Widgets on iPhone OS 4.0

Posted in Spritely by Dimitri on January 29, 2010

I believe that this summer, Apple will release a new version of the iPhone OS, v4.0, which has support for some kind of dashboard widget.

If you look over the suite of apps that Apple decided to port to iPad, you’ll notice that none of the utility apps exist.

The purpose of a utility app is identical to a widget: provide the user with at-a-glance information that they don’t need to interact with heavily. Apple’s explanation:

Utility applications are visually attractive, but in a way that enhances the information they display without overshadowing it. People use utility applications to check the status of something or to look something up, so they want to be able to spot the information they’re interested in quickly and easily. To facilitate this, a utility application’s user interface is uncluttered and provides simple, often standard, views and controls.

So why aren’t Apple’s utility apps in the iPad?

Because they wouldn’t fit the screen well.

Can you imagine a full-screen Weather app (in it’s current incarnation) running on the iPad? Or a full-screen clock or calculator? Weird, right? Of course, Apple wouldn’t do that. They would have to improve on those apps to make them do more to better take advantage of the large screen. But doing so would actually stray from the purpose of these utility apps by adding complexity where simplicity is desired. In short, most utility apps don’t have any need to be any larger than they are on the iPhone.

I think there are two arguments that can be made as to why some version of these apps weren’t included.

  1. Apple has considered the app store to be “good enough” for alternatives to these apps, and is fine with dismissing the concept of utility applications and replacing them with more complex versions suited for the larger screen.
  2. Apple has something else up it’s sleeve for dealing with these types of applications on iPad, but it isn’t ready to show us yet.

I think that the second is far more plausible.

On the Mac, Apple actually develops a number of applications that fit the exact same goal as utility apps. Dashboard widgets. They don’t fit the application paradigm as well, they are just simple views that you can call up on demand. They appear all at once so that you can see everything you need at a glance. If you relate this to a physical desk, widgets are things you keep on or around your desk, while applications are things you keep in your desk. Calendars and clocks go on the wall, reference books and files go inside.

There’s another reason I believe that widgets are coming: the iPad’s home screen and lock screen:

Is it just me, or does it look like something is missing here? It appears Apple has copied the iPhone home screen, added spacing, and called it done. This is very suspicious. The moment I watched Steve Jobs skip right past it during the keynote, I conjectured that Apple has done it better, they have just kept it hidden in their tightly guarded sleeve. Apple has spent a tremendous amount of time polishing their apps to fit the new screen well, and not one of them is a simple scaled up version of their iPhone counterparts.

What if iPhone OS 4.0 is nearly done, and brings a new look to the home screen, complete with widgets and perhaps notifications? Apple wants to hold off on this announcement for now, considering the iPad won’t be available until March or April. It also times better with the release of the next version of the iPhone, which will certainly take on a number of the features it’s big brother.

It is possible that Apple could use actual dashboard widgets, modified for the iPhone. Developing a dashboard widget is much easier than developing an app, and they could take less device resources that way, which means greater battery life.

It’s also possible that a widget on the iPhone is a standard Objective-C app that runs all the time, but one that has a single view displayed constantly. I would imagine that these would be separate binaries from normal apps, and therefore would take less resources than a whole app would normally take. It wouldn’t even surprise me if widgets were Apple’s answer to the multitasking problem, but I’ll speak more on that later.

However they decide to implement it, widgets will speed up the use of the device by providing a summary of information that is important to you, every time you fire up you iPhone or iPad. And I think we will see them sooner rather than later.

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31 Responses

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  1. Jack said, on February 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Nice ideas. I was wondering where the dashboard would be accessed from, and the logical place seems the bar along the top that stores the time and date – it is omnipresent, but requires no additional face buttons. I think it makes perfect sense for the iPad, but not so much the iPhone – the screen is far too small.

    If they DID do it on the iPad, then I find it likely that they’ll do it in the same way as on the OSX dashboard; web language based. Currently, dashboard widgets are written using regular old HTML, CSS and JavaScript. That would be great, if they did something similar on the iPad.

