Top 5 things Apple needs to Fix in iOS to Keep Up

Apple’s iOS smartphone operating system is no longer the innovative operating system it used to be – in fact recent shipments of Android-based phones have overtaken iOS device shipments. While this is not necessarily due to Android being a better OS, there is a few things that stand out in recent releases of the software which does make iOS look ancient. And its not only Android -look at HP’s latest iteration of WebOS which is about to be put into their phone and tablet devices. The multitasking system is brilliant,  and small tricks like the between-device sharing is awesome. And one unlikely candidate is also showing up – even though Windows Phone 7’s sales have not been great, you only need to spend a few minutes with it to see that it really is a great interface, despite its shortcomings.
So what can Apple do to improve on iOS? In my opinion Apple does not have to improve too much on the hardware – in fact almost 10 months after being released, the iPhone 4 is still the best looking smartphone on the market (and queue the antenna-hysteria…), and the iPad (and iPad 2) is best of breed hardware. My criticism instead lies with the operating system – iOS. So here is what I would like to see in iOS5:
1) First and foremost: a Better Notification System
This is by far the most requested feature right now for iOS. While I like the concept of push notifications instead of constantly running apps in the backround, I really do not like the way the actual notifications are handled on the device. Currently only one single notification can be shown on the screen at a time, and once a new message comes in, you cannot go back and check previous incoming notifications. This is simply pathetic. Yes, it dumbs down the device so that non-power users do not have to thing to much about what is going on. But what about users who have multiple instant messengers running, a lot of SMS interaction and rely on push notifications for certain tasks? Also, the current iOS implementation darkens the entire screen, requiring the user to stop what he/she is doing and first take note of the message. While this is fine for the occasional message, it is terrible if you get bombarded with multiple IM’s every day. And this is especially a shame on the big screen of the iPad. Seriously, you have this big beautiful screen, and I must take note of the message right now?
In my opinion Android still has the best implementation of notifications – the top bar on the phone can be filled with icons to inform you of incoming messages, and the user simply pulls down that bar to see all the notifications at once, and clear the ones that is not relevant anymore. Sure, it can become messy if not kept in check, but it works. Also, look at the way Android’s tablet version (Honeycomb) uses notifications, which does not take over the entire screen. Messages just pop up non-intrusively on the bottom of the screen, much like your desktop operating systems. Take a look here:

If you want to see a great example of how Apple can improve on its notifcation system without spoiling its current look and feel – take a look at Mobilenotifier. While only in beta and available only to jailbroken devices, Apple really needs to take a look at this. Great artists steal, remember?


2) Bring the lockscreen back from the dead

Once again I reckon Apple refuses to budge from this just to dumb down the phone for non-power users. Which is a shame – hell, give me the option at least. Currently the lockscreen on the iPhone is a dead interface except for the slide to unlock element and the simple notification system which does not really give all the information. The iPhone 4 and iPad currently have a high enough resolution that the device can beautifully display my day’s appointment and also a range of tasks. I hate to say it – but even the ancient Windows Mobile had a good idea of how to do this.
Sure, users can jailbreak their iPhones to create these interactive lockscreens, but I really believe it is now up to Apple. Really, I do not want to unlock my phone just to check my day’s appointments or to check the weather. Jailbroken devices can find LockInfo in the Cydia repository which gives a great looking lockscreen. Yes, it might lead to information overload, but give ME the choice, thanks.
3) Active App-icons
Currently iOS has icons which remain static, bar for a small notification number which highlights the number of items you should take note of. While I like this simplicity, I really think Apple can consider a bit more interactive or animated icons. The best examples of this is the Weather and Clock apps on every iPhone – why do I need to open Weather to see the current temperature? Just use the icon right there – and if I need to know more, I will open the app. The Clock is also a static little icon showing the hands of a clock – why not make the hands active to show the current time?
Personally I do not like the widget interface on Android which can take a lot of space on a screen and make it look very messy, I do believe the active elements from widgets can be built into the iOS app icons. Take a look at Windows Phone 7 – the current tiles remain simple and easy to use, while still pushing information to me in an easy to understand way.

4) Lose the cord
Taking a piece of Apple hardware out of the box is meant to be a great experience. But then after removing all the wrapping paper you power the device up only to be faced with the “plug into iTunes” screen. This might be the single most backward thing that Apple does right now. I have a device which enables me to carry around my digital life in my pocket, yet I need to plug it in just to get it activated?

I realise this is to force people to use iTunes on their machines and get into the habit of buying songs through iTunes, and to force users to occasionally backup their devices. But the cord has to go Apple.
Sure, I understand the USB cable is still the simplest way to load a lot of data onto the device. But in this age of Wireless-N networking, why not allow users to sync and backup their devices with iTunes using Wifi? Sure, the first sync might take a very long time, but give me the choice Apple. I would love it if photos I took the day is automatically synced to my PC the moment I walk into my house. How great would that be? (And yes, Android users can do this already).
5) Free Turn-by-turn GPS
These days if someone asks me which phone to get, I tend to recommend a Blackberry. Why? Firstly because it is much cheaper to use effectively with its BIS service (especially when other devices have to pay ridiculous data prices), and secondly the user gets a decent GPS provided they do not buy the cheapest 8520 model. I really believe it is a great deal. And I really like how good Ovi Maps is on higher end Nokia devices. In a time where Nokia and Blackberry gives turn by turn GPS for free on their devices, it is pretty shocking that I have to spend more money to equip my iPhone with turn by turn GPS software. While great app solutions like TomTom and Copilot Live exist, the prices are quite high. There is also a few GPS apps on iPhone with such ugly interfaces I cannot believe Apple approved them.
There has been talk that Apple is looking to improve the currently limited Google Maps implementation, so hopefully this will improve the iPhone value proposition a lot.
At least WWDC is approaching fast, so hopefully Apple will address some of these concerns in iOS 5. In the past they have been very good to respond to feature requests, and the devices are near perfect these days. Key is to make that “near” into “completely”.
(Update: iPad 2 has been launched in South Africa)
Related: If you want to be able download Apps, Music, Movies, TV Series etc from the US iTunes store, even if you live in SA, here is how to do it.