iOS 17 doesn’t need a flagship feature to be great
Welcome to our Apple Breakfast column, which includes all of the Apple news you missed last week in a handy bite-sized roundup. We call it Apple Breakfast because we think it goes great with a morning cup of coffee or tea, but it’s cool if you want to give it a read during lunch or dinner hours too.
What is Apple’s most important product? Financially, of course, it’s the iPhone, which brings in more money than every other product category–the Mac, the iPad, and the entire wearables and services divisions–put together. But in terms of securing the loyalty of the customers who buy those iPhones, there’s an argument to be made that iOS is even more important. People don’t buy an iPhone because it has the best specs or most innovative design (which is debatable, to say the least) but because it offers the friendliest and smoothest experience, which is largely due to the operating system.
With this in mind, surely the yearly launch of a new full-version iOS update should be even more eagerly awaited than the roll-outs of some new iPhone handsets that are probably similar to the ones from the previous generation. Well, yes and no. The software announcements at WWDC will be worth watching, and an especially tasty iOS update can make it feel like you’ve got a new iPhone without spending a penny. But there’s a difference between important and interesting, and the dull software updates are just as essential to Apple’s health as the shiny ones. iOS is like indoor plumbing or a cricket umpire: at its best when invisible. If I’m forced to think about sewage or the LBW law or my security settings then you have failed to do your job, which is to quietly get things done in the background.
This week a credible report claimed that Apple has changed its strategy for iOS 17, this year’s update, from fixing bugs to adding features. What pundits had previously expected to be a “maintenance update” focusing on improving performance will now apparently boast several “nice to have” features, including several of the ones that have been requested most often. Cue cheering, general merriment, a ticker-tape parade, etc.
Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade, but I’m not entirely convinced this is a good idea. I’d much rather have Apple focus its energies on making sure everything works the way it’s supposed to than adding a bunch of additional stuff that can go wrong in creative new ways. Not that iOS is especially error-prone in its current form. While “it just works” is now mainly quoted satirically, Apple products remain market leaders when it comes to simple reliability. But there are some issues, and I’d like there to be less. (Or fewer. You see how important it is to get the basics right?) Take Siri. Would you rather have Siri gain the ability to answer a wider range of queries, or answer the current ones more reliably? That’s what I thought.
The problem is that, when it unveils a new version of iOS, Apple is trying to please two different groups at the same time: the iPhone owners who will end up using the software every day for a year without necessarily knowing anything about it, and those wiseacres like the present writer who pontificate, analyze, and obsess about everything that’s changed. The phrase “maintenance update” is mostly used pejoratively, and an update without a flagship feature would be met by the op-ed equivalent of a raspberry on all the big tech sites. But I submit that the average flagship new feature–such as the much-hyped custom Lock Screen in iOS 16-does less to increase the world’s happiness than a simple tweak like SMS passcodes appearing automatically above the keyboard. The first tries to change the way you use your iPhone, and the other tries to make your life easier.
With this in mind, I am prepared to make a promise. If iOS 17 turns out to be a maintenance update, I will refrain from writing a hot take complaining about it. Who’s with me?
The first iOS 16.5 beta has arrived with ‘minor’ changes as the launch of iOS 17 nears.
And with that, we’re done for this week. If you’d like to get regular roundups, sign up for our newsletters. You can also follow us on Twitter or on Facebook for discussion of breaking Apple news stories. See you next Saturday, enjoy the rest of your weekend, and stay Appley.