iOS 11: Apple's Achingly Familiar Yet Wildly Futuristic OS

By Joanna Stern Features Dow Jones Newswires

Quick assignment. Look at the image below. Really look at it, like you're trying to find Waldo.

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On the left is the iPhone OS 1 -- the original software that shipped on the original iPhone 10 years ago. On the right, iOS 11. It's brand new software, announced today at Apple's annual developers conference. Unless Apple is changing the playbook, this is the software that'll ship on the 10th-anniversary iPhone due this fall.

What do you really see? I see some major aesthetic changes -- and one screen is a lot bigger than the other. But 10 software releases later, Apple still believes our smartphone homescreens should be a checkerboard of apps -- with the most important four stuck to the bottom.

But that's just the skin-deep way of looking it. Beneath the familiar app-grid homescreen, iOS 11 reveals the future of Apple and its products. With this new version, our iPhones could guide us through life faster (and possibly safer) and our iPads might finally become real computers. And by integrating augmented reality, Apple is showing us a future where we might stop holding up our screens altogether.

The Everyday iPhone User

In the fall, our iPhones are going to get a laundry list of new features. In Messages, you'll be able to use Apple Pay to send money to your friends or family members. The App Store will get a new look and feel. Siri will get a new, gentler, more realistic voice. A new Do Not Disturb mode will sense when you are driving and disable notifications. People trying to reach you will get a message that you are behind the wheel.

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The features I'm most excited about, however, should let us get stuff done faster. The new revamped Control Center -- that helpful menu of shortcuts you see when you flick up from the bottom of the screen -- will be customizable. You'll also be able to handily switch off just the cellular radio, and not go full Airplane Mode. In Spotlight and Safari, you'll be able to search for your flight status.

Mom, I'm a Real Computer

I've said it time and time again, the biggest drawback of the iPad Pro is that its power has been restrained by the hampered software it runs. With iOS 11, that looks like it'll be fixed. With a new dock, accessible from any screen, you can launch and switch between apps -- just like with a Mac. A new file system allows you to see all the files saved on your device or in cloud services -- just like on a Mac. And you can drag and drop images and files between apps -- just like on a Mac.

But unlike on a Mac, you can put Apple Pencil to screen-paper. A new document scanner in the Notes app lets you fill in a form then sign it and send it off. All these features will be available this fall on recent iPads, including Apple's brand new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which begins shipping next week, starting at $650.

Our Screenless Future

The most revealing part of iOS 11, however, is a feature that we everyday users won't actually see in the final software. ARKit is a set of software tools that will allow app developers to build augmented-reality apps, like "Pokémon Go," that overlay digital objects in the real world. In a demo, Apple showed how it could set a fake cup of coffee down on a real table. And it looked right. Not only was steam coming out the top, but there was a subtle shadow beneath the saucer.

Sure, initially this means more Pokémon. But it could also mean something far more significant. The power of augmented reality is that it allows us to connect to the digital world and the real world at the same time. Unlike virtual reality -- or even much of what we do on our iPhones -- AR doesn't pull us out of the scenes around us.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has publicly said he believes augmented reality could be as big as the iPhone. When you look at it through that lens, iOS 11 seems absolutely nothing like iPhone OS 1...or even iOS 10.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 05, 2017 22:16 ET (02:16 GMT)