Starting today, hundreds of millions of iPhone users—and a not inconsiderable number of iPad users—will receive the free upgrade to iOS 11. Apple describes every release of iOS as a “major upgrade,” and I usually have a problem with that. With iOS 11, however, the description is apt. And … now I have a problem with that.
The problem is tied to an issue I’ve been anticipating for years: That if Apple were serious about the post-PC world, it would need to advance the iPad enough to take on Surface and other 2-in-1s. Over the past few iOS releases, and with two generations of iPad Pro devices, Apple has paid lip service to this future. But with iOS 11, finally, Apple has found its inner ambition.
And it is a mess.
It’s a mess because there’s no such thing as iOS anymore. Instead, this system is being tailored to work differently on different devices. Yes, the basics are the same across all of Apple’s devices, of course: You still get the familiar “whack a mole” grid of icons and so on.
But iOS behaves differently–inconsistently—on different devices. It behaves differently on iPhone X, differently on early/less capable iPhones, differently on (non-Pro) iPad, and differently even on different versions of iPad Pro. Some of the differences are subtle. But then, that’s the stuff that really trips up average users, isn’t it?
All summer, I’ve struggled to adapt to iOS 11 on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro. I’ve struggled to use its complicated new multitasking and productivity features, its weird new dock, and its confusing and inconsistent ways to view multiple apps at once. Like much of what Apple does, this first release of a true post-PC interface is a work in progress, and I have no doubt that iOS 12—and probably iOS 13—will further refine things until it makes sense. But as of today, none of it makes sense.
Let’s look at a few examples.
On iPhone, the iOS 11 dock looks and works as it before: It can display four favorite apps of your choice. But on iPad and iPad Pro, the dock now appears to visually float onscreen. You can add many more favorite apps. And there is an area on the right called “suggested and recent apps” that is really just “recent apps.” You can turn that last bit off if you’d like.
Let’s say you’re looking at an app or game and you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. In previous releases of iOS, this gesture would display the Control Center, an interface to key system utilities like display brightness, Airplane Mode, screen rotation, and so on. Control Center was a multi-screen (for some reason) panel that took up the bottom half of the screen.
In iOS 11, what happens when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen while viewing an app varies by device.
With an iPhone X, you navigate to Home because that device lacks a physical home button.
With an iPhone 8 or older, you will see the new full-screen Control Center interface.
With an iPad or iPad Pro, you get the dock, which appears over the app. But if you swipe up again—and you have to do it just right—then you will see a new full-screen App Switcher interface that includes your running apps on the left and a tall and skinny version of the Control Center on the right; the tiles there are laid out differently than they are on an iPhone.
To get to the old App Switcher screen on iPhone 8 and older, you do what you did before: Double-tap the Home button. This interface is the same as it was pre-iOS 11, and it does not resemble the similar screen on an iPad or iPad Pro. How does an iPhone X user display such a screen without a Home button? I don’t know. (I could look it up, but seriously, who cares?)
Swiping up while viewing the Home screen is a bit less inconsistent: You get the new full-screen Control Center on iPhone and the new App Switcher screen with Control Center on iPad and iPad Pro.
But let’s move on to just the iPad Pro. As I noted, I’ve been struggling with this one. With iOS 11, the iPad Pro is overloaded with new gestures and functionality related to multitasking.
The previous two versions of iOS offered some basic multi-app features on iPad Pro: A Split View, similar to Windows 8’s Snap, in which two apps could be viewed side-by-side and a Slide Over view in which an app could be displayed in an iPhone-like panel over the side of a full-screen app.
In iOS 11, both of these features have changed. But they work differently on different iPad Pros, and they work inconsistently with apps. I suspect that developers will need to explicitly tailor some apps to work properly and that part of the problem is this temporary incompatibility. But part of the problem is the complexity of this non-discoverable workflow. Which includes, by the way, some bizarre two-handed gestures for drag and dropping data between of apps. With iOS 11, Apple’s mobile platform is bursting at the seams, and maybe it’s time for us all to admit that traditional PC form factors make more sense for traditional productivity tasks.
A few details.
I mentioned that some of these features work differently between different iPad Pro versions and models. If you have the largest iPad Pro (12.9-inch, either generation), you can display two apps side-by-side. Those apps each look and work like traditional iPad apps. But if you have a smaller (9- or 10.5-inch) iPad Pro, you cannot do this. You can display one app in its normal iPad-like full-screen-style view (called Regular view) and one sort of like an iPhone app (called Compact view).
Or you can split the screen evenly and get two iPhone-like (Compact view) apps.
Worse, not all apps support Split View. But to see that, you need to understand how Split View works in iOS 11. And you have to really work at it. Here’s what you do.
