At first glance, iOS 8, the latest version of the operating system that underlies the Apple’s iPhone and iPad, appears unremarkable.
But looks can be deceiving. Below the surface, Apple has made some big changes, adding a host of useful new features and addressing some long-standing shortcomings. You can think of iOS 8 as the completion of what Apple started last year. While iOS 7 modernized the software’s interface, iOS 8 brings its features up to speed with those of its competitors.
In perhaps the most dramatic change in iOS 8, Apple moved to relinquish a good deal of control over the software. Compared with Android, iOS has always been more locked down. And Apple, unlike the Android army, has limited which and how applications can interact with one another.
For example, iOS has long allowed users to share pictures stored in its Photos app directly to websites and services. But Apple limited the sites to a handful: Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo’s Flickr and its own iCloud service.
In iOS 8, though, users can add new photo-sharing services. For example, I was able to upload a photo of my daughter to the family tree I’ve created on the Ancestry.com app directly from Photos. That may not seem like much, but it eliminates at least a couple of steps.
Apple is also allowing users to tap into certain features of particular apps from within other ones. The 1Password app serves as a password vault, storing your logon credentials for numerous sites and services. In iOS 8, users accessing eBay via the Safari Web browser can pull up their eBay password from 1Password without ever leaving Safari. In the future, you’ll be able to do the same in other apps.
Similarly, Apple has opened up access to Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor that it first built into last year’s iPhone 5S. In iOS 7, users could use Touch ID only to unlock their iPhones or to authorize purchases from Apple’s iTunes and App stores. With the update, users will be able to use Touch ID in more places.
I used it, for example, to log into the Amazon app. Already, some credit card and financial services applications are supporting Touch ID login. By allowing other app makers to access Touch ID, Apple has finally unlocked some of its potential.
But Apple’s newfound openness extends even further.
With iOS 8, iPhone and iPad users can now download and use virtual keyboards designed by third parties, rather than being limited to Apple’s keyboard. I installed Nuance’s Swype, a virtual keyboard long popular on Android devices that allows users to type by dragging their finger across the screen from key to key. It worked great, recognizing the words I “typed” quickly and easily — and much faster than the default keyboard.
Apple has also finally embraced third-party widgets. These small programs allow users to view information or access certain features without launching full applications. In the past, Apple supported only a few widgets.
But in iOS 8, users can turn on widgets from other app developers. I was able to see the current weather using the widget with Yahoo’s Weather app. With Dropbox’s widget, I was able to see and access the most recent files I’d used in its app.
IOS 8 has some other cool features. Apple revamped its popular Messages program so that users can now easily send short video or audio messages. Users can also easily share their location within the app, useful when trying to meet up with friends.
When composing a message in the updated Mail program, your draft appears in something like a window. If you need to access information from another mail message — to copy an email or Web address, say — you can now minimize that draft window, get the information you need and then re-enlarge the window. That’s a big improvement; in the past, you would have had to close and save your draft message to see any other message in Mail.
iOS 8 isn’t perfect. Few apps yet take advantage of the new features. And Apple hasn’t opened up everything; despite past promises, Facetime still doesn’t work with any other video calling app, for example.
But overall, it’s an impressive update, and it will only get better as developers embrace Apple’s new openness.