The Top 10 new features in iOS8

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This evening Paul O’Grady took to the stage in San Francisco, playing the part of Apple CEO Tim Cook, as the company unveiled details on what we can expect from iOS8 – the forthcoming update to Apple’s mobile operating system that runs on iPhone and iPad. Here’s our pick of the top ten most interesting new features.

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1) iCloud Drive

What if you create an image in one app, but want to edit it in another? In iOS of old, you’d be stuck as Apple didn’t allow files to be shared between apps – but this looks set to change with iCloud Drive storage. Now it should be more straightforward to open files across apps – though the original file will always stay sorted with the app that created it.

Perhaps most interesting is that iCloud Drive will also work with the new version of Mac OS, known as Yosemite – meaning easier access to your photos and so on from your computer (Apple are even making a Windows app).

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What’s going to disappoint some people though is that iOS hasn’t been given a full file system: in other words, it still won’t be quite like how you can browse, create and delete folders and files on a computer.

iCloud Drive does appear to be set for big things though: Apple are offering consumers large amounts of storage for relatively low prices (something like 99 cents/month for 100GB – and will automatically keep all photos on iCloud, making them accessible across devices. This is undoubtedly taking the cloud storage fight to both Google Drive and Dropbox, the latter of which refused a takeover offer from Apple a few years ago.

(Can I be the first person to start a unfounded conspiracy theory about how storage is so cheap, because it is being subsidised by the NSA so they can gain access to everyone’s photos?)

2) Widgets and Interactive notifications

Want the latest football scores on your notification screen? Or more useful information than just a line of text? Apple will now enable app developers to create widgets on the pull-down notification menu, which should make it even more useful and bring a little Android-style utility to proceedings. This is in-line with a similar addition to OSX Yosemite.

Though we didn’t see it demoed, it would be reasonable to guess that we’ll also see widgets make an appearance on the lock screen in a static position – so the score will stay there to be viewed at a glance. Hopefully, anyway.

The other big addition was quick replies to notifications – so if you receive a text you can reply without opening the messaging app. All you have to do is pull down the notification.

3) Custom Keyboards at last!

This got a big cheer in the massive auditorium. Finally – years after Android – it will be possible to download third-party keyboards. This means the likes of Swype (which appeared on a demo) will be coming to iOS – enabling different types of input. Apparently apps will be able to have their own custom keyboards too, which should make things interesting.

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The standard iOS keyboard is getting an addition in the form of predictive words to help you type faster. Apparently this will be smart and context driven, and will generate suggestions based on how you enter text, what app you’re in and who you’re talking to.

Apple is also keen to stress the privacy functions – apparently no data is sent to the cloud for this, and it is all processed locally. If the keyboard does need internet data (for, say, Swiftkey, which uses your email inbox to tweak suggestions), it will explicitly ask your permission first.

4) Extensibility!

This is the big one, which was only really shown off in the developers section at the end so the importance might be missed. The difference between iOS and Android, and also mobile and desktop operating systems until now has been that mobile apps tend to be silo’d: apps can’t really talk to each other and you can’t install extensions inside apps.

Cleverly, Apple is introducing this in a structured way enabling developers to hook into other apps at certain points, all whilst keeping private data separate. The example given was a Bing (yes, Microsoft Bing) translation button appearing in Safari if you have Bing installed – enabling you to translate text on a webpage whilst within Safari. Another example was a “share to Pinterest” button appearing in Safari if you have Pinterest installed.

This has the potential to completely change how we interact with apps in the future: now instead of having to upload to (say) iCloud, if you’re instead a Dropbox user you could have apps save to there instead. Or instead of being forced to use the default Mail app, you could use the Gmail app instead. Brilliant.

5) Hand Off / Sharing calls and texts across devices

This was a really clever couple of features. If you’re a Mac bore like me, and regularly use an iPhone, iPad and a Mac you’ll love this. Essentially, iOS8 and Yosemite will detect when you’re nearby (say, connected to the same network) and help you pick up where you left off on a number of apps. For example in a on-stage demo the presenter started writing an email on an iPhone, before moving over to an iMac where an icon popped up on the bar along the bottom – and with a click it loaded up the half complete email and he was able to finish it on his computer.