First, open one of the apps you wish to use in Split View. (This is particularly necessary if the app is not already in your dock.) Then press Home. Then, open the second app. Then, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to display the dock. Then, select the icon for that first app and drag it over to the left or ride side of the screen.
Three different things could happen at this point:
The dragged app icon/overlay retains a square aspect ratio indicating that it is not compatible with Split View. On my dock, Kindle and Pocket are both not compatible.
The dragged app icon/overlay takes on a tall/thin aspect ratio, indicating that it will work in Slide Over mode. (Which, by the way, is no longer a panel; instead, the Slide Over app appears in a floating window.) If you drag it to the far edge of the screen (either side), a channel opens up, indicating that it is also compatible with Split View. You can let go of it there to enable this view.
The dragged app icon/overly takes on a rectangular aspect ratio (not as tall as the example above), indicating that it is not compatible with Slide Over mode or Split View. You can’t multitask with this app. Google Inbox does this, for example.
Insane, right? Or, as Macworld puts it in their own review, “a carefully thought out system.” (To be fair to Apple, one nicety of this multitasking gobblygook when it does work is that Split View apps stay together in the new App Switcher screen so you can select them as a set.)
But there’s more. In addition to using two apps in Split View, you can actually also add a Slide Over app to the mix and a picture-in-picture app. You can have four apps all on-screen at once! (Assuming you have an iPad Pro that is. A new iPad Pro: You can only have the two Split View apps on the 9-inch version or any other iPad.)
The two-handed gestures are breathtaking in their non-discoverability. You really need to read up on this stuff to understand how it works, and it’s the not the type of thing any casual user would ever know or remember. But if you don’t mind the work, iOS 11 on iPad and iPad Pro actually lets you drag data from one app to another using drag-and-drop.
And it is nuts. Here’s how it works.
I’ll use Safari in this example, and I will try to copy a web image and drag it over to a note-taking app. Like Apple Notes.
OK, here we go.
I open Safari and load up Thurrott.com. Then, I tap and hold on an image on the home page with one hand—you have to really hold and do this just right—and sort of pull it over. As I do, an overlay of that image appears under my finger. Hold it there, Paul. You got this.
Now, using my other hand (!), I swipe up from the bottom of the screen to display the dock. I have conveniently just run Notes (oops, forgot to mention that little bit of prep) so I select that app in the dock and it opens full-screen. That image overlay, under the finger of my first hand, is still there. So I can release it to drop it into the displayed note.
Yes. That is how Apple expects you to do this. You really need to be prepared, and really need to understand this system. Oh, and you can’t actually be holding the iPad. You only have two hands, after all.
It isn’t at all unclear to me why normal copy and paste wouldn’t be easier. (Well, for starters, it doesn’t work in this case: When I press and hold on that image and choose Copy, and then later use Paste in Notes, it pastes the URL to the article which the image links to.)
Put simply, adapting the touch-first iOS user interface to traditional multitasking and productivity tasks is a work in progress as I’ve noted. It is a mess, a glorious mess if you will. But a mess.
There are a few arguments to be made about how people just adapt to what they use. But that’s where iOS really lets down the typical user. Because it works differently across devices, users will face a learning curve every single time they acquire a new device or upgrade to iOS 11 on any device. That is, you don’t just learn iOS 11 once. You have to relearn it on each device to some degree. And then remember what the differences are when you move between them.
This will harm Apple’s best customers most. Because those who blindly update to every new Apple device, in turn, will run into strange differences every time they do so. Will this trend continue in future iOS releases? Get worse?
The thing I’m more concerned with, however, is whether there is a payoff here. For example, I recently spent a ton of time investigating whether Windows 10 S makes any sense at all. And when I discovered that it doesn’t, I reexamined Chrome OS for the upteenth time and discovered, somewhat to my dismay, that that OS actually makes tons of sense. And it does so in a traditional PC form factor, in this case a laptop, that is inexpensive, easy to use, and instantly productive.
But as noted, I’ve really struggled to make that work with iPad Pro and iOS 11. I’ve tried again and again to adapt the way I work so that this combination makes sense. And it simply does not. Not for me.
So I’m sure there are people out there who absolutely love the iPad Pro. People who will embrace iOS 11 and its crazy multitasking features. People who actually do get real work done every day on such a machine. But those people are few and far between: Apple’s iPad Pro and iOS 11 just do not provide an optimal environment for work. Not for most people.
For all this, iOS 11 still includes several new and improved features that will improve the experience across iPhone, iPad, and iPad Pro. So I’ll begin diving into those features this week, and highlight the parts of iOS 11 that aren’t bat-shit crazy.