iOS 14 Cleans Up Messy Notifications and Home Screens for Good

Customization and control are key as smartphone sales continue to decline

Images: Apple

If the past few years of iPhone software have been about expanding features and apps, this year seems to be about reining in and corralling the glut.

Unlike the ambitious overhaul of iOS 11, stability-focused iOS 12, or better forgotten iOS 13, Apple’s upcoming iOS 14 promises to deliver a strong package of changes focused on user control and deeper levels of customization. More control and customization through software is crucial as Apple tries to do two things: drive new growth and pep up its products in between iPhone design cycles and amid flagging hardware sales overall.

The new iPhone 12 is rumored to look pretty samey, making the case for an upgrade possibly less appealing this year for some consumers — especially given that demand for pricey new phones is already sharply down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s bad news for Apple, which drew half its top line from the iPhone during the first three months of the year even as sales continued to slide. Revenue for the iPhone, Mac, and iPad fell 7%, 3%, and 10%, respectively, during the quarter.

On the other hand, Apple’s “Wearables, Home and Accessories’’ category, which includes the Apple Watch and AirPods, has been incredibly strong — growing 23%. Services, which includes Apple TV+, Apple Music, and Apple News+, grew 17%.

It’s no wonder then that Apple has been laser-focused on enticing people to buy more Apple accessories and to spend more time on its screens, watching Apple TV+, reading Apple News+, and listening to Apple Music. And since Apple is so precisely vertically integrated, it’s a no-brainer and in Apple’s best interest to encourage those habits through its software.

iOS 14, a fall release that Apple previewed during its WWDC event on Monday, is all about streamlining the user experience — no doubt to help people focus on those services — offering cleaner notifications, the ability to completely hide rarely used apps, and a new level of home screen personalization. There’s a “picture-in-picture” mode, which will lets users watch videos over whatever else they’re doing on their device; a smaller banner alert for incoming calls, replacing the disruptive full-screen takeover; a new home screen widget that allows users instant control over Apple Music; and an update that will enable AirPods to switch devices automatically, no manual toggling required.

Other features worthy of mention are “Smart Stack” widgets, the App Library, and App Clips. All three promise to clean up screen space, enabling more app control and freeing up cognitive load.

“Smart Stack” widgets cycle through different apps based on the time of day. No need to think. The App Library feature can bucket apps automatically based on categories and frequency of use, such as “recently added” and “suggestions,” which are apps Apple thinks you’ll use next. Rarely used apps and pages can also be shown or hidden using the App Library, so you won’t need to deal with endless swiping to find what you need — if you only want a single home screen, more power to you.

App Clips may be useful for iPhone owners who want to limit the number of apps they download. The feature enables a user to perform specific functions for a third-party service, such as renting a scooter or paying a parking meter, without having to go through the whole process of downloading and installing a full new app and then filling out personal and payment information.

App Clips gives you features of certain apps without a full download.

When it comes to fulfilling the second task of this year’s software update — to freshen up existing hardware — messaging is the best example. Take group chats. No matter how big or small a group might be, it can be hard to follow threads. With iOS 14, participants can mention specific people and reply to individual messages in the form of inline replies, as is currently possible in Slack and other enterprise collaboration software.

Messaging in iOS 14 will make it easier for people to find conversations, too. Users can pin specific chats at the top of the screen, instead of having to scroll past dozens of messages. And users can also customize group chats with specific emojis for endless customization.

And there are new privacy controls. A new “nutrition label”-esque notice will list the types of personal data third-party apps have access to and track. The “Data Linked to You” and “Data Used to Track You” boxes will appear directly within the description of an app in the App Store, making it easier to consider privacy and security before downloading new apps.

Starting with iOS 14, Apple will also allow users to choose between sharing their precise location or an approximate location with third-party apps. Apple will also start asking users if they want apps to track them across the web and remind users when apps are recording video or audio with an indicator light at the top of screens.

Apple also announced numerous other features to help make the next year of iPhone use more fun, including new Memoji reactions, head coverings, and face masks. But ultimately, the aspects of control and customization are really what define iOS 14.

Amid a tumultuous 2020, making users feel like they have more control in their life might be just enough to call this year a success.

Journalist covering jobs, labor, business, tech, culture, and racial equity. Former reporter at CNN and anchor at Cheddar.

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