JUNE 22, 2020


(Video version here)

The newest version of Apple's iPhone interface has just been announced — iOS 14, and it features something that I've been looking forward to for a long time — a complete rethinking of the home screen.

Since the beginning of its existence well over a decade ago, opening your iPhone has presented you with the same experience: a grid of icons that, when tapped, launch you into the app of your choosing.

This made a lot of sense back when the iPhone first launched. At that time there were no third-party apps at all, with only about 20 apps taking up the screen, many of which still exist today like Phone, Messages, Calendar, and Camera. Then when the App Store came into existence it still made sense because the average person was likely only downloading a handful of apps, maybe enough to extend into a second or third screen of icons.

This is no longer the case — as Apple pointed out in their keynote, there's an app for everything, and that means our grid has grown very, very full. I just checked and I have 328 apps on my iPhone. That is far too many to organize in a meaningful grid. Years ago Apple added the ability to create folders of apps, but that felt more like a stopgap than a true solution. Now, the apps were hidden in a grid within a grid, and that wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

Last year I decided I was done with the grid and entirely and radically changed the way that my iPhone home screen looked, and I did it in a very weird, hacky way. I recognized that one of my main problems with the grid is that I often have to use multiple apps for different contexts (different apps to read different books, and so on) and what I really want was small 'batches' of apps which felt unified in theme. So I created 'stacks' of icons — a stack of reading apps with Books, Kindle, Audible, and Libby; a stack of audio apps with Overcast, Dark Noise, Endel, Spotify, and Stitcher, and so on — a stack of base-level apps, writing and productivity apps,. work apps, and game and video apps. The idea was that each of these 'stacks' would be built up from a primary app on the dock. To make this work I had to do some strange things — I changed my iPhone background to pure black and downloaded fake blank icons so that I could move everything around. It was weird, and imperfect, but it really worked the way that my brain does and it was much better, in my opinion, than the grid.

A LOT of apps didn't make it to the stacks and that was fine because for years I haven't really been using the home screen to launch apps at all — I've been using Spotlight. Spotlight is the menu that you get when you pull down from the home screen, and it automatically brings up a list of 'Siri Suggestions', apps which it thinks you want at that moment, and the app that I'm looking for is almost ALWAYS in there — including, of course, Twitter.

As I grew more and more frustrated with having to bury hundreds of apps in folders, I had a wish: I wished that this Siri Suggestions pulldown and the home screen as we knew it would swap places. I wished that, when I opened up my phone, I would see a list of apps that my phone knew I _wanted to see_ and if the one I was looking for was missing, _then_ I could swipe over and see a list or grid. I wanted this because the grid just no longer worked for me. How, when you have hundreds of apps on your phone, can you possibly lay out all of those icons so that they're within reach? You just can't.

With iOS 14, Apple seems to recognize that this no longer works, and they've created a solution. The new operating system lets apps become home-screen sized widgets, and one of those widgets is Siri Suggestions. So instead of having to choose the exact right apps to put on the home screen, not you have 14 there for that very moment, with Apple attempting to predict the one you're looking for. In my experience, it is good enough that this is all you'll need. Even better, instead of shoving the rest of the icons onto the last page of your home screen, you can now remove apps from the grid without removing them from your phone. So that page full of apps you've buried out of site can now just be removed entirely, and all of those apps will be found in the new 'App Libary' space which puts them in folders for you. These folders, when filled beyond four apps, automatically present the 'top three' which you can open immediately, and put the rest in a list which you can access from the bottom right. Even though I have hundreds of apps on my phone, I'm pretty confident that between the new widgets, Siri Suggestions, and this page, I'll always have what I'm looking for within reach.

This feels like a wonderful compromise. Do you like the grid? You can keep the grid! Do you want to change your grid up just a little? You can add a single widget and leave the rest as is! But! Do you want to get rid of the static grid completely? Now you can, which means that instead of having my old weird 'stacks' of icons squeezed into multiple pages, I can now truly have a home screen which is contextual.

If you've listened to me talk about all of this and feel rather uninspired, I get it. It's 'just' a home screen, and it's 'just' widgets — but this is one of those cases where I think we don't yet know quite the full potential of what this type of change could bring. For a long, long while it's felt as if there is the home screen and then 'the rest' of the screens. Especially because of the monotony of the grid, it wasn't really worthwhile curating anything beyond that first page. Now, with functional and diverse widgets, I can easily see myself creating multiple pages, each with their own purpose. You could create a screen for writing, a screen for working, a screen for tracking fitness, a screen for exploring the city! Though on the surface iOS 14's change is 'just widgets', it's a major shift from the incredibly stagnant grid that came before it — and I love it when something that's become 'the norm' gets shaken up. It's easy for technology to get bogged down, slowly iterating year over year. We have explosions of change, like the move from "smart phones" to iPhones, and then we have that iPhone gradually become better, year after year, without considering how to truly move it into the future.

When I see the changes that are coming with iOS 14 — the new personalized home screen, more feature-full messaging, and a Siri that's more powerful than ever — I see changes that are built to make our devices more predictive, more context-driven, and designed to 'just get out of the way' and enhance whatever it is you're doing. That's technology worth having, and I'm excited about the way that I think these features will be utilized. Though iOS 14 was only just announced and is entering beta right now, I'm curious to see what kind of widgets will be developed, and what my iPhone will look like when the feature launches for everyone in the fall. I think it will be a very large shift as, for the first time, the apps we've used for years will be free of the grid that we've all known since the dawn of the iPhone itself.