iOS Wish List

By most accounts, it’s almost a sure bet that Apple is set to debut the third iteration of the iPad tomorrow. Presumably, there’s a new version of iOS in the works too, though if the past is any guide such a thing would probably not be announced at the same time. Still, software features are what I’m really interested in; a Retina display would be a nice addition on the hardware side, but most of the improvements I’d like to see in the iPad would be software-based — and I’m not talking about Siri. Here’s a wish list of what I’d like to see.


Family Computer

By now even its skeptics admit that the iPad is something very different from ‘just a big iPhone.’ To me, that difference is most evident in how the iPad has become the new family computer. I wrote about this previously, referring to to a mode of usage that I call post-personal computing: by and large, people leave these tablets at home, and they tend to share them within their households to an extent that they didn’t with laptops or desktops.

If there has ever been a hardware device that could benefit from allowing multiple accounts to access it, this is it. Having made the transition away from tethered synching, it seems logical to me that Apple’s next major challenge would be to fully embrace the multi-user paradigm.

This wouldn’t be easy, of course, because it would almost certainly demand a rethinking of the multiple account paradigm. Just serving up a different home screen to a different user, the way Mac OS X currently serves up different desktops, would probably be insufficient. iPads are shared spontaneously and in mid-session, so signing in and out of user accounts would be more of an impediment than a help.

Apple could start with a parallel approach to personal data, like contacts, calendars and emails, letting users access what’s relevant to them via their own password from within any other user’s session. What would be even better would be a way to create a family address book and calendar, something like the one moms have kept in kitchen drawers and on refrigerator doors forever. There’s no technological equivalent to that yet, and there really should be.

Going further, such an infrastructure should make it easy to lock certain content within certain apps. Right now, a shared iPad is almost literally an open book to anyone it’s shared with. In a family context, this might not seem like such a big security risk, but even trivial secrets — like a list of gift ideas — are worth keeping.

Better Management of Multiple Apple IDs

Actually, where Apple really needs to start is with its clunky Apple ID system, which doesn’t yet allow you to merge two accounts that you own, much less two accounts within a family. I’ve written about this before too, and it continues to be a hindrance that Apple’s accounts seem to be permanently isloated from one another. Changing that situation will go a long way towards defusing the complexity of purchases and personal information that plagues so many novice users who have inadvertently created multiple accounts. I’ve seen that situation so many times, when a user can’t recall which account she’s bought an app with or signed into a service with, that it seems like one of the most egregious user experience shortcomings in technology today.

In fact, iOS in general desperately needs a comprehensive password management service embedded into the operating system. For my money, they should just acquire the superb and indispensable 1Password and be done with it; there’s nothing better on the market.

And while we’re talking about acquiring third-party utilities, Apple should also take a look at Smile Software’s excellent Text Expander, which turns user-configured abbreviations into full words or even blocks of text. On a device where typing is often uncomfortable at best, having a solution like Text Expander built into the operating system — as a service available to all apps — would be a huge usability improvement.

Those are my big wish list items, but here are a few that are more prosaic.

Screen Dimming

I occassionally suffer from insomnia, and my iPad is a handy way to while away the early morning hours. It’s so much more friendly than bringing a laptop to bed, which is what I used to do. But with my partner sleeping next to me, even the device’s dimmest screen setting is too bright for the room. A truly bedroom-friendly setting — maybe even half the brightness of the current lowest brightness setting — would be very welcome.

Avatar Management

As we put more and more of our identities online, our visual representations become more and more critical, especially as we present different aspects of our identity to different services and to different sets of users. Apple should make this easier by building into iOS — or iCloud — a Gravatar-like service that lets us swap our preferred pictures in and out at will, and make them available across all our devices.

Message Archival

A nontrivial portion of my life, from texts with friends to photos and video exchanged with my partner, are communicated through SMS and now iMessage. But every once in a while I lose a chunk of that message history for some reason or another. This doesn’t seem like it should have to be the case; these messages, whether SMS, MMS or iMessage, should be stored in the cloud so that the full history of my exchanges with anyone are available to me from any device, old or new.

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18 Comments

  1. yes, yes, a thousands times yes on the multi-user/family/iCloudID fix. Desperately needed. Can we start a Kickstarter campaign for Apple? How much do we need to raise for them to address this problem.

  2. Pretty sure your Text Expander-esque request is already built into iOS. Go into Messages and type “omw” … it changes to “On my way!” You can configure these text shortcuts in settings, under General/Keyboard and at the bottom of that screen there’s a section called “shortcuts.”

  3. except for screen dimming, all of those are 1% features, and i’m pretty sure you will never see them in a future apple product.

    apple is in the “80% solution for 80% of the people” game, not in “customizable just like i want it” game anymore..

