iOS explained: How each version of Apple's mobile OS evolved

With iOS 11 due to be released later this month, here’s a look at how Apple's iPhone operating system has changed and grown since 2007.

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iOS 7

In 2013, Apple rolled out iOS 7, the first version of iOS to be completely 64-bit – and the first to feature an overhauled user interface. The new design featured a flat, translucent look that did away with the heavy ornamental graphics of earlier versions. Content was meant to take center stage, as the minimal UI took a back seat. Buttons became borderless and the system font was changed to Helvetica Neue Regular for a cleaner look. The Control Center arrived, as did AirDrop – the ability to send files from one iOS device to another.

iOS 7 and the iPhone 5 Apple/IDG News Service

Apple's iOS 7 and the iPhone 5.

Highlighting Apple’s increased developer push for mobile, iOS 7 included the app switcher still in use (swipe up to force-quit apps); the parallax wallpaper effect; FaceTime audio; iTunes Radio; photo streams so friends could contribute their own photos; updated voices in Siri; and the Find My iPhone activation lock.

Background processes were greatly expanded to cover more tasks, including intelligently grouping app behavior for more efficient use of computing resources. And Touch ID support debuted.

That said, iOS 7 had problems that indicated Apple had spread its developer resources too thin. It was buggy on its initial release in the fall and remained buggy well into 2014.

iOS 8

With iOS 8, the UI transition that began with iOS 7 continued, with optimized system animations that were faster, giving devices an overall snappier feel. Notably, iCloud became a bigger player in Apple’s ecosystem as the backbone to Continuity. Continuity lets your Apple devices to “talk” to each other and know what the other is up to, so the same function can be picked up on any other Apple device at any point. If your iPhone rings, so does your iPad and your Mac – letting you pick whichever device was closest to answer. Or you could start writing an article on your iPhone, continue working on it on your Mac, then review and edit the same document  on your iPad.

Apple iOS 8 on iPhone and iPad Apple

iCloud Photo Library also debuted, allowing every photo and video you have to be accessed by each of your Apple devices. (iCloud Drive also added Dropbox-like storage to Apple’s services.)

This release also introduced interactive notifications that let you perform certain functions from an alert without having to switch to the app. Audio support in Messages, for instance, let you send audio snippets instead of texts. And the Notification Center gained support for third party widgets.

iphone6 100580874 orig Microsiervos (CC BY 2.0)

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus gained NFC support and Apple Pay.

Passbook became especially useful for mobile commerce as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus gained both NFC support and Apple Pay. Other useful features included: Family Sharing in iTunes; a smarter Spotlight for search; Time Lapse and Burst modes in Camera; and several dozen APIs to underpin apps, including Metal, CloudKit, SceneKit, SpriteKit, HealthKit, ApplePay, and CloudKit.

Safari on the iPhone picked up a few tricks from the iPad version, including the pinch gesture to enable tab view, and DuckDuckGo became a search option for the privacy minded. Maps began hosting Flyover city tours, and Siri learned how to recognize songs (using the Shazam engine).

Best of all, Siri also listened for your “ Hey, Siri” call to trigger the listening mode.

iOS 9

The main selling point for 2015’s iOS 9 was its ability to anticipate user needs. It  implemented background updating for commonly used apps based on past habits, and could proactively display relevant information with up-to-date data. The best part: iOS 9 was stable and offered better performance on its initial release than the previous two versions.

iOS 9, for instance, intelligently figured out how to avoid the out-of-space issues that plagued earlier OTA updates. It could delete larger apps without touching user data and replace the app after installation was done – or grab only the software assets needed for installation based on the device.

ios 9 notes maps Apple

Other important changes included: enhancements to CarPlay (and a Wi-Fi version); new data types in the Health app; public transit data for select cities in Maps, which also picked up the ability to anticipate your destination and offer alternatives depending on traffic.

The Home Screen featured a revamped Search area, accessible by a left-to-right swipe. System-wide searches via Siri looked in both iOS 9 itself and within apps, and Siri could be used to control lights and appliances via HomeKit. And the year-old “Hey, Siri” feature no longer required the iPhone be plugged into power; once enabled, Siri would always listen.

Passbook evolved into Wallet; the Home Button could be used to launch Apple Pay from the Lock Screen (when pressed twice); and the iPad got several multitasking improvements, including split-screen, slide-over app support – for running more than one app at a time – and picture-in-picture videos.

iOS 10

Last year’s iOS 10 was more of a refinement release that enabled functionality in certain apps that made them more like platforms developers could build on. For instance, in Messages, you can send money to a friend, call for an Uber ride, send files from DropBox, attach stickers to messages, play games, and share music – all without ever having to jump to another app. (An App Store specifically for Messages made that possible.)

Messages became more expressive than ever, letting you send animated texts and full-screen animations along with handwritten notes, Digital Touch-based events like taps and heartbeats, and the option to replace specific words with emojis.

Maps was also redesigned to proactively look into calendar events and past habits to anticipate where you might need directions. When you arrive somewhere, it marks your car’s parked location for future reference and, like Messages, has extended functionality so reservations can be made right from the app and ride-sharing services summoned. Maps also supports better turn-by-turn directions and search results that find locations en route to your final destination.

ios10 app suggestions IDG

Machine learning at work, in your pocket: iOS 10's app sugestions.

Machine Learning was a phrase that continuously came up with iOS 10, and Photos put the technology to good use. The app could pick faces out from photos and display them in groups under a “People” album; Photos scanned pics for object and scene recognition so you could ask Siri to search for “pictures by the beach” or “photos of me.”

Other changes included: Redesigns for Apple Music (the streaming service) and Apple News (the Newsstand replacement); expanded access to 3D Touch features throughout the OS; iCloud support for syncing Documents and Desktop folders on all of your devices; and _ once iOS 10.1 rolled out _ support for the dual-lens iPhone 7 Plus camera that enabled Portrait mode. That last feature used both rear-facing cameras to produce a DSL-like Bokeh effect to your photos.

The future

Of course, Apple isn’t done with the iPhone and iOS. The iPhone's rising prominence meant it quickly supplanted the Mac as Apple’s cash cow; it is now the only device to receive regular, annual updates. Developer resources were re-allocated along the way to focus on the mobile OS and those predictable updates – sometimes even to the detriment of the latest version of OS X. That said, September is now routinely seen as the month when new iPhones and iOS updates arrive. (Apple has set Sept. 12 for this year's unveiling of new hardware.)

Ten years on, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which the iPhone and iPhone OS never happened; both have been so consequential for the entire mobile industry. Apple moved the smartphone world forward in 2007, and continues to press on with new hardware and software designed to delight and entertain. And as it does so, it continues to showcase its ongoing efforts to iterate, evolve and stay ahead of the competition in big ways and small.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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