Five Years On
In some ways, iOS 9 feels like the third and final installment of the iOS 7 saga.
With San Francisco, a revised keyboard, and an interface that's been polished across the OS, Apple's new design language has moved past its awkward (and problematic) teenage years to accept its own style and voice. Interfaces aren't diamonds: they're not forever, and iOS will change again. For now, iOS 9 is, visually speaking, a culmination of the work started two years ago, ready for what comes next.
Changes to default apps and new system features also are iterative improvements that complete Apple's post-iOS 7 vision and get rid of problems accumulated so far. Podcasts, Mail, iCloud Drive, and new features in Safari don't revolutionize those apps, but they make them substantially better for everyone. Deep links and Universal Links show that Apple has long been thinking about doing more than URL schemes to simplify opening and linking to apps. Safari View Controller extends Safari to web views in any app. User activities and app indexing for Search prove that Apple often plays the long game, showing their hand only when every technology is in place for an arguably basic utility (Spotlight) to become something new.
iOS 9 isn't Apple's new Snow Leopard. Just because some additions and changes may not be as massively popular or be instantly recognizable as a new design and custom keyboards were, it doesn't mean they don't exist. The company has put more resources into optimizing iOS, and early results are encouraging. Low Power Mode makes a difference when battery is running low, and developers will be able to support it in their apps; the entire OS feels snappier and more stable in daily usage.
This isn't the year of No New Features: under-the-hood optimizations and app enhancements walk together in iOS 9, with Notes being a prime example of it. Apple isn't taking the foot off the pedal: they're just being more careful behind the wheel.
Along the way, there are some missteps and disappointments that will have to be taken care of in the future. Mail is lagging behind the innovation we're seeing in email apps from large companies and indie studios. iCloud Drive is far from the functionality offered by Apple's OS X Finder and other companies' iOS apps. The intelligence of Apple News and proactive suggestions leaves a lot to be desired, casting doubts on whether it can dramatically improve. And as others are reimagining mobile messaging with integrations and services that were unimaginable a few years ago, major changes are suspiciously absent from Apple's Messages app this year.
As a result, iOS 9 for iPhone is a more efficient version of iOS that many will appreciate with time as they discover what's new. Its improvements aren't as easily marketable as iOS 7 and iOS 8, but they're not any less important. What Apple hasn't done this year doesn't make iOS 9 worse: it just adds to a list of low-hanging fruit for next year.
If you're an iPhone user and you're skeptical on whether to upgrade or not, my recommendation couldn't be easier this time around: iOS 9 is better than iOS 8 in every way and you should upgrade.
And then there's the iPad.
This year, the iPad is getting the first version of iOS truly made for it. After too many unimaginative releases, Apple has understood the capabilities of the iPad's display and its nature of modern portable computer. Free of dogmas and preconceptions of what an iPad ought to be, iOS 9 fundamentally reinvents what an iPad can become going forward.
Picture in Picture rethinks watching video on the device. Slide Over cuts down the time required to jump between apps. New shortcuts make working with Bluetooth keyboards on the iPad a joy. And by using two apps at once, Split View reimagines the role of the iPad in the iOS ecosystem, positioning it between an iPhone and a Mac for people like me who need exactly that.
I've been working on the iPad for the past three years, and the changes in this year's iOS release have done more to make me work faster than iOS 6, 7, and 8 combined. Apple has created a new beginning for the iPad's software, and while it's not perfect and the experience will have to be refined in places, the impact of iOS 9 for iPad users – especially iPad Air 2 users – will be felt in the following years.
It's not easy to blend tradition with a fresh start, but that's what iOS 9 does to the iPad. The iPad is still the device where you can immerse yourself in one app at a time. But now you can also do more, using the large screen to switch between multiple apps and tasks with multitouch. And in doing so, you'll discover that iOS 9 multitasking for iPad doesn't carry over the complexities and rules that applied to traditional desktop OSes.
Apple has leveraged years of design and interaction constraints to give more freedom to iPad users, creating an experience that can be more complex but still intuitive. The iPad is not a Mac, but the same argument works in reverse, too: a Mac is not an iPad – it can't have its portability, it doesn't have its app ecosystem, and it's not a screen you can hold in your hands. With iOS 9, there are even more reasons to consider an iPad as a new kind of computer: capable of true multitasking, and built with the strengths of iOS in mind.
With iOS 9, Apple is ready to admit that the iPad is a computer without the baggage of the PC. I know that I'm not going back to a Mac, and this review wants to be a tangible proof of it. Writing this wouldn't have been possible without iOS 9, and I've never felt more focused.
iOS 9 shows where the future of iPad is. The leap has been taken.
Five years later, it's just like starting over.