    At first, I was disappointed they used the iPhone OS for the iPad, but in reality, the screen is just too small for anything else. I can’t wait to get my hands on it and see what it can do.

  2. Galley said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Widgets could be opened and closed with a double-tap of the home button.

  3. David Kaneda said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    This is all speculation, but I agree—A dashboard interface would work well with the resolution and for smaller, utility apps. I significantly doubt it’ll be any answer to multi-tasking however. I see multi-tasking as the only item blocking the use of the iPad as a _creation_ device, rather than consumption. Being unable to open Safari without closing out of Pages is going to make paper writing pretty annoying for students. We need a true solution for leaving a few apps running and switching between them.

    • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

      If you press the home button, open Safari to look something up, press the home button again and open Pages right back to where you were, why do you care that Pages was not executing code in the meantime?

      • David Kaneda said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

        But I don’t see how things like Pages will be able to launch back to where they were. Is the immediate app shutdown time enough to save a 90 page document?

      • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:47 pm

        I would imagine that updates to documents are autosaved to prevent such large file swapping. As far as I know all iPhone apps quit pretty much immediately when you press the home button, that’s supposed to be a system level operation, not one for the app to interrupt. When you open Pages back up you get maybe a short loading screen while it loads the document back.

      • David Kaneda said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm

        Yeah, that’s just my point- I don’t think Apple can rely on any “creation” apps constantly auto-saving… Imagine working on an OmniGraffle wireframe, getting a text message, and accidentally hitting “View” instead of “Close”.

      • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

        I just watched the part of the keynote video where they demo pages. Phil presses a ‘back’ button to leave the document and go to the document-selection screen and then immediately presses the home button. Both actions happen very quickly without any save dialog or progress bar. I would imagine that if you skip the first step, you will return to the same document when relaunching the app.

  4. John Anthony Evans said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    I have to disagree with part of your reasoning :)

    If you look at all of those apps (bar compass), count how many screens and how much data they try to portray on the iPhone then I think there is a case for a redesign for the bigger screen as apps.

    Weather: I have lots of cities listed on my iPhone so showing more cities at once and some better details and graphs would be welcome.

    Stocks: Has two modes on the iPhone, one showing detailed information and history, so more screen space would be good. A split view of stocks on the left and detailed analytics on the right with portrait being just graphs and history.

    Clock: I could do a 6 month project designing a clock :) But a few things, world clock, multiple alarms, showing alarms in multiple timezones across a map. I imagine a fullscreen map with pins added showing the current time in those cities. Touching the map tells me the time there.

    Calculator: Bigger keypad and a ‘paper tape’ job done.

    Voice memos: I can see a UI for recording and editing the memos.

    Anyway thats my 2 cents.

    • Christopher said, on February 4, 2010 at 12:40 am

      I agree with your train of thought here. I could easily see some of these “utility” type apps being enhanced and functioning beautifully full-screen on the iPad.

      While I would definitely welcome a widgets and/or notifications screen, what I would also like to see is the app icons themselves behave more like widgets especially now that they are bigger.

      If the Calendar icon shows the correct date, why can’t the clock show the actual time? The weather widget on the iPhone always says 73º, why can’t it at least show the local temperature? The Photo icon could show the last image taken (when we finally get a camera). Even the Stocks icon could show the price of a symbol or two.

  5. Screaser said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Good stuff.

    Worth noting, perhaps: among the utilities are different types of information…

    I’d like to see clock, calendar, and weather on the lock-screen, for example. Don’t make me even unlock to see stuff like that.

    Stocks and Todo items are a little more personal; I wouldn’t want those to show unless summoned (personally).

    Calculator, on my laptop, is something I might call up from any app I happen to be working with; handling that with some kind of floating movable overlay / popover would seem ideal, so that I can see some document/webpate/whatever and use the calculator at the same time. Since it’s so universal, perhaps it could be summoned by a universal multi-finger gesture? (Perhaps not important enough to deserve that…)

    • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      I can definitely see a universal finger gesture for calling up these types of apps. I think a four-finger swipe down could pull a Dashboard type sheet down over the current application from the menu bar. Four fingers up dismisses it. This is the same gesture used for Expose on the newer Macbooks and after using it for a while it just seems natural.

