FaceTime has been a centerpiece feature across all of Apple’s platforms for a long time. However, with the pandemic, it became more important than ever, playing a critical role in the way friends and family have stayed connected. Of course, FaceTime isn’t the only way have kept in touch. The app had plenty of competition from Zoom, Skype, and other services.
So, it’s not surprising that this year’s FaceTime updates focus on fundamentals like audio and video quality and making the app available outside of Apple’s ecosystem, allowing it to compete better with other services. Nor is it surprising that Apple announced SharePlay, which won’t ship until later this fall, so friends and family who can’t be together can still enjoy synchronized group activities like watching a video or listening to music. I’m skeptical that SharePlay will be the hit that Apple’s marketing suggests the company hopes it will be, but even putting SharePlay aside, the app is getting some major improvements that I think everyone will appreciate, so let’s dig in.
Apple’s fall OS updates will include a variety of HomeKit and home entertainment features. Unsurprisingly, some of those changes can be found in the company’s Home and TV apps, but this year, those apps only tell part of the overall story. To get the full picture, you need to zoom out from the apps, where you’ll find an interesting mix of new smart home device and entertainment features sprinkled throughout each platform.
Let’s start with HomeKit devices. This year, many of the changes coming to Apple’s OSes relate to two important categories: video cameras and door locks. Controlling both types of devices will become easier this fall, thanks to deeper integration with the upcoming OS releases.
A couple of years ago, Apple transformed Reminders from a simple checklist-style task manager into something far more robust. It was a surprising but welcome update that made the app a good choice as the sole task manager for many users. Reminders is back with more surprises this year, including tagging and Smart Lists features, which I didn’t expect. Both new features work together to make it easier than ever to manage your tasks in Reminders, which by itself makes this year’s update to Reminders worth checking out. However, the update may indicate something broader too: that Apple is more receptive to providing users with greater control over how they use the iPhone and iPad’s stock apps, an exciting possibility that I hope comes to pass.
Tags are brand new to Reminders and probably the most surprising addition to the iOS and iPadOS 15 versions of the app. Tags aren’t anything new to task management apps in general, but user-defined tags haven’t historically been available in Apple’s iPhone and iPad apps.
There’s a new Tag Browser in Reminders and multiple ways to add new tags.
The design of Reminders’ tagging system makes it easy to get started. When you add a new task, there’s a field just below Notes for adding tags. Just start typing a name for your tag, and when you tap the Space bar, hit return, or type a comma, a hashtag is added to the beginning of the tag, and it changes to Reminders’ purplish accent color. Sorry, no spaces are allowed in your tags.
Maps is unique among Apple system apps. Most system apps, like Notes or Reminders, are only updated at the same time that major revisions of the company’s underlying operating systems are released. Tweaks are sometimes made with OS point releases but never separate from the OS updates themselves.
Maps is different because so much of the experience is tied to the data that the app delivers. That allows Apple to add mid-cycle updates that aren’t tied to an OS release. There are many recent examples, like the addition of COVID-19 travel guidance for airports, vaccination site locations, and places offering volunteer opportunities. At the same time, the company continues to expand and enhance the accuracy and detail offered by Maps at a deeper level with its ongoing initiative to rebuild the app’s underlying maps worldwide.
Apple has been at it, improving Maps since iOS 6, and it’s a task that by definition will never truly be finished. However, the introduction of new features in recent years and broader expansion of its effort to deliver rebuilt maps to more of the world has allowed Apple to refine the app across the board. Using the latest map data the company has collected has enabled it to redesign the Maps experience, providing more relevant information to users, and expanding its view of the world around us.
This week on AppStories, we continue the Summer OS Preview Series with special guest Malin Sundberg, the creator of time tracking and invoicing app Orbit, for a chat about the development of Orbit, SwiftUI, Shortcuts for Mac, SharePlay, and more.
When I’m researching, speed is essential. Whether I’m planning a family trip or preparing to write a story like this one, the first step is research, which starts with collecting information. This stage is almost always a speed run for me, no matter the context. That’s because the goal is collecting. Reading, thinking, organizing, and planning come later.
