iOS 6 wants: The opposite of widgets

Last week I ruminated out loud about whether or not Apple needs to redesign the iOS Home screen. We've continued to discuss it on the podcast and in the forums and I realized something: as much as it'd be nice to information from apps and make it glanceable on the Home Screen, it'd be even better to take functionality of apps and make it accessibly from within other apps.

Sure, it's nice to be able to see today's date on the Calendar icon, and it would be nice to see today's weather on the Weather icon and so forth, and information density could absolutely stand to be improved on the Home screen. And yes, there's an argument to be made that familiarity is a feature and Apple won't mess with the app launcher, the familiar mechanic by which hundreds of millions of users feel comfortable using iOS. But either way, that's a fleeting concern -- I don't spend much time hanging out on the Home screen.

Apple has said all along that the goal of the iPhone and iPad was to get out of the way. They're essentially giant screens so that, when you launch an app, the device becomes the app. When you're in Calendar, it becomes a calendar. When you're in Phone, it becomes a phone. When you're in a game, it becomes that game. Arguably, the Home screen is just a simple app launcher because all Apple wants you to do is unlock your iPhone or iPad and launch apps as quickly as possible. They want you in apps. And that's exactly where I am. I'm in Twitter. I'm in Campfire. I'm in Safari.

The problem is, when I'm in an app, if anything else happens, I'm forced out of that app and into another app. If a notification pops up alerting me to an iMessage or an email, and I want to either read all of it or respond, I have to stop what I'm doing, leave the app I'm in, go to the source app, and then respond.

Notifications aren't actionable within the notification interface. I can't "quick view" a Tweet or a Facebook message, I have to go to the Twitter or Facebook app. I can't "quick reply" to them in-app, I have to go back to the associated apps to respond. That either causes me to ignore messages I may not really wish to ignore, or to wrench myself out of what I'm doing to go handle them immediately.

There's more to this equation as well -- Windows Phone-style contracts so apps can better communicate with each other, and an iCloud aware so documents can be picked in-app as easily as photos and videos.

We may no longer have model alerts in iOS that you can only ignore or act on immediately, but in some ways, notifications today remain as binary as they ever were.

By contrast, jailbreak apps like BiteSMS let you quickly respond to a text no matter which app you're in. Your app (or game) pauses, a text entry box is overlayed, you enter your message, you hit send, and you're current app resumes. With apps like LockInfo, you see an email notification, and you can tap a button, and read it without even unlocking your device.

Those may seem like subtle differences -- a pause of state rather than change of state and back -- but in practice it's far more efficient. It reduces a lot of friction, and makes the experience far, far better.

It could be implemented as a popup or added to an existing layer like Notification Center (tapping the icon goes to the app, tapping the snippet flips Notification Center around and shows a preview/reply bow, for example). Apple has all the tools to make it happen.

So rather than widgets, which take app data and put it on the Home screen, I'd far prefer functional notifications that take app interactions and put them wherever I happen to be.