  6. Taldar said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I agree with @Galley. On the iPhone, a double-tap brings up general music controls; on iPad, it would make much more sense for that to bring up the Dashboard. (And on Mac OS, the same music controls are available in a widget.) Just think about how well the current Dashboard interface would port to the iPad. Everything already has big, grabbable, drag-and-droppy controls and smooth animations. My mouth is watering.

    Then there’s the problem of transparency: how does Apple get people to notice the Dashboard? Just as it’s bad practice to hide close buttons under favicons, and it’s bad to hide next/previous under a play button (*ahem!), it would be foolish to activate the Dashboard with *just* a double-home. Well, the solution’s easy: also put an icon for the Dashboard on the home screen, just as there’s an icon for it in the Macintosh Dock. That way you have easy access for anyone just browsing, and rapid access for power users.

  7. Hamranhansenhansen said, on February 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    > Being unable to open Safari without closing out of Pages is going to
    > make paper writing pretty annoying for students.

    Pages will save state. When you come back to it a minute later or a month later, it will be exactly where you left it. This is far, far less annoying than when the whole system slows down and the user does not know why. It’s far less annoying than when you tap an app and it takes minutes to open, which is a common thing to happen on Android and Palm’s new phones.

    A key thing to understand is that most computer users (not just iPhone OS users) have no idea what you just said. They have no conception of an app “running” or not. Ask random Mac users why some of the apps in their Dock have lights next to them and some don’t: very few people can tell you. People use the iPhone OS Springboard as an application switcher, not a launcher. There is no concept of launching or quitting on iPhone OS and this fits perfectly with well over 90% of computer users. iPhone OS users think all of their apps are always running all of the time.

    The irony with the “iPhone doesn’t multitask 3rd party apps” meme is the propagators of it don’t explain how that juxtaposes with the 3 billion app downloads in only 18 months. iPhone users do MORE multitasking than other platforms. They run 25 apps in sequence throughout the day instead of 5 in parallel as on other platforms.

    > We need a true solution for leaving a few apps running
    > and switching between them.

    What you’re really saying is you want to switch apps faster. The iPad switches apps faster than iPhone 3GS which switches apps much, much faster than iPhone 3G. As the hardware gets faster and faster the switching gets faster. It has nothing to do with whether apps get to run in the background. On Android, it often takes longer to switch to an already-running app than it takes to switch between 2 3rd party apps on iPhone OS.

    The people who have actually used iPad all say it is fast. Andy Ihnatko said it is “fast, fast, fast.” The iPad likely has only 512MB of RAM. The multitasking model on iPhone OS is working.

    • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm

      Really it boils down to two categories of things that don’t continue the ‘illusion’ that apps don’t quit.

      1) Messaging applications. Apple has a solution for this in the form of push notifications but there might still be some room for improvement here.

      2) Audio applications. If I press the home button while in the Pandora app the illusion breaks because my music stops. Maybe Apple can add some sort of API specifically for music applications to allow them to continue playing and be controlled by the iPod controls already available system wide.

      • antonio said, on February 4, 2010 at 7:55 am

        “but there might still be some room for improvement here.”

        like a proper notification system…the stupid popups in the middle of the screen have to go away! look how old the iPhone notification system compares with WebOS and Android. It´s a joke!

  8. David Kaneda said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm


    I understand what you’re saying and don’t get me wrong, I love the iPhone platform, but I disagree: The multitasking is necessary. You say, “The multitasking model on iPhone OS is working.” but you’re not describing multi-tasking at all by saying “What you’re really saying is you want to switch apps faster.” Can you use the Pandora app while looking at your photos?

    Also, what I was trying to say in my last post was _how_ do you think Pages will save state on something like a 90 page document, seeing how apps are given very minimal shut down processes. How do you think 3rd party apps (like OmniGraffle) will save state? I obviously can’t get into anything NDA protected, but I haven’t seen any [redacted] hooks for autosaving.

    • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

      They do it somehow, it’s pretty clear watching the keynote video.

