All the rumors said that Apple was going to take it easy this year, scaling back on the ambition of its software updates to focus on improved performance, stability and security. Those three items are definitely at the top of the feature list for iOS 12, due this fall, but this is anything but a snooze of an update for iPhone users. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty
In fact, iOS 12 may change the way we interact with our iPhones more than any previous iOS release since the App Store arrived 10 years ago. Here are the five biggest features coming your way — and the first one is the biggest.
Siri Shortcuts: The true game-changer
The biggest upgrade to the iPhone experience in iOS 12 will come from something called Siri Shortcuts. In iOS 12, app developers can define actions that their apps can take — for example, a coffee chain's app lets you place an order — and provide that to Siri. At its most simple, this will let you define spoken shortcuts to perform that action: "Hey Siri, order the usual from Starbucks."
But that's just the beginning. iOS is watching how you use apps that are enabled for Siri Shortcuts. If you perform certain actions at certain times of day, Siri can now proactively recommend them to you via an expanded version of Siri Suggestions. You can also go into the Siri section of the Settings app, see all the recent things you've done on your phone, and define shortcuts right there.
Shortcuts App: Workflow done right
Most impressively, Apple will release an app called Shortcuts — it's based on an amazing app called Workflow that Apple bought last year — that lets you stack numerous actions together in a single shortcut. This could be a single Siri command that locks your front door, orders a Starbucks Latte, sends a text message to a friend with your ETA, and begins playing your favorite playlist as you hop in the car.
Workflow was one of the most powerful productivity apps on iOS when it didn't have the backing of Apple. Siri Suggestions has all the makings of being a game changer for anyone who wants their iPhone to work a bit smarter and more efficiently.
Performance Improvements: It’s about time
Let's not overlook performance. It's been a fact of life for a long time that when you install new software on old devices, they get slower. This is generally not a conspiracy to get you to upgrade, but a natural outcome of the people who make the software using the latest and greatest devices. With iOS 12, Apple is strongly suggesting that older devices such as the iPhone 6 will benefit from an upgrade.
This is clearly a reaction to the punches Apple has taken lately about older phones, battery malfunctions, and device slowdowns. But it's a welcome one: if Apple is going to support iOS across five years of device releases, it needs to make more of an effort to ensure that older devices aren't made unusable by upgrades. I feel bad for the Apple employees who have to use the iPhone 6 instead of fancy iPhone Xs, but the millions of people who are still using their 2014-era phone will benefit... and feel more positive about Apple when it comes time to upgrade at last.
Screen Time: Managing our phone addiction
Speaking of Apple reacting to public criticism, the company has joined the zeitgeist and admitted that smartphones are so addictive that we need better tools to monitor how often we use them. In iOS 12, a new feature called Screen Time provides a level of self-analysis that's a quantum leap from anything Apple has ever provided before. You'll be able to see how many times you raise your phone and how many hours a day you're spending — as well as being able to drill down on the specific apps you're spending your time in.
Apple compares seeing usage statistics to counting calories when you're on a diet — in other words, sometimes seeing accurate measurements of what you're doing is enough to alter your behavior. For those who need a little bit more of a prod, Apple will allow you to set caps on your use of specific apps or categories of apps. Hit the limit in social media, for example, and you'll be warned if you try to launch Twitter or Facebook or Instagram (or even load them in your web browser). Of course, you can override the block if you need to — but for most of us, just the reminder that we've hit our limit will suffice in changing our behavior.
Of course, Apple has built more strict controls in for children. Over the years, Apple's focus on parental controls has wavered, but this looks like a solid implementation. Building on Apple's Family Sharing system, parents can view statistics from their children's devices on their own devices — no extra software required — and set hard caps on their usage. Kids can also ask for permission for more time — if they've finished all their homework, for example.
Notifications: Cleaning up the mess
I'm also impressed with Apple's move to better organize its messy notification system. For my money, distracting notifications are a bigger social problem than people spending time on your phones. Notifications pull you out of real-world conversations and contexts. With iOS 12, iPhone owners will have the ability to trigger Do Not Disturb mode for limited times based on calendar events, location, or time — great for shutting off distractions when you're in a meeting or at a friend's place.
And Apple has brought the ability to control what notifications you see, and where, to the forefront: Every notification you receive in iOS 12 will give you options to either make that notification less obtrusive or shut it off entirely. I have longed for an Unsubscribe button in my iPhone notifications for years, and with iOS 12, it's here.
Outlook: This is not a “light” update
So is iOS 12 the sign of a light update year for Apple? It sure doesn't look like it from this vantage point. There are some big improvements on the way this fall — or, if you just can't wait, when the iOS 12 Public Beta lands later this summer.