  4. I am 100% with you on all these points. In fact I’m stunned that the first one hasn’t already been integrated already. 1%? I would warrant even that the majority of iPads out there are shared devices.

  5. @tomjones I disagree that multi-user is a 1% feature. Not saying that Apple will do it—I don’t think they will, at least in the next year or two—but there is pain associated with sharing an iPad among family members, and I don’t think that’s an uncommon problem.

  6. Tom: Obviously I disagree that they’re 1% features, especially the multi-user feature. In fact, as Erica points out (and embarrassingly I didn’t realize) the shortcuts feature is already built into Apple. So, at least as far as that point goes, Apple believes it will satisfy 80% of people out there.

  7. I’m going to hazard a guess that we might not see much traction on the user account end — Apple would rather you buy an iPad for each member of your family than make it easier for everyone to share one unit.

  8. Jeff G: I think you’re probably right, though if that’s the case I think it’s short-sighted. Though iPad adoption has been very, very healthy, I believe it will still be several years before iPads achieve the ubiquity of phones and desktops. In the meantime, I think that this multiuser feature would spur people to actually adopt more quickly. The more time you spend with an iPad, the more you want one for yourself. And if you have access to your own personal info on an iPad, you’re going to want to spend more time with it.

  9. Passwords are too cumbersome for user switching. A keyboard requires holding the devices in a different, cumbersome manner.

    Ideally one could pass off an iPad, accept it with one hand (like a clipboard), and sign a custom glyph with the right hand to sign in.

    Then again, there is the front-facing camera, so an Android-like facial recognition should also be suitable for most households.

  10. I think being able to lock folders in the current app might be just enough to cover the multi-user stuff. My kids could stash their own games in their folders, I could put my stuff in mine, and the family could share the rest of the stuff. One could also lock access to email folders, etc. I realize this wouldn’t go all the way, but at least for 90% of what we use our ipads for, this would be a great approach – a much more fluid experience than what the desktop uses now. Apple could also use the Parental Control paradigm in the desktop OS to lock down certain apps.

  11. The whole model for sharing media among family members and friends in general really needs to be re-designed on iOS. One of my biggest gripes is my inability to simply lend an ibook that I bought to my wife’s iPad. (Yes, we have separate itunes accounts.)

    But I would also like to be be able to lend a book to a friend, or make a mixed tape from the music that I bought on itunes. The current restrictions make the user experience for those of us who do not wish to pirate or steal media quite poor. While media was still tangible this was not too difficult and probably aided with sales for the media in question.

  12. And how about making them (and while they’re at it, all other Apple mobile devices) waterproof? I recall a commercial recently marketing a tablet (Android maybe?) to kids, highlighting the fact that they’re waterproof. I limit my 2-1/2 year old’s use of my iPad, but it would be nice to not have to worry about water, drool, juice, etc gumming up Daddy’s expensive toy!

  13. “iPads are shared spontaneously and in mid-session, so signing in and out of user accounts would be more of an impediment than a help.”

    Why not use the iPad’s front-facing camera as the login method? You could add a PIN or an android-like gesture if you want more, as well as an easy way to override the auto-recognition. Defaulting to “Oh, Steve just picked up the iPad. I’ll show Steve’s stuff.” seems like a no-brainer. Going even further, why not have the iPad look for the most proximate Bluetooth device? If that Jawbone UP band is closest, Jim is holding the iPad. If it’s the iPod Nano, it’s Jane. Or they could just use Siri to identify who’s speaking.

  14. Great thoughts. Khoi, have you seen or used F.lux? It’s an amazing tiny utility for the Mac desktops and laptops that handles this exact dimming you’re talking about (automatically by local time). What’s even better is that instead of simply adjusting the screen brightness, it actually changes the screen color to a more yellowish value. I’ve read about and personally experienced the problems associated with bight screens at nighttime. This utility solves it (and gives designers the option to easily disable it when working with color at night).

  15. Ryan: Yes I’ve seen F.lux, it seems very cool and I know one or two people who are crazy for it. I’d be shocked if Apple implements something like it though. All I really need is one additional, lower setting for the dimmer.

  16. I’m not sure if we’re at the point of having the technology to do something like this, but why can’t we use a user’s fingerprint to identify them on an iPad? Is this possible? Or does it require more resources than an iPad can offer reliably? Or is this not a reliable method at all?

    Chris Yates’ proposition would be interesting, but I’m not sure a camera-based solution would be quite as smooth. If you have multiple faces in view of the camera, how is the iPad going to be able to determine who’s doing the touching?

  17. That’s why I don’t borrow your iPad. Would hate to accidentally bump into your ‘Gifts for Laura’ list.