Apple's latest iOS: eight time's the charm?

20 Oct 2014

Apple's latest iteration of iOS is number eight: the luckiest of integers throughout greater China. But its launch was inauspicious.

Firstly, the OS was timed to coincide with the release of the iPhone 6—Apple's long awaited bigger-is-better phone. Fans jammed Hong Kong's Apple stores to grab as many 6s as possible, mostly because the number of RMB on offer was far in excess of their purchase price.

Ten million units of the iPhone 6 and its big brother the iPhone 6 Plus flew off shelves the first weekend. The gray market into the mainland soared...until Apple announced they'd launch the devices online and via all three Chinese operators in mid-October, and market-prices for the shiny device tanked.

The second misstep was a shocker for Apple and its users. Long-time tech users often avoid “version X.0” of any software release. The thinking is that the first alpha release is really the last beta release—let the userbase be the early adopter and check the feedback. Usually, not a problem.

It's not a feature, it's a bug
However, Apple's 8.0.1 release was shredded almost instantly. “Apple has pulled an iOS 8 over-the-air update following reports of users left unable to make calls,” wrote Dylan Bushell-Embling on Telecom Asia.

Apple issued a terse statement: “We apologize for inconveniencing you if you were affected by the bug in iOS 8.0.1.” This makes 8.0.2 the first effective iOS release. Reports vary, but it seems that adoption of iOS8 is slower among existing users than previous iOS upgrades. The 8.0.1 SNAFU likely contributed.

Personally, I liked the candy-bubble SMS look of iOS6. Since they axed it, I run my phone with colors inverted (pro tip: Settings > General > Accessibility > Invert Colors, and you can revert to normal with a triple-click of the Home button for photo/document-display—that's under Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut).

Regrettably, iOS8 doesn't restore the quirky SMS feature I liked. Here's a quick glance at what's new, and what's not-quite-new.

Swipe and learn
Android users will quickly spot features they've enjoyed for years. Apple has opened keyboard design to developers, which is welcome for those typing in English as well as other languages. And you'll be able to swipe rather than type (the Android faithful yawn in unison). The result, once you get used to it—easier and quicker text-to-screen.

Apple promises predictive text in iOS8 that will discern between SMS and e-mail, presuming that most users are more formal on the latter than the former. As with most predictive-text experiments, this one will imitate patterns based on actual usage, so the device should evolve as you use it. One text feature that sparks up out of the box is next-word predictive – e.g. after you type the word “Thank,” a three-word menu appears above the keyboard with “you” as an option (Samsung users giggle in unison).

Another text goodie the OS offers: words chosen based on past communications with a given user. As on iOS7, my phone recognizes words like “Mongkok” and my unique spellings of colorful Cantonese cuss words. A good FAQ on custom keyboards from Ars Technica is here. Be advised that installing third-party keyboards on iOS8 requires what Ars Technica calls: “a multi-screen slog through the system settings.”

Text messages are jazzed up with a feature familiar to users of OTT apps like WhatsApp and WeChat: quick-recording of an audio soundbite sent using SMS channels. If both users have iPhones, the comm-channel should default to Apple's iMessage without added carrier-cost. But the OTT services have had this feature for years, and it's cross-platform. With iOS holding a minority share of the current market, the Apple-only soundbite may thrill Cupertino residents, but won't enthrall all.

The latest iOS version is worth the upgrade for its predictive-text savvy alone—assuming you've got an iPhone 4S or above (the iPhone 4 won't handle the new OS). As usual, there's a cornucopia of tweaks across the board: Apple lists them here.

Fade to gray
Perhaps the most unusual new feature seems aimed at photographers who (like famed shutterbug Ansel Adams) reject color palettes in favor of monochrome. You guessed it: Settings > General > Accessibility > Grayscale. Your opinion on color schemes becomes irrelevant as your handset now displays everything in shades of gray.

Whatever your opinion of Apple phones, their designers maintain a sense of whimsy. More importantly, unlike the lack of an opt-in check-box on the here-have-a-free-U2-album scheme, returning the phone to color mode is user-friendly. How hip is it to run your pricey smartphone in grayscale?

Up to you, but I lasted about 30 seconds.

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