iOS 8 wants: A smarter, contextually aware Spotlight search

Imagine if, in iOS 8 or some future version of Apple's mobile operating system, Spotlight became a secondary, text-based point of access to Siri, able to parse the same type of natural language queries and commands, and retrieve the same kinds of responses, and perform the same kinds of actions? Back in June of 2012 I hoped for a Spotlight that could access Siri, and I'm still hoping for it today. Why?

Siri voice free

While Apple has made great progress expanding Siri since its debut in iOS 5, including adding new data sources for movies, sports, and more, they've also expanded Siri's accessibility. Siri gained Eyes Free in iOS 6 and CarPlay in iOS 7. However, there's no equivalent for "voice free".

No matter how useful and enabling Siri is, there will be times when it's simply not possible or socially acceptable to talk out loud to our phones. In those situations, being able to type "Cupertino weather?" or even "Text Georgia I'll be late" would be incredibly useful.

Sure, you can pull down Spotlight from any Home screen, search for the Weather or Messages app, enter the right city or add the right contact, type in your message, etc. but Siri has shown natural language can be faster using voice. Apps like Fantastical have shown they can be faster using text input as well.

What makes this feature so tantalizing is that Siri can already handle text input. Once you've made a voice query or command, an "edit" button appears. Type in anything you like, tap "Done" and Siri will process it. However, you have to start it with voice, which limits the utility.

Imagine instead if you could simply pull down Spotlight from the Home screen, enter your text, and access Siri directly. As I said last time, multiple points of entry into the Siri system don't increase complexity, they increase accessibility.

Quick access to quick actions

Siri can not only answer questions but execute commands. If Spotlight could parse text and hook into the system like Siri, it could also be used to execute simple commands.

There's lots of precedent for this. Quicksilver, LaunchBar, and Alfred are all implementations of text-based quick action launches that have existed on the Mac for years. Just Type from webOS and Type and Go from BlackBerry have tried the same on mobile. Launch Center Pro has even made an icon-driven version work as far as current iOS limitations will allow.

With Spotlight hooked up to Siri's action engine, "Text Georgia I'm running late" is just one example of the type of text-based quick-action that could be possible. "Tweet Guy Wow, arrow was bananas!" could instantly send your status. "Meeting with Ally at 6pm tomorrow" could add an event to your calendar.

If Apple gets around to adding a DocumentPicker to iOS, Spotlight could even see into any and all the files you're storing locally and on iCloud. Spotlight on the Mac can already be used to search for OS X files. "Team roster" or "WWDC keynote" would be just as useful on iOS.

I firmly believe iOS should stay as simple as possible for as many users as possible. When power can be added below the surface, however, when functionality can enabled only for those who want and need it, then it's too everyone's advantage. Just like Notification Center, Control Center, and fast app switching stay completely out of the way and all but invisible unless expressly called out, so too could Spotlight quick actions.

A smarter Spotlight

There's a lot I'd like to see from Spotlight and Apple's text based search in general, including and especially how it works on the stores. Nearest-neighbor and automatic search widening so that spelling mistakes become irrelevant and queries too narrow to return exact results can return close-enough results anyway.

Server side delays, the kind that have sometimes been problematic for the current Siri implementation, could also be mitigated. Since text is already been typed, there's no need to run speech-to-text. Any local actions could be processed locally. Any queries that require a trip to the internet to get results would suffer not much more than the same possible limitations Spotlight web and Wikipedia searches already have today.

Put all that together and Spotlight, like Siri, becomes a parallel, powerful, useful way to interact with the iPhone and iPad.

It makes Spotlight smart, and who doesn't want that?