There is an endless number of apps and automations for collecting information, but I’ve always found that the best options are the lightest weight. You don’t need to fire up a word processor to collect links, images, and text, for example. By the same token, though, a plain text editor doesn’t always fit the bill either, reducing links to raw URLs and often not handling images at all. Moreover, the notes you take are completely divorced from their source, losing important context about why you saved something.
This fall, when iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey are released, Notes will gain a new feature called Quick Note that’s designed to handle this exact scenario. Quick Note can be summoned immediately in a wide variety of ways on both platforms, and your notes are stored where they can be easily found again. Best of all, notes can be linked to their source material in apps that support NSUserActivity, a virtual Swiss Army Knife API that enables a long list of functionality across Apple’s devices.
Notes needs work to make it easier to get the information you gather with Quick Note out of the app, but already, there is a long list of apps that support the feature thanks to the wide use of NSUserActivity among developers. Some years, Apple introduces interesting new features that I hope will take off, but there’s a lag because they’re based on new technologies that developers don’t or can’t support right away due to compatibility issues with older OS versions. Quick Note isn’t like that. Even during the beta period, it works with apps I use that haven’t done anything to support it. As a result, I expect we’ll see many developers support Quick Note this fall.
Although Quick Note already works well on the iPad and Mac, there’s still more Apple can do to make it more useful. Chief among the feature’s drawbacks is that its capture functionality is nowhere to be found on the iPhone, which is disappointing. There are also many built-in system apps that would benefit from the sort of tight integration with Quick Note that Safari has implemented but don’t yet.
This week on AppStories, we continue the MacStories Summer OS Preview Series by interviewing Marcos Tanaka, the creator of MusicHarbor and MusicSmart about the latest changes to Apple’s music-related frameworks, his apps, and more.
Today Apple released the first public beta of macOS Monterey after just over three weeks of developer testing. The public beta is a chance for anyone who doesn’t have a developer account to preview the new features coming to the Mac’s OS this fall.
I’ve been using Monterey since the first developer beta was released during WWDC and switched to it full-time about a week ago when developer beta 2 was released. I’ll have a lot more to say about Monterey this fall when it’s officially released. However, having already spent a substantial amount of time using the OS for my everyday work, I wanted to share my first impressions with readers who are thinking about trying it too.
I’m sure there are a lot of MacStories readers eager to install the Monterey beta. It’s a good year to do that too. I haven’t run into any show-stopping bugs, and this year’s beta is far more approachable than the Catalina or Big Sur betas were. Those updates included fundamental shifts in the way the OS worked that made the update uncomfortable for some users. There’s some of that in Monterey, but less than in the past couple of years. Instead, Monterey introduces a collection of enhancements to existing system apps and new cross-system feature integrations that make the update useful immediately. Coupled with the debut of Shortcuts on the Mac, there’s a lot in this year’s beta that I’m sure MacStories readers will enjoy testing.
To Apple’s credit, much of Monterey feels like a natural extension of the OS’s existing features and system apps, even in the early betas. Focus, Quick Note, Live Text, and AirPlay to Mac all fit into that category, feeling right at home with the rest of the OS. However, that’s not universally true. I think Apple has overshot its target with Safari in some respects, which is disappointing in no small measure because there are also meaningful innovations coming to the browser this fall that have already been useful in my daily web browsing.
Of course, I’m also very excited about Shortcuts for Mac. If you’ve used the automation app on the iPhone or iPad and have a Mac, I don’t know how you couldn’t be eager to try the app. If you rely on Shortcuts as I do, Monterey is a very big deal that, even early in the beta cycle, delivers on the promise of a unified vision of automation across Apple platforms.
Many of my existing shortcuts worked immediately on the Mac.
The Shortcuts team has done a remarkable job of ensuring that many of my everyday shortcuts already work without needing me to do anything. Combined with deep integration of existing scripting systems, Monterey backs up the statement made onstage at WWDC that Shortcuts is the future of automation on the Mac. There’s still work to be done before Shortcuts is as powerful as other Mac automation solutions, but the app is off to an excellent start.
Before diving into what it’s been like to work full-time with Monterey, it’s worth stepping back and considering where macOS has come from over the past few years. In many ways, Monterey feels like the third act of a story that’s played out since the introduction of Catalina. That update was a little unsettling. It was clear macOS was heading in a new direction, but the destination was unclear.
