GPS/guided mode, streets would lose the color-coding, and the inability to pan and zoom meant you couldn't easily look ahead. Both of those limitations are fixed in iOS 10: the turn-by-turn navigation screen now displays traffic data and the interface allows for panning, zooming, and tilting the camera view.

The revised Maps interface also moves the search bar and suggested destinations from the top of the display to the lower two-thirds of the screen, making it a little faster to begin a search, especially if you're using your iPhone with one hand.

Maps' proactive suggestions are also a bit smarter. For instance, the app will automatically record your location when leaving a parked car so you always know where you left it -- and one of the main selections next time Maps is opened will be a route to return to it. (No more taking a picture of your parking stall just to remind you where your car is.)

You can search for stops along your route, and Maps will automatically adjust the time of arrival at your destination based on your selections. And Maps is aware of future appointments, so if calendar entries have a location and are coming up soon, Maps will automatically suggest that meeting destination as an option.

Like Messages, Maps aims to be a one-stop solution; it's now open to third-party developers to extend its functionality. This means in iOS 10 it will let you book rides with ride-sharing services, make reservations at restaurants, and even send money to friends using third-party services without having to switch to another app.

As more developers jump in on the new Maps and Messages apps, switching between apps to carry out specific functions will be less necessary, creating a more streamlined experience for users.

Siri improvements

Apple's voice-activated assistant gets its own set of improvements, including new voice options under Settings, such as male or female voices with your choice of accents, from American to Australian to British. Siri is also much faster, letting you instantly start dictating once the Home button is pressed and held; before, you needed to wait for an audible cue as it activated before speaking. Another useful feature: when dictating, Siri shows you other translation options, in case the transcript of your request isn't accurate.

siri lyft Apple

Siri can do even more in iOS 10, including hailing a ride service.

However, the biggest improvement is one that will become increasingly popular and increasingly important over time: third party developers now have access to Siri. I can't stress how potentially important this is. Over time, Apple has steadily boosted Siri's capabilities; by opening up the app to third parties -- in essence, making it another platform-within-a-platform - the company is allowing Siri's capabilities to grow without being limited to Apple's update schedule.

No doubt, when iOS 10 arrives, initial third-party app support for Siri will be limited to certain Apple partners. But as developers spend more time developing software for iOS 10-specific features, Siri should gain a huge boost in productivity.

I am eager to see what developers do with more access to Siri.

Final thoughts

These features -- and more -- promise to seriously improve iOS. By opening up and allowing access by developers to certain apps, Apple is clearly growing more comfortable letting those apps evolve into platforms unto themselves.

Now that Apple is letting developers extend functionality well beyond the original design of these and other apps, the company is allowing its iOS ecosystem to grow. Like all good ideas, the efficacy of this tactic will depend on execution, both by Apple and by independent developers. With iOS 10, Apple is poised to deliver a feature-rich, stable update for iPhone and iPad users; after that, what matters most is what the developers do with the platform Apple has given them.

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