In the year when the vision is elsewhere, what do you get the OS that has everything?
Well, last year was weird.
For the first time since I started writing annual reviews of Apple’s two mobile operating systems – iOS and iPadOS – I published a review without the iPad part. Or rather: I had to publish it a month later given the mess Apple found itself in with Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 and its half-baked, embarrassing debut.
I don’t want to go over the specifics of that entire saga again and how we got to a shipping version of Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 that didn’t meet my expectations. Spoiler alert: as we’ll see later in this review, Apple listened to feedback and fixed the most glaring issues of Stage Manager in iPadOS 17, striking the balance between “guided multitasking” and freeform window placement that was missing from last year’s debut. Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 will remain another blip in the iPad’s long and storied history of ill-fated multitasking features. There’s no need to talk about it again.
I want to explain, however, why the past 12 months have been different than usual in iOS and iPadOS land beyond the fact that I couldn’t work on my iPad Pro for the first half of 2023.
Following the launch of iOS 16 with its Lock Screen widgets and after Apple wrapped up work on the last big-ticket item on the iOS 16 roadmap (Live Activities for the Lock Screen and Dynamic Island, which launched in late October), it felt like the entire Apple community only started thinking about one product for the next six months: the headset. What would later be known as the Vision Pro and visionOS platform became the topic of conversation in Apple-related publications, podcasts, and YouTube channels. Leading up to WWDC 2023, anticipation surrounding the upcoming headset eclipsed anything related to other platforms.
And rightfully so. As I explained in the story that I wrote after I was able to try a Vision Pro at Apple Park, the excitement was justified. It’s always a rare occurrence for Apple to introduce a new hardware product with associated software platform; but to do so with a mind-blowing experience unlike anything I ever tried before in my life is truly something special. Apple had been working on visionOS and Vision Pro for years, and we were all thinking about it and waiting for it at WWDC. And the company delivered.
This context is necessary because the visionOS/Vision Pro development timeline explains what’s going on with iOS and iPadOS 17 this year. Both OSes are grab-bag style updates with a collection of welcome enhancements to different areas of experience. I quipped years ago that modern iOS updates need to have a little bit of everything for everyone; that has never been more true than with iOS 17, albeit for a different reason this time: most likely, because Apple didn’t have time to also deliver big, vision-altering upgrades on the iPhone this year.
iOS and iPadOS take a bit of a secondary role in 2023, happily conceding the spotlight to a new software platform that hasn’t launched yet, but which developers around the world are already testing in person.
To be clear, I am not complaining. iOS and iPadOS 17 may not have an industry-defining, obvious tentpole feature, but in their approach to offering miscellaneous improvements, they’re fun and interesting to cover. Of the two, iPadOS is the one that suffered from lack of development resources the most and whose strategy could be easily summed up as “it’s iPadOS 16, but we fixed Stage Manager”. Which, again, given the circumstances, is absolutely fine with me.
While Apple was busy with visionOS this summer, I was having fun exploring iOS 17’s collection of app updates and, as we’ll see in this review, extensive upgrades to one system feature: widgets.
As always every year: let’s dive in.