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iOS 8 wants: A smarter, contextually aware Spotlight search

16 Comments

Lol, thanks for the morning chuckle...quite the response;)
I'm with ya. It's the omnipresent 'cloud' Apple needs to turn it's efforts to. Spotlight is one of the amazing features on a Mac. Bringing it to iOS, with the ability to search both internally, your own iCloud acct/Dropbox/Box, even Google Drive (at some point the two should play nice. Together, as American companies...and they're quantitative strengths/elimination of weaknesses, Goople would be an amazing possibility (for services)). Media you're looking for, IMDB info, a formula conversion, Wiki answers...or simply to call up a file, picture, note or phone/address/email or conversation. I've owned each iPhone and several Android models. Today my business line is a Note3. Personal phone, the iPhone 5s. I love them both but often find, even on iOS, Google's apps, services and support/flexibility are better, more responsive and efficient on my iPhone in contrast with my updated, KitKat N3. As much support as iOS has from the development community and the paper Apple has made off their backs, I think it's time to return the favor...reciprocate, and build out the iCloud platform, back end services and continue the refinement of Siri to include local, cloud and internet search, find and execute your requested action. Further, it would be cool to integrate voice recognition at extremely low dB levels so one can literally 'whisper' in to their iPhone , requesting an action and iPhone responding correctly without "I'm sorry, I'm unable to...." BS. Again, as a proud American, it's a real clown on the entire WORLD to see these companies...from the same State of Cali continue to battle in court over dumb patents. It may have even been you that said it...how screwed ol' Henry Ford would've been a century ago had Mercedes owned the four wheel, front engine, two door, 'road driving' vehicle patent. Of course many may prefer a Mercedes to a Ford...but the stifling of innovation that comes with it, not allowing others to continue the refine ken would've killed the automotive industry for a decade or longer...combustion engine, the internet, and everything in between then and now. Hell, we get along with Russia when it comes to space flight. Why can't two towns in California Shake hands, kiss, and make up? The power of Siri behind Google services and the continued innovation of Android and iOS will lead to significantly better choice and services for ALL of us!
Here's to Siri Spotlight on iOS! Cheers:)

Yup this. On my nexus 5 I swipe to the left to get into Google Now. Would be amazing if you could still just swipe down to the spotlight search and not only see a search bar but also relative information cards.

Sent from the iMore App

Oops, sorry. No, that was more of an iOS8 want in general, not pertaining to Spotlight. Wrong post for the wrong thread I guess.

Hey Rene, can you create an ongoing "iOS 8/9 Wants" forum or list that maybe we could somehow forward to Tim. your posts are great, but we should get something with some serious numbers behind it for Apple to see.

This would definitely be a welcome addition to iOS 8. While on the subject of iOS 8 wish list items: I desperately want Apple to implement a system-wide ability to empty cache. Some apps have built this functionality in directly (Flipboard, Alien Blue) but most do not have it. Facebook, Instagram, and Vine are notorious for slowly but surely fattening up over time, eating away at my precious storage space. Right now the only way to shrink them back down is to do a full uninstall/reinstall. It's a real problem. Maybe one that's only apparent to power users, but power users do still matter. Or at least I hope they still do.

Saw that the image for this article was talking about arrow Rene,i just clicked on it then i saw it was about this awesome idea if you ever want someone to talk to about arrow....

After reading this article and your files.app article, a native iCloud file manager seems like by far the best solution. Why have all your documents/files spread out over all your apps when you can organize them yourself? We naturally organize things in our own way. Say if you're trying to open a file from iCloud storage in an app-go to open file, it would list all the valid file types in your directories and then even differentiate which were created in the app and which were not. The only reason people use Dropbox/Google Drive/OneDrive is that Apple does not have such a service. A spotlight feature would be meaningless without a cloud file manager

I would also like a spotlight search to take me directly to the text it just found. Try searching for a text from last week, it will show a portion of the text in the search results, but not all of it, then when you tap that result it only takes you to the bottom of that conversation. I most likely knew who I it was from/to, but now I have to scroll, search, tap to load older messages, scroll, search, tap to load older messages... Painful.

*** I just tried this again. Spotlight DOES do exactly this IF the text is already loaded. Meaning if it is not behind the "Load Earlier Messages" archive. So recent messages: works. BUT, I found a work-around. If you know which conversation it was in, load earlier messages over and over, Home Button, Spotlight again, it should go straight to that message. Slightly less painful.

This is my favorite feature about Cortana: I can always call her up easily via the Search button, and then type my query. While I'm actually very, very surprised at how accurately Cortana can parse my voice and convert it to text commands (even in locations with mild-moderate background noise), I still just type in my requests 90% of the time.

Talking to your phone is still pretty awkward, I just like typing. And the ability to quickly pull up Cortana and type in natural queries is truly divine.