As expected, WWDC saw the first public debut for iOS 11, the next version of Apple’s most important operating system. It’s now out for developers, with a public beta due in June.
I’m going to look at some of the key features for iPad in iOS 11. As always with any first look at a new release, it’s worth remembering that everything you read – literally everything – is subject to change before the autumn, when this will roll out to consumers. There are bugs and things that don’t quite work as you expect but I’ll mostly ignore those. This is not, in any way, a review: it would be silly to look at a developer release of any new operating system with too critical an eye.
Nor is this going to be a complete guide to iOS 11. I’ll leave that to Federico Viticci, who is undoubtedly currently giving his iPad Pro keyboard a thorough workout on the path to a 10,000-word in-depth look (and when it’s done, you should definitely read it).
What I want to do instead is give you some insight into the big conceptual changes in iOS 11 for iPad users – and there are quite a few of them – along with some smaller details that give an indication of the thinking and work that’s gone into iOS 11 so far.
For this article, I’m confining myself to the iPad – we’ll do another look at iOS 11 on iPhone later. The device I’m using is the first-generation iPad Pro 12.9in, with the “challenging” 32GB of storage. Everything you’re reading was created on the iPad. If you didn’t believe that the iPad can do “real work”, you should start rethinking now. One thing that’s already obvious to me is that iOS 11 will be the release that finally puts that idea to bed.
One of the concepts Apple borrowed from OS X for iOS was the Dock, a row of icons that live at the bottom of the screen and give quick access to your most-used apps. However, how the Dock worked in iOS was always much more limited in comparison.
You could store only four or five applications; there was no split between apps on the left and useful stuff on the right. And there was no way of getting to the Dock without going back to the homescreen.
The new Dock is much more Mac-like. First, it can fit many more icons, as the size of the Dock shrinks to fit. Second, it has a section on the left-hand side reserved for your two most recently opened apps, plus one for whatever’s on your Mac for use with Continuity. Third, the Dock can be revealed at any time in any app by swiping upwards, making launching a second application much easier than before.
Managing open applications and multitasking
The Dock is central to how you manage open applications on the iPad. You can still swipe up with four fingers to see your open applications, but instead of these being presented as a row of apps you swipe through, you see each “window” in a grid of large thumbnails, meaning you can move through open applications much more quickly. To the right, you see what was the Control Centre, now incorporated into this view (and more on that later).
Multitasking has been built into iOS for a long time, but it was only with the release of iOS 9 that the iPad gained the ability to have two applications on screen at once. While it worked, the user interface for controlling which apps were onscreen was never particularly satisfactory: you swiped in from the right, scrolled down an endless series of app icons until you saw the one you wanted, and then tapped the icon to open it. Unless the app you wanted was one you had opened recently, it was always hard to find.
With iOS 11, this model changes dramatically. Swipe up with one finger and you reveal the new Dock. Drag an icon from the Dock to the right-hand side of the screen and the app opens in “pop-over” mode as a floating separate window. Grab the handle at the top, drag down, and your app drops into split-screen view.
If you already have the screen split, you can drag to either half to open up an application wherever you want. And pairs of applications parked onscreen next to each other are persistent. Put Safari next to Notes, say, and the next time you open either of them you’ll get them back again, side by side. In this sense, split-screen sets act more like Spaces on the Mac, rather than just open applications.
Annoyingly, there’s still no search right now and no way at all to find an application not in the Dock or open. Overall, though, it’s a better system than before, making it more obvious what you’re opening and where it’s likely to end up.
One of the minor changes is in the way you close open applications if, for example, one is misbehaving. Rather than closing by opening the switcher and swiping the app up and off screen, you press and hold for a second on it and tap a close icon.
Drag and drop
The trickiest thing to get to grips with initially is the new drag-and-drop mechanism for moving text and images between apps. If you have two apps open side by side, it’s very easy: you simply press and hold on a selected piece of text or image then drag it over to the other app.
Where it gets a little more conceptually difficult is when you want to drag something over to another application that isn’t onscreen. My first inclination was to try to drag down to the bottom of the screen, but Apple has gone a lot deeper than that. Instead, you press and hold the text or image and, with your other hand, swipe up, exposing both the Dock and any other open applications.
What Apple has done here is brilliant. Instead of copying the single-pointer, single-operation model we’re used to from the world of the mouse, where only one active element can take action onscreen, it’s taking full advantage of multi-touch technology. You have ten fingers on two hands: why not use them?
Once your brain groks this, it’s like having the scales lifted from your eyes. Why haven’t we been using multitouch in this way before? Why aren’t all touch interfaces like this? As soon as that barrier in your head that tells you there can only be one “pointer” onscreen at the same time is broken down, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Pencil and Notes
I’ll admit it, the Apple Pencil only occasionally makes it out of my pocket, and I suspect that’s also the case with a sizeable group of other iPad Pro users. Apple wants to change this with iOS 11, which integrates the Pencil more deeply and completely with the OS and apps.
First, the company has worked to make Pencil more responsive, trimming lag to 21ms (that’s the time between moving the Pencil and it making a mark onscreen) by using a bit of machine learning to predict where you’re going to move next. I honestly can’t say I’ve ever found this an issue, but it will no doubt please those who want the best possible performance.
What I definitely did notice, though, was the much-improved Pencil support in Notes. In iOS 10, you could insert sketches but doing so opened up a whole new screen; what you couldn’t do was sketch directly into a note. Now, you can start writing or drawing anywhere in the note, with one exception. You can’t currently sketch or write on an area of the page that’s already got typed text on it; instead, you have to sketch underneath the text or above it, not alongside. In that sense it’s not as elegant as Microsoft OneNote, but it’s close.
At long last, you can have lined or gridded paper for handwritten notes, which makes jotting and sketching look neater, and the way Apple handles typing on lined or gridded notes is pleasing, too. Where other note applications just type over the lines, which looks messy, Apple removes the lines wherever you type and leaves them in everywhere else.
For iPad users, particularly those with the Pro version, iOS 11 is a major step forward in functionality and usability. The improvements to how iOS handles multiple apps put the iPad on a par with an OS based on Windows and mouse, at least for most users.
Like the GUI refuseniks of the late 1980s, there will always be those who claim advances in computing can’t be used for real work. But every release of iOS causes the number of people claiming the iPad can’t do “real” work to dwindle, and iOS 11 should cut that number to the hardcore. If you want a computer that just works and does everything you need, iOS 11 will mean it’s time to look at the iPad very seriously indeed.