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iOS 11, First Take: The iPad gets to work, as Apple lays groundwork for the future

The colossal £/$1000 price tag of the forthcoming iPhone X has somewhat obscured the rest of the Apple portfolio in recent weeks, overshadowing releases that might otherwise have expected their 15 minutes of fame. The arrival of iOS 11 has been treated almost as an afterthought, even though it brings a number of important new features to Apple’s mobile platform.

Individual apps get new capabilities, of course, such as the new filters and effects in Camera and Photos. The oft-maligned Maps gets a few improvements, as do Apple Pay and the Do Not Disturb mode, which can now tell when you’re driving and automatically block notifications and send an auto-reply message to people who are trying to contact you. And journalists will appreciate the new Markup option that allows you to immediately open and annotate screenshots while you’re working.

iPad goes Pro

The improvements in iOS 11 go deeper than individual apps, though. The iPad, in particular, gets a lot of attention this time around, with Apple continuing to steer the device in the direction of hybrid laptop/tablet devices such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro.

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iOS 11’s Files app replaces iCloud Drive, allowing you access local files, iCloud files and third-party services such as Dropbox that integrate with it.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

To allow the iPad to function more like a conventional computer when running productivity apps such as Microsoft Office, Apple has finally relented and given it a proper file-browser app, simply called Files. This goes beyond the older iCloud Drive app by also providing access to third-party cloud services such as Dropbox, as well as local files stored on the device itself. The iPad also gains improved — and long overdue — options for dragging and dropping multiple items of text and graphics between apps. Even the iPad keyboard gets an update, with a ‘flick-down’ option that helps you to type numbers and symbols quicker.

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The iPad keyboard in iOS 11 supports Key Flicks: press and slide down to access numbers and symbols on the letter keys.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

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The iPad Dock shows your three most recently used apps (at the right-hand end), as well as your favourite apps. It can now be summoned from within apps by swiping up from the bottom of the screen.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

The Dock on the iPad has also been reworked. It still displays the ‘favourite’ apps that you can put in the Dock yourself, but also shows the three most recently used apps in a separate section to the right of the Dock. You can also ‘pull’ the Dock up from the bottom of the screen in order to display it within other running apps, which makes it quicker and easier to switch between apps while you’re working.

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The redesigned App Switcher appears if you continue to swipe up after summoning the Dock.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

If you continue that ‘pull’ action after the Dock has appeared you will then launch into the new App Switcher screen. This displays a redesigned — and more customisable version of Control Center, but also uses the larger screen of the iPad to display previews of all your currently running apps — even including live previews from streaming video services such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer.

Not in control

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The new Control Center is also available on the iPhone, minus the multi-tasking options of the iPad, but has come in for some criticism due to the fact that ‘turning off’ wi-fi and Bluetooth in the new Control Center doesn’t actually turn them off.

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If you turn off wi-fi or Bluetooth in the new Control Center, these features are merely disconnected: they remain active in the background.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Control Center merely disconnects your device from nearby wi-fi and Bluetooth connections, but leaves both features active. That allows your iOS device to continue using features, such as Handoff, in order to share information with other nearby Apple devices, but has also prompted criticism from security experts who claim that it could leave your devices open to external attacks. You can still turn wi-fi and Bluetooth off properly if you open those options within the main Settings app, but the new Control Center does seem like a potential security weakness that might concern many business users.

Back to the future

Looking beyond individual features and apps, iOS 11 is also laying the groundwork for the future of the iOS platform, and introduces a number of new system-level technologies. With its traditional fondness for eye-candy, Apple has been gleefully demonstrating a variety of augmented reality apps and games that make use of its new ARKit software for developers. This is accompanied by a new machine-learning framework called Core ML that hasn’t really been explained in any great detail by Apple so far — although it’s almost certainly linked to the facial-recognition features in the iPhone X, so we’ll probably be hearing more about that in the future.

Apple is extending its reach into other areas too. Its HomeKit software for home-automation has been updated, along with its AirPlay 2 protocol for streaming audio over wi-fi. Those two changes together allow the iOS Home app to stream music to multiple speakers simultaneously, providing the ability to create custom multi-room speaker systems using AirPlay 2-compatible speakers from third-party manufacturers (which is kind of a big deal for the audio market).

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Siri can translate from English to several languages — but it currently only works if Siri is set to US English.


Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

And, of course, Siri gets an update too, as Apple gears up for the launch of its forthcoming HomePod smart speaker and a battle with Amazon and Google for control of the home-automation market. As well as a new voice, Siri gains improved abilities to quiz sites such as Wikipedia for answers to questions, and more proactively monitors your actions — perhaps checking on some flight times for you and then asking if you want to add a calendar event for a new flight. Unfortunately, some of Siri’s new features are still only available in the US. I was hoping the new language translation option would help me with my French homework, only to be told that “I can’t translate from British English yet…”

Conclusions

In any other year, iOS 11 would have generated vast amounts of headlines. There are plenty of new features — and emojis — for popular apps, and for business users there’s a clear shift in emphasis towards greater productivity on the iPad. And Apple’s ambitions in augmented reality and home automation are evident — even if the outcome of those ambitions remains to be seen. The wi-fi and Bluetooth hiccup in the new Control Center might give pause to business users who are concerned about security. Still, there’s no doubt that iOS 11 is a worthwhile upgrade as well as an indication of Apple’s plans for the future.

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