Solving for iOS 11 Control Center's new Wi-Fi and BT toggles

Prior to iOS 11, toggling off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in Control Center killed those radios dead. Now, it only kills current connections but leaves everything from Apple Watch and Apple Pencil connections and AirDrop and Universal Clipboard features running as normal. And some people aren't happy about it.

The EFF:

Turning off your Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios when you're not using them is good security practice (not to mention good for your battery usage). When you consider Bluetooth's known vulnerabilities, it's especially important to make sure your Bluetooth and Wi-Fi settings are doing what you want them to. The iPhone's newest operating system, however, makes it harder for users to control these settings.

Apple has to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of customers from first-time users to long-time pros. Sometimes those needs are in conflict.

For example, it wasn't intuitive to first-time, casual, and mainstream customers that turning off Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth would cause AirDrop, Instant Hotspot, call and SMS relay, and other features to stop working. Or, that it would cause Apple Watch, Apple Pencil, and even AirPods to cut out. Many of us have had first-hand experience helping family members with exactly those problems.

Having the Control Center toggles shut off the current Wi-Fi connection or third-party Bluetooth devices, but keep Continuity services and Apple Pencil and Apple Watch-style deeply-connected accessories keep going makes the most sense to that user group, And it's a big user group.

But, it comes at the expense of longer-term, more expert users who know full well how the protocols and radios work, and are used to how Control Center toggled them in previous versions of iOS. You know, the ones who want "off" to mean "OFF".

To further complicate matters, connections re-active when you come in range of known networks, or at 5 a.m. local time, because Apple decided that makes sense. The result is a state that's no longer binary or predictable, which is incredibly frustrating for people who expect it to be both.

Turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in Settings remains as it was — absolute as in off means OFF. But it's not as readily nor as quickly accessible. And that's inconvenient.

I'm not opposed to the change in theory. Persisting Continuity and deeply-connected accessories is a good thing. But the current implementation isn't a clear win for anyone.

There are several things Apple could do about it:

  1. Revert the change, which would again leave casual, mainstream users confused about why Continuity and deeply connected accessories stopped working just because Wi-Fi or Bluetooth was intentionally or accidentally tapped.
  2. Add multiple states to the switches — on, disconnect, and off — which would increase complexity and, potentially, confusion.
  3. Add an alert-on-toggle — "Are you sure you want to disconnect Apple Watch?" — which would add significant overhead and dialog fatigue to the process.
  4. Add a preference in Settings to restore the old behavior, which would just offload the problem to users.

My preference is currently for the 4th solution. Sure, it's "one more toggle", but it could be set to the new behavior by default — and most people, especially casual users, never change defaults — it would only add load to the long-term, expert users who want it and are most capable of handling it.

Apple's iOS team could likely come up with an even better solution, of course. It's their job to do just that.

As to the EFF's security issues with the new implementation, Bluetooth isn't going anywhere. With BT LE and now Bluetooth 5.0, and the aforementioned Continuity features and deeply connected devices, it's becoming increasingly critical to how we use and benefit from technology.

Bluetooth needs to do everything possible to make its protocol as secure as possible. Vendors need to make sure their Bluetooth stacks are bullet-proof. And people concerned about Bluetooth, in general, need to remember that can still kill it completely in Settings. That works the same way it always did.

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