  9. Gordon M. said, on February 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    There’s no saying that Apple can’t be creative with the 10″ screen space without sacrificing at-a-glance simplicity. I don’t believe how at-a-glance something is has little to do with how small the widget is.

    Beyond that, I can imagine plenty of uses for the weather and stocks app where having a full screen wouldn’t be “weird”. Doppler radar maps? Large granular stock charts? A calculator with a multiline display for history?

  10. Nigel Tufnel said, on February 3, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    “Developing a dashboard widget is much easier than developing an app, and they could take less device resources that way, which means greater battery life.”

    It’s easier for web developers. Is it easier for Mac/iPhone developers? No. Also, why do you think widgets take “less device resources”, or use less battery life, than a native app? It seems to me that HTLM/CSS/Javascript are higher-level than Objective-C and Cocoa, and thus might actually consume more resources and more battery.

    Another thing about all this Dashboard-on-iPad talk that’s been vexing me is, wouldn’t it hurt battery life? If all Maybe all I want to do is keep pulling up my calculator, but every time I do, all my other widgets hammer the network and battery to update themselves. Plus, they’ll end up a cluttered mess just like they often do on the desktop. Not very iPad-like.

    • Stets said, on February 3, 2010 at 9:09 pm

      It won’t be easier on the device, but they run for short amounts of time.

      It won’t be easier for Mac/iPhone developers, but how many Mac/iPhone developers are there versus web developers?

      I agree with the issue of them all opening at once, that might be something Apple would have to figure out before incorporating this.

  11. Gordon M. said, on February 3, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Also, just a note: there actually is a bundled Stickies Dashboard widget.

  12. Nick Heer said, on February 3, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I think I might have a rough idea of how the Dashboard would be accessed. Remember the Exposé blob? http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20031010141631859

    I think it would obviously have to be refined, but I can see something similar.

  13. JGowan said, on February 3, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    Overall, I think you could be on to something. Personally, I wish the iPad had access to download and install the Widgets on Apple’s website. There are a thousands there, most of them free. That would be amazing.

  14. Zeev said, on February 3, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Hey Dimitri,
    I really liked your article… I was inspired
    and made a follow up post… :)


    you’re welcome to check it out

  15. Paul Stringer said, on February 4, 2010 at 4:00 am

    Something I found out with the iPhone the other day and demonstration of the strategy of bringing apps back exactly where they leave off. Start the stop watch in the clock app. ooops accidentally hit the home button, don’t realise for a while, open up clocks again and boom the stopwatch picks right up where it should be as though it were running the whole time. It’ll be the same with Pages etc. You really can get away without background tasks for creating seamless app switching if you try – especially within a single window, non overlapping window paradigm.

    • Stets said, on February 4, 2010 at 3:54 pm

      I’m pretty sure that the clock app actually runs in the background when you have a stopwatch or timer going.

      • Thom said, on February 4, 2010 at 9:08 pm

        The clock app doesn’t need to run in the background, that would be quite wasteful.

        It could easily just save the start time, and when the app is opened again it could just subtract it from the current time.

      • Thom said, on February 4, 2010 at 9:14 pm

        Oh, but what of the timer? Maybe it’s more like cron. Though, that might mean it’s an Apple exclusive. Yet, a bean counter could hardly be too draining.

  16. Vrungel said, on February 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I disagree, pretty much any utility app can use more screen estate. For example I can use bigger button in Calculator, I can SO use bigger buttons :) In Weather I can use more information as per-hour prognosis, sunrise and sunset time, in any case just simply larger nicer images will be an improvement in many cases.

  17. bud said, on February 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    The thing is, for many of those utility apps as widgets, their real utility is in the app being multiple pages. So, is the widget going to get a redesign to show more at once? Or stay as is, as Desk assistants.

    These are also the apps that do actually multi task on the iPhone. I constantly will be timing something, while listening to the iPod, while Playing a Game. All other needs for Multitasking could be handled by cut and paste really.

    There is always a chance Spaces could come to the iPad, but I think Apple would rather keep the focus for the iPad appliance simple for several reasons.

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