iOS 11 reimagines the App Store and file management

At its WWDC conference in San José today, Apple spent a ton of time on the upcoming iOS 11 and its features. The new release prominently favors the iPad, and for that device, it adds a number of features aimed at improving multitasking and general usability for what we might call "real work." Apple has also decided that it's time to revamp the App Store for the first time in iOS history.

Split-screen with drag-and-drop

First, those iPad changes. The new app switcher now shows multiple app "cards" in a manner similar to Mission Control and will remember application pairs when they're used in split-screen mode. A newly redesigned Dock should also help with using multiple applications simultaneously. User can summon ithe Dock from anywhere in the OS, and they can fill it with applications of their own choosing or launch Siri suggestions. Dragging an icon from Dock to a side of the app that's currently runnning will fire up split-screen mode.

Files application

iOS 11 will also support drag-and-drop for text and images, something that'll come in handy in combination with the multitasking improvements. There's also a new Files application similar to macOS' Finder or Windows Explorer. Other than managing "files stored locally" and on multiple cloud services, there's no telling exactly how much depth this app will offer to users. Even so, the inclusion of a central file manager at all is a huge change for iOS, and it might help make the iPad (and iPhone) more useful as general-purpose computing devices. Finally, there's Instant Markup, a feature reminescent of the Surface Pro's pen support, which lets users write notes on top of most applications and then save or share the whole screenshot.

While those features may be par for the course on other consumer operating systems, they're new for iOS, and may be a signal that Apple wants to boost iPad sales and push the iPad Pro as a PC replacement, if its recent hardware refresh is any indication.

Taking photos and shooting video is one of the most frequent use cases for a mobile device these days, and Apple is acutely aware of that demand. The Photos app in iOS 11 will let users easily clip a small section of a video to create a looping animation, which Apple calls a live photo. Image recognition can help make these loops cross-fade in a natural manner, too. The software will also try and automatically find photos and videos related to the same subject, and offer better tools for simple video editing. In the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, the Photos app uses both HEVC and HEIF (a still-image variation of HEVC) codecs for storing videos and photos, something that should help snap-happy users save a fair bit of storage capacity.

New Dock and Control Center

Since this is the year of machine learning and computer assistants, Apple plans to upgrade Siri in several ways. The assistant now has a more natural voice, and it can process follow-up questions as well as answer with multiple types of results to the same query. The assistant can also perform anticipatory monitoring across multiple applications, like noticing that a user's been checking out a specific city in Safari, or returning to common topics in e-mail threads. The data that Siri learns can then come into play in the form of typing suggestions.

Using a phone while driving is a questionable decision, and Apple wants to help people stay on the good side of a car crash. iPhones will now detect when they're connected to CarPlay or use a combination of heuristics from Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS data to detect when a person is driving. When the device detects that it's in a moving vehicle, it'll block all notifications and leave its screen blank. Messages sent to the user when the phone's in this mode can get an automatic notification stating that they're driving, although specific contacts will have the ability to "break through" this Aluminum Curtain. Rather surprisingly, Apple's calling this feature Do Not Disturb While Driving.

I have two iDevices and will flatly say that the App Store is probably the worst digital storefront (Windows Store included), especially in terms of discoverability and search result relevance. Apple's acutely aware of the long-standing issues with its digital storefront, and is revamping it for iOS 11. Apps and games will each get their own tabs, which will then be further divided across multiple relevant genres. The individual app pages will get a facelift and offer better screenshot and video previews. In-app purchases (IAPs) will also get their own listings, so it'll be easier to both search for them and to see what types of IAPs are available for a specific application.

The Control Center has been the subject of a redesign, too. Its main functionality is now presented on a single page, similar to Android's quick settings. More detailed configuration pops up in secondary screens, and Apple says that there's now deep integration with 3D Touch-enabled devices. The Maps application can now show users detailed floor plans and directories of malls across multiple cities. The app's navigation functionality will also display speed limits and offer lane guidance. The Notes app has a particularly neat trick up its sleeve—photograph a document laying on a desk, and the app will automatically perspective- and color-correct it so that you end up with a clean version, close to what you'd get from an actual scanner.

As for iOS 11's innards, Metal (not our comments system) has been upgraded to version 2, and it now offers virtual reality support. Apple's ARKit augments those capabilities by offering motion tracking, plane detection, and ambient lighting estimations to applications. The CoreML API provides vision and natural language processing for applications to leverage, as well. Supported devices this time around are iPhones from the 5S on up, all iPad Airs and Pros, the iPad mini 2 or later, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch.

There are many, many more changes in iOS 11 than we can discuss here, but Apple has thoroughly detailed them on its preview page. iOS 11 is set to arrive this fall.

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