Inevitably, support for this is going to be very Apple-centric, so if you don’t use the official Mail app or the iWork suite of software utility is going to be limited. Here’s hoping Apple open up the technology to third party developers.

There was one other related clever feature too – that was the big “wow” moment of the presentation for me. Using the same technology you can now take calls and SMS messages across devices – with your iPad and Mac connecting to your phone to make it happen. So whilst the call still goes out of your phone, you can choose to answer it on your computer with your phone sending the audio over.

This was demonstrated on stage with a stunningly awkward call with “new Apple employee” Dr Dre (of Beats fame), in which the previously subversive counter-culture icon spoke of looking forward to creating great apps with the multi-billion dollar corporation.

You can even make out-going calls if you’re on your computer or iPad – and helpfully the Mac will pick up phone numbers from websites and enable you to call them at the click of a button. Amazing!

6) Airdrop working across iOS and Mac

Need to send a file from your phone to your computer or vice-versa? Mercifully Apple has done what we all wanted since Airdrop was first added to iOS: the ability to send it to your Mac too. No more faffing about – hurrah!

7) Messages improvements – audio and video messages

iMessage has received a whole host of upgrades. Not only can it now send and receive SMS messages (by talking direct to your phone), but Apple has made it more “app” like – with renaming chat threads, being able to mute notifications on individual conversations and even built in location sharing (which can be limited to, say, sharing your location for the rest of the day, or indefinitely).

Most intriguingly Apple has added audio and video messages – enabling you to send short audio and video messages to friends. Looks great – the only problem is that it happily sent and played a video that had been shot in portrait, rather than refuse to and display a message telling the user that they are an idiot.

The e-mail app has also received a few nice tweaks – including the ability to browse your mailbox whilst composing, by swiping your draft message to the bottom of the screen, and Mailbox-style swiping to delete and flag.

8) Health

The rumours were true – the long talked about “Healthbook” application is real… but just called Health.

Oddly, this wasn’t talked about all that much, other than that it will be possible to developers to plug in their own health data into it, with the app acting as a hub for all of the raw health data. This means you could conceivably log your steps taken with your Nike+ bracelet and your calories with MyFitnessPal, and have it all amalgamated by Health.

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Apparently the app will be intelligent and able to automatically contact your doctor if it notices anything unusual outside of the ordinary. It’ll be interesting to see how this works in practice though – the example on stage was given with a bunch of private American hospital organisations… how this will integrate with the NHS remains to be seen.

So the details are still rather sketchy – perhaps that’s because Apple would rather talk about it when they’ve got their own health gadget to show off?

9) Connected Home

Another direct hit for the rumours. Buried in the developers section of the presentation was the news that Apple are indeed working on a “connected home” platform. Whilst we don’t know how this will quite manifest to the end user, it is clear that Apple want in on the Internet of Things, and want to provide developers with the tools to make Things happen.

What was quite cool was that it was hinted that by “rationalising” the various standards and systems for connected lights, thermostats, toasters and so on, Apple will let you group various tasks. So, for example, you could say to Siri “time for bed”, and it would automatically turn off the lights, lock your doors and switch down the heating. No word yet on whether Siri will be renamed “HAL9000” when iOS8 launches.

10) TouchID API

Finally, remember the “TouchID” thumbprint scanner on the iPhone 5S? Until now it has only been used for unlocking your phone and paying for apps. The good news is that Apple are opening it up for developers – so expect to see many more apps using thumbprints soon.

So that’s that. iOS 8 is apparently due in the “fall”, which is “autumn” to people on this side of the pond. Apparently the plan is to support everything from the iPhone 4S and above on the iPhone side and iPad 2 and above on the iPad side.

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We’re looking forward to having a go – even if we didn’t really understand why Tim Cook brought out the actor Kevin Eldon on to the stage to demonstrate how programming games will be even easier.

James O’Malley