Today Apple released iOS 11.4, likely the final major release for the operating system before its successor, iOS 12, reaches the public in September. The update includes two major features that were originally revealed last June as iOS 11 features, but were later delayed: AirPlay 2 and Messages in iCloud.
Apple debuted the first version of AirPlay in 2010, and wireless audio technology has come a long way since then; recently, Sonos' approach to consumer audio has garnered a substantial following thanks to the company's modern wireless technologies that "just work." AirPlay 2 in many ways is Apple's answer to Sonos: it enables seamless multi-room audio on compatible speakers while making the AirPlay experience better overall with several important upgrades. And it comes at a crucial time, following shortly after the launch of the Apple's HomePod speaker.
Multi-room playback is extremely simple to operate in iOS 11.4. Inside the standard AirPlay picker UI – accessed from Control Center or an audio-based app – AirPlay 2-compatible speakers will now have an empty circle next to their name, which can be tapped to have your current device's audio play on that speaker as well. It's as easy as checking a box to add extra speakers to the mix. Current AirPlay 2 speakers include the Apple TV running tvOS 11.4 and the HomePod running version 11.4 of its software.
AirPlay 2 also gives Siri new audio-related capabilities. Because AirPlay 2 speakers integrate with the HomeKit framework, you can control playback on those speakers using Apple's digital assistant on your iPhone or iPad. This means you can say things like, "Play the Greatest Showman soundtrack on the Apple TV" or, "on the HomePod." You can also simply specify a room in which to play, or tell Siri to play something "everywhere" or "in the whole house."
Besides multi-room playback and Siri support, AirPlay 2 also enables a Shared Up Next queue for Apple Music users, and provides developers additional app privileges if they adopt the new long-form audio APIs. One benefit is that the previous delay when controlling playback over AirPlay has been reduced from two seconds to just under one second. Federico mentioned the other API advantages in his iOS 11 review:
A longform audio app combined with AirPlay 2 streaming gains enhanced buffering (up to several minutes, so you can walk around the house without audio dropping after a few seconds) and it doesn’t get interrupted by system alerts such as message notifications or FaceTime calls.
All told, AirPlay 2 is a major upgrade to the original AirPlay protocol, and in my early use of it, it appears to have been worth the wait.
Messages in iCloud
One of the greatest strengths of the Apple ecosystem has long been iMessage. The service is an extremely popular tool that's made better by living on all major Apple platforms – iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac. I recently sold my previous iPad Pro to a co-worker, and one of the things she was most excited about was the ability to send iMessages from her new computer. iMessage is a valuable service, but until today, people using it on multiple devices had a common frustration: messages didn't stay in sync across devices. This was a bigger problem in some cases than others, but regardless, now with Messages in iCloud, those issues should be a thing of the past. The feature does exactly what it sounds like: it stores all messages in iCloud (including SMS) so that message history and read status can be synced effortlessly across all your devices.
The road to Messages in iCloud has been a long one. Like AirPlay 2, the feature was previously announced at last year's WWDC in June, but unlike the audio technology, Messages in iCloud was present in beta versions of iOS 11 for much of the summer. However, before the update's public release in September, the feature was pulled, with a future release date to be determined. Messages in iCloud resurfaced during the iOS 11.3 beta period but was again removed before public release. As such, despite its presence in the 11.4 betas, users remained skeptical about it reaching a public release. I'm happy to see it finally made the cut.
All the Rest
Resuming Playback in Podcasts. Imitating the recent Smart Resume feature in Marco Arment's Overcast, the way Apple Podcasts handles resumed playback has been tweaked in iOS 11.4. Now, when a podcast is resumed after being paused, rather than starting immediately where you left off, it will begin a few seconds before that to help refresh users on the context of what they last heard.
PRODUCT(RED) Wallpaper. Last month Apple released a special (PRODUCT)RED version of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, which came with an exclusive wallpaper option. In iOS 11.4, users who have any color 8 or 8 Plus now have access to that wallpaper for the first time.
Today Widget Tweaks. One minor change that may go otherwise unnoticed is that now when you open the Today view on your device – by swiping right either on your Home screen or Lock screen – rather than landing at the top of your widgets like before, iOS will instead take you to the last place you left off inside the Today view. Interestingly though, where you access the Today view from matters: a separate saved view is preserved for access that happens from both the Home screen and Lock screen, so if from the Home screen you last viewed the middle area of your widgets, that's where you'll be taken next time, but if you access the Today view from your Lock screen instead, you'll be taken to the last widget area you viewed from the Lock screen.
iOS 11.4 likely marks the official completion of the release first unveiled at WWDC last June; taken in its entirety over this past year, version 11 has been a behemoth update for iOS. Not everything made it into 11.0, but now that the full feature set has made it to the public, it's time to turn the page and get ready for exactly what Apple has in store for us next. We'll find out soon.