Apple Opening Up iOS: Four Ways It Might Happen

According to Tim Cook, Apple may let apps do more on the iPhone and iPad than they've been allowed to in the past.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook is interviewed at D11 on May 28, 2013.

Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t divulge any secrets during his question and answer session at the D11 conference on Tuesday, but he did reveal one interesting nugget about a change in the company’s thinking.

In response to a question from AllThingsD’s Walt Mossberg about Apple’s tight control over iOS, Cook suggested that Apple may let apps do more on the iPhone and iPad than they’ve been allowed to in the past.

“I think you will see us open up more in the future,” Cook said, “but not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience.”

Cook did note that Apple walks a fine line, and doesn’t want to make customers dig deep into the settings. “The customer pays us to make certain choices on their behalf,” he said. “But will we open up more? Yes.”

So what could Apple, realistically, open up on? Cook didn’t say, of course. But we can make a few educated guesses, based on Apple’s principle of trying to make the right decisions on the user’s behalf:

Opening Up Siri

Currently, Siri can interact with a small number of services handpicked by Apple. For example, you can have Siri purchase movie tickets through Fandango, or make restaurant reservations with OpenTable. But for now, the vast majority of apps cannot interact with Siri. You can’t ask Siri to play a song in Pandora, or dictate a note in Evernote without a workaround. Opening up Siri to all third-party apps might be tricky, but if Apple could pull it off, it would make the virtual assistant much more useful.

Notification Center Widgets

Although Apple doesn’t allow widgets on the home screen in iOS, it does have a few of its own widgets in Notification Center for stocks, weather and quick posts to Facebook and Twitter. Why not open up that capability to more apps? Users could open Notification Center to quickly glance at headlines in Flipboard or Pulse, or to keep an eye on sports scores from ESPN ScoreCenter. By now, users should already be familiar with turning apps and widgets on and off in Notification Center, so Apple could expand widget support without causing too much confusion.


Jared Newman /

Setting Default Apps

If you’re not a fan of Apple Maps, Safari or the default Mail app on the iPhone and iPad, you’ll still be stuck using them on occasion. That’s because iOS doesn’t let you set alternative apps as the defaults for core functions, such as web browsing, e-mail and navigation. Siri always sends you to Apple Maps when you ask for directions. Links within apps can only send you to Safari (unless the developer has added a Chrome option). Emails will always be sent from the Mail app. The inability to set other apps as the default prevents iOS from being as powerful as it could be.

Would a policy change create a bad experience? Probably not. The Settings menu in iOS already has a section for third-party apps. Control over app defaults could happen through here, where it’d be easy to find but out of the way for most users.

More Background Upload/Download Privileges

On Android, apps are free to upload and download files as they please. That means you can automatically upload camera photos to Dropbox or Google+, and sync a large number of songs in Spotify or Rdio for offline listening. But on iOS, Apple enforces a time limit on these file transfers. If you want to upload or download lots of files, you must routinely wake your phone and re-visit the app in question. (One exception: Dropbox uses a workaround to upload files when your location changes, but the time limit still applies.)

Apple could expand background privileges for certain types of files, such as photos, videos and podcasts, allowing them to upload or download at any time. To prevent unwanted consumption of data and system resources, Apple could require these background tasks to only work over Wi-Fi, and with the user’s approval. If Apple kept the controls tight enough, the user experience with these apps would actually improve.

What Apple Probably Won’t Do

Just because Tim Cook has promised more openness doesn’t mean iOS is turning into Android. The closed App Store model has worked well enough for Apple that there’s no chance that users will be able to install anything they want. I also doubt that third-party keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey will be allowed, because they require exactly the kind of “deep into the bowels” settings adjustments that Cook seems to dislike. (Apple does, however, need to rethink the iPhone keyboard.) Custom home screens and lock screens are also out of the question.

Still, there are plenty of ways Apple can open up iOS without taking away from the platform’s hallmark user-friendliness. Perhaps we’ll see what Cook has in mind next month, when Apple holds its annual Worldwide Developers Conference.