Apple missed the mark with iOS 10, focusing heavily on material updates that do little to make the OS radically different. In fact, iOS 10 looks to me like a redressed iOS 9, which in turn is a redressed iOS 8, which is what iOS 7 should have originally been. The biggest features of iOS 10 (improved Messages app, new lock and keyboard sounds, redesigned Music and News apps, card-like interfaces that take up way too much space on screen etc.) should all have been app updates or minor updates in 10.x versions, not part of a core OS overhaul, and certainly not the highlight of iOS 10.
Share sheets and Extensions were probably the last major iOS change worthy of an entirely new edition of the mobile operating system. This time round, opening up Siri to third-party developers is probably the only notable overhaul — and it too came much later than it should have. A lot of other features I was hoping for (including stock apps residing on the App Store and enjoying regular updates like Apple’s Pages, Keynote etc. already do) never made it to iOS 10. Something as fundamental as natural language input — which Calendar.app on Mac already has — is sorely missing from iOS, and, combined with the fact that Apple now allows us to remove stock apps from the home screen (not delete them, but even removing them is better than having a folder full of junk), I am certainly tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over with a generally better experience. However, some apps like Mail.app are good for everyday, light users, as is Reminders. While on the other hand Notes.app can be useful for power users too.
This wide gorge between parts of the OS is what makes the whole experience feel incomplete. On the one hand is the better integration of 3D touch, which, frankly, I have come to enjoy immensely; however, while 3D touching an e-mail can offer you swipe options to, say, trash the e-mail, doing the same thing on a Messages app notification only allows you to dismiss the message and forces you to unlock your phone anyway and navigate to the Messages app to delete an unwanted text. It seems, once again, that while 3D touch has been used to make existing functionality better (since a 3D touch interaction just feels better than swiping around), Apple failed to do anything new with it. The only things I can think of are options to clear all notifications, access mobile data via the Settings icon, and controlling flashlight intensity via the flashlight icon in the Control Centre: all important changes but far too few in number.
With iOS 10 releasing next month, the OS already looks underwhelming, forcing users to learn a bunch of new interactions that are simply not worth the minor changes they bring along. What bothers me, though, are the new iPhones coming around the same time: all rumours (some of which will turn out to be false, a lot of which will be true, if the past is any indication) point to the larger iPhone having perks and the design of iPhones remaining same for the most part.
The second point is not troubling on its own: I do not see the need for a religious design change with every release. However, look at it in context and it really makes one wonder: when the biggest change in the phone is the positioning of antennae while possibly the biggest design flaw, the protruding camera lens, stays put for the third year in a row, it gives the impression that someone has got their priorities all mixed up. I could have lived with a phone 1mm thicker (even with the plastic antenna bands) if, instead, I got a flush camera with OIS and a beefier battery.
The first point is no less troubling because Apple seems to be making a somewhat unfortunate distinction between its iPhones based solely on screen — and hence chasis — dimension. The 7 Plus (or whatever the upcoming 5.5inch model will be called) is rumoured to carry two camera lenses based on LinX technology from a company Apple acquired last year. This is understandable because a dual lens setup will occupy more space than a single lens setup and only the plus sized model will be able to offer the space to fit it in without making the battery unbearably small or the phone unwieldily thick. But, at least partly, the point of innovating is all about successfully putting a dual lens setup on the 4.7inch phone without any sacrifices. Without this, the choice becomes more than just one between screen sizes, which should never be the case. I have nothing against 5.5inch phones, and it is not always about the price either: I have used phablets for years now, including the 6 Plus, but eventually found the 4.7inch screen of the 6S more to my liking — handy, comfortable, inconspicuous. The point is, some of us just prefer the 4.7inch size, and what is this year’s iPhone 7 likely going to offer us? Nothing much at all. Different antennae arrangement, improved camera; both of these, incidentally, have been features of the S-model released every other year.
Granted, everything I said about iOS 10 is based on the betas and everything I said about the upcoming iPhones is based on popular rumours. But, for years now, neither of these have been too far off from the facts we go on to learn on the actual date of release. The rumours are, to a reasonable extent, representative of the new iPhones (the leaked photographs are often uncannily accurate) and the last of the betas are identical in almost every way to the Gold Master or the first stable release that comes with the new iPhones — perhaps with improved stability and battery life, but carrying nothing radically different in any case.
Has Apple stopped innovating? It is hard to say, especially since nobody knows what goes on in their headquarters. Perhaps they have slowed down, perhaps they are refocussing, perhaps they lost footing and are getting back up, perhaps they are gambling on another year of slow growth to make 2017, the tenth anniversary of iPhone, a memorable one (I agree the last point could just be us dreaming), but the same people who have been calling the shots for years are calling the shots now, so there is no need to dramatically call this anything but an unsurprising period of slow growth. I do look forward to a time when the size of screens does not cause any discrimination between people because innovation guarantees that the features come in all sizes and the only difference between the 4.7inch and 5.5inch phones are the screen sizes. Right now having extras on the phablet model makes as much sense as the gold iPhone alone having faster Touch ID, the silver alone iPhone having OIS, the space grey iPhone alone having a flush camera etc. There should be only one iPhone available in two screen offerings. Not two wholly different iPhones, which is precisely what is happening now.
Think of the iPad Pro in 12.9inch and 9.7inch. They are basically the same thing with different screen sizes and improvements in the 9.7inch model simply because it came much later in the year. If iPhone 6S and 7 have differences, that is understandable, but two iPhones released alongside each other simply should not — besides screen size. Whatever your view on Apple’s marketing strategy is, the only thing that is certain is that 2016 has not been the best of years for us as Apple customers, and we can only hope to look forward to better things next year. ❖