And I'd like it in iOS 6.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • BiteSMS (really the quick reply functionality) is mainly why I am still jailbroken. LockInfo is great but I could live without it. The handful of little tweaks I run (5 icon dock, barrel, etc.) I definitely could live without. So if Apple adds the type of functionality you describe I will put Jailbreaking behind me for good.
  • Ruminated
  • same here!
  • Is there really a difference between a faster app switching method and a pop up or sheet?
  • a popup wouldn't stop a video like quick task switching does.
  • webOS, baby, webOS! Ever since I left the dying platform last fall and got my first iPhone, I've been pinion' for webOS "Cards" and/or a better multitasking and notification system...not to mention a Touchstone-like charger!
  • Check out multifl0w and IntelliscreenX.
  • +1 about webOS. I also left last October, and as great as the iPhone is, I still miss webOS. I still use the TouchPad, and even though it's very limited, I still smile every time I gesture down from the corner and adjust brightness, toggle wifi, mute, rotation lock, airplane mode, etc. from within any app. Double clicking button for fast app switching is NOTHING like swipe up and cards.
    Sad fail of Palm. Oh well, I'd love it if Apple took those ideas because its hardware and platform are superior in all other ways.
  • +1
  • i left webos for android for iphone and would never switch to anything else again. but the cards implementation of webos is STILL the best multitasking method. if iphone could capture that and the ability to adjust settings from the slide down menu of webos the iphone would go from legend to well even more legend. it would definitely appease us webos fanboys.
  • Seeing as how webOS is now open source, what would prevent Apple from integrating a lot of the webOS features we all love? I too agree that webOS is awesome.
  • I got a Touchpad in the firesale and still use it, but I don't see what is so great about its notification system vs what we have now in iOS.
    I also find the WebOS task-switching UI to be slow, especially when I have left several apps open. Quite frankly I shouldn't have to worry about closing apps manually on a tablet or phone device.
    And I don't really use the multi-tasking bar in iOS much because I find it quicker just to go back to the home screen where I know every app is (doesn't move about) and can group pages of apps by those I am likely to use together.
  • What i wouldnt do for a card notification that you described to just pause the game or app im currently in and let me quick reply.
  • Is interesting that what you are talking about is exactly what RIM is doing with its new BB10 platform
  • This exactly.
  • I've been an iPhone user for several years but I am still very much interested in what BB10 has to offer. I've tried Android/Samsung Infuse and didn't care for it too much. I still say the only other phone I would be willing to go to would be a Bold 9900.
    I couldn't agree more to what Rene said. I really don't think widgets are the answer but a new style of Home Screen is needed. I certainly don't think the icons need to be so big and so condensed but I don't want a 5 or 5.5 inch screen either. Just my 2 cents....
  • First thing I would like to see on the iPhone is the fast app switching like the iPad has. That would help in the scenario you describe. I agree that the iPhone home screen does appear somewhat tired compared to Android and I would like to see more information other than the hacked notification numbers giving you the temperature but not so busy as Windows 8 tiles. @Martin, I think in another time, WebOS could have been great had it been backed by a serious company that could compel developers to make programs and deliver quality/desirable hardware. Touchstone screams Apple whether they know it or not and I would love to see more of this in future devices.
  • The iPhone has the same app switching function as the iPad!?
  • All this sounds well and fine for sometime in the recent future, but what I would really like RIGHT NOW is not to have any notifications ring in my God damned ear while mid-call on my 5.1.1 4S thanks!
  • ^^^THIS!!!
  • ^^^THIS!!!
  • Yeah, that is annoying. Nothing like being on an important phone call and having it vibrate right in your ear. And the other person can hear it too. Is there a way to shut that off in the settings, so it'll only vibrate when you're not having a phone conversation?
  • Where can I get the wallpaper their using?!!
  • I completely agree Rene. I've played with iOS themes (winterboard, dreamboard, tweaks) with spring jumps, widgets and other multipage complexities but for efficiency, the plain old tried and true springboard is still king. In fact, I have been using a 5 column springboard & dock (+infinidock) for as long as I can remember (OS 3?). I'm also a long time user of lockinfo (now a ISX convert). Every bit of data can be seen on your lockscreen or infoshade (notification center). Some may say this is too much but it can look quite clean if organized correctly.
    Reply to texts, read emails, read notifications, take a glimpse at my calendar, access system settings, widgets (weather, twitter, Facebook, stocks, etc…)
    All accessible from the lockscreen or notifcation center. You're right, stock notifications are still as binary as ever.
  • In the Palm days, there was a little app called pop up calculator. While in any app, you could bring up the calculator. I really miss that ability in iOS. It has copy paste, and will define a word in an app, without leaving the app. What you suggest would be so easy, and make a great user experience. Multi tasking is one thing, but the ability to do other functions within an app, just makes sense.
  • I like the popup when you tweet things, of you could click an incoming text and it would pop up like that box, send and your right back into whatever your doing without leaving!
  • BB10 is what you're looking for. :)
  • I keep my phone jailbroken for only 3 things... 1. Bite SMS and the quick reply functionality 2. LockInfo for better lock screen notifications 3. SBSettings for the quick toggles, mainly WiFi in my case. I recently decided to run my phone stock and that lasted only a couple of days. The extra steps required to perform basic tasks while on stock were enough to make me want to jailbreak again.
  • Yasss @ and airdrop support.
  • I am not sure that the interapp integration to which you refer is plausible given the app sandboxing feature in iOS.
  • I feel like fast(er) app-switching combined with perfect state-saving by apps (or better, by the OS) mostly replaces the need for interactive pop-ups. The primary reason I use BiteSMS isn't because I don't want to interrupt my current app -- after all, it still interrupts my current app. Rather, it's because switching to Messages to reply and then switching back is too slow and often disturbs the state of the original app as it fails to perfectly (or at all) save state.
  • I say take all of the best stuff from webOS (now that it is open source) and do it right.
    I've said for a LONG TIME that if Apple built webOS hardware, that would be my Nirvana.
  • So basically we need a two way notification system so that along with texts (like BiteSMS) and other stuff coming in you can reply inline to any notification or take some other kind of action (like snoozing a calendar alert or Quick Look ala Mac OS) without leaving the current app.
  • Everything old is new again: it sounds like you're asking for Desk Accessories, from the pre System 7 Mac OS days.
  • I think this "familiarity is a feature" is BS and a cop-out. It's an excuse for when Apple doesn't feel like making a radical change. If familiarity is a feature, and it's not good to mess with basics that millions of people have been using for years, explain the Snow Leopard to Lion changes, or OS9 to OSX, for that matter.
    Apple needs to start making big changes to the UI. I'm getting pretty tired of staring at the same rows of icons (but wow - now with a background image I get to choose!) and wearing out that damn Home button from all the back-and-forth switching.
  • Great article Rene.
    However I will award you 3 dork points for admitting to use Campfire.
  • Change for the sake of change is the dumbest thing Apple could do especially if it's just to copy everyone else. iOS is superior to all of these other OSs in my opinion so there is no need for them to copy what they have done. The differences in all of these OSs are what makes them special and makes people like them. Everyone praises Web OS but it failed for some reason. And if you want everything Android has to offer then that's an easy fix, just buy an Android phone.
  • When I read this it reminded me of the keynote Jobs made when he introduced iAds. He didn't want us to have to leave an app just to check out and ad or special offer. They need that same concept with messages and mail, and I'm sure many other apps as well.
  • What would be even better is once you get a notification pending you want to you can slide down Notification window grab the alert you want slide it to the left and it will then bring up the full alert of said Notification once done slide the Notification center up and your back to what you were doing with no interruptions.
    Thats what I would like to see in iOS 6