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iOS comes into its own with extensions

Dan Moren | June 6, 2014
With the advent of extensibility in iOS 8, Dan Moren argues, Apple's mobile OS is finally coming into its own as a mature platform.

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In some ways, iOS will always be the new kid on the block, the upstart, the whippersnapper. Obviously, the Mac OS will always retain its seniority by virtue of age. But what we saw from this week's WWDC keynote announcements is that the mobile OS is about to embark upon a new stage in life—if not reaching full maturity, then at least graduating from childhood to adolescence.

It's not just about the usual incremental increase in front-facing features. Rather, there's something deeper: an exponential change in the mobile OS's power and in the things that we can do with it. There's no better sign of that evolution than the introduction of extensions.

Extend this
We've passed the point where we need to argue about whether or not one can be productive on an iOS device. The real question has become just how productive one can be. As good as iOS has become, there have always remained pain points, places where something that should be relatively simple takes many more steps than it should—or, at least, many more than it would if you were, for example, trying to do the same thing on a Mac.

All too often those slowdowns come when we need to move between apps. The addition of multitasking in recent versions has helped smooth that over, by making it easier to jump between apps. But its implementation—and iOS's fundamental sandboxing restrictions—have kept multitasking a somewhat cumbersome process. We've largely been limited to moving between the apps that Apple wants us to move between, in the manner that the company wishes us to do it.

Extensions, however, aim to smooth such transitions. Their functionality is, for the moment, still limited; in some ways, the list of available types of extensions is reminiscent of that first list of app-multitasking options, back in iOS 4.

At first blush, the scope of these extensions might seem narrow: sharing services, Notification Center widgets, storage provider options, photo filters, a document picker, and even third-party keyboards are all fairly specific, with very targeted uses—welcome ones, to be sure, but narrow all the same. But then there's the extremely broad Custom Actions, which could open up an entirely different way of thinking about what apps can do.

Custom actions--for example the Bing Translate option showed off on the Monday keynote--are a window into much greater functionality. They actually let apps project a portion of their functionality into other apps, allowing you to harness the power of an app without even launching it.

This is game-changing for iOS. It's the kind of feature that power users have longed for, largely because we've taken it for granted on the Mac--the Services menu, after all, has lived in the Mac's application menu since the original release of OS X, even if many users largely ignored it.


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