With the introduction of M1 Macs, improvements to Mac Catalyst, and Big Sur’s design changes, macOS’s destination began to come into focus. The OS was being aligned more closely with Apple’s other OSes through a combination of design and underlying technologies to create a continuum that respects device differences but unifies user experience across the entire lineup.
I don’t think I’d go so far as to declare Monterey the conclusion of macOS’s three-act drama. There are elements of tying up the loose ends left over from the prior two releases of the OS. However, we’re also seeing the first tangible examples of where the Apple silicon era will take the Mac even as the company continues to migrate the machines to its own SoCs.
One thing’s for certain, though: the sometimes awkward evolution of macOS over these past few years and the adjustments required to move the Mac and iPad into closer alignment are bearing fruit. For the first time in memory, Apple is releasing features across all of its platforms at once. The days of waiting for features that start on one platform to make their way to others seem to be coming to an end. That’s terrific news for users who will be able to move more freely between platforms without a steep learning curve, eliminating a lot of the frustration of the past.
With that, let’s dig into some of the details that I think will have an immediate impact on readers who download the macOS Monterey public beta.
For the past three weeks, I’ve been running the developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 15 on my iPhone 12 Pro Max and M1 iPad Pro, respectively. Common wisdom says you’re not supposed to install early developer builds of iOS and iPadOS on your primary devices; I have to ignore that since work on my annual iOS and iPadOS reviews starts as soon as the WWDC keynote wraps up, which means I have to get my hands on the latest version of the iPhone and iPad operating systems as quickly as possible. As I explained on AppStories, putting together these reviews is some of the most challenging work I do all year, but it’s rewarding, I have fun with it, and it gives me a chance to optimize my writing setup on an annual basis.
The result of jumping on the beta bandwagon early is also that, at this point, having used iOS and iPadOS 15 daily for over three weeks, I have a pretty good sense of what’s going to be popular among regular users, which features power users are going to appreciate, and what aspects of the OSes still need some fine-tuning and tweaks from Apple. And with both iOS and iPadOS 15 graduating to public beta today1, I have some initial impressions and considerations to share. You could also see this story as advance work for this fall’s proper review, and you wouldn’t be mistaken: in this article, I’m going to focus on areas of iOS and iPadOS 15 that I’ll also cover more in depth later this year.
Let me cut to the chase: I don’t think iOS and iPadOS 15 are massive updates like iOS and iPadOS 13 or 14 were. There are dozens of interesting new features in both updates, but none of them feels “obvious” to demonstrate to average users like, say, dark mode and iPad multiwindow in iOS and iPadOS 13 or Home Screen widgets in last year’s iOS 14. And, for the most part, I think that’s fine. The wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every year, and the pandemic happened for everyone – Apple engineers included.
In many ways, iOS and iPadOS 15 remind me of iOS 10 and 12: they’re updates that build upon the foundation set by their predecessors, bringing welcome consumer additions that, while not earth-shattering, contribute to making iOS more mature, intelligent, and deeply integrated with Apple’s ecosystem.
If you’re installing the iOS 15 public beta today and want to show it off to your friends, know this: Live Text in the Camera and custom Focus modes make for the best demos, followed by the new Weather app and rethought multitasking controls on iPad. SharePlay is neat but can feel already dated now that more countries are rolling out vaccinations and returning to a semi-regular social life; the new Safari needs more work; Mail is surprisingly unchanged despite the rise of remote work in the past year. That’s how I would describe iOS and iPadOS 15 in two sentences as of the first public beta released today.
Of course, however, I want to share a bit more about iOS and iPadOS 15 while I’m busy working on my annual review. So for this preview story, I’ve picked three areas of iOS and iPadOS 15 I’ve spent the most time testing and tinkering with over the past few weeks. This year, I’m including a ‘What I’d Like to See Improved’ sub-section for each of the areas I’m covering in this story. I thought it’d be fun to summarize my current criticisms and suggestions for each feature, and it should be interesting to revisit these in the fall when iOS and iPadOS 15 are released.