With Dynamic Island, Apple has found a solution to the biggest limitation of iOS

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What is the Dynamic Island of the iPhone 14 Pro really? The presentation, as always very well thought out also graphically, has focused almost exclusively on the visual and emotional aspect. The hole is there, now it is gone, now it transforms, then it seems to disappear on a black background and reappear: Apple is very good at communicating with images, as shown by the commercials and keynotes, and had to play its cards well for push people to want, on impulse, the iPhone 14 Pro over the base model. So it happened, according to the data of the first pre-orders.

Dynamic Island is not just a way to cover two holes on the iPhone’s OLED screen with some graphic effect, nor is it yet another attempt to revise a notification system that in some respects remains inferior to that of Android. The Dynamic Island is the graphical display of something that was missing from Apple’s mobile operating system, that is an area dedicated exclusively to the display of activities in the background.

The Dynamic Island when it is off

The comparison with the functioning of Android in this case is totally meaningless: they are different systems that are born for different platforms and that have been built differently. Android was developed to allow services to run in the background, processes that are always active even if there are apps in the foreground that steal the show. Google, historically, has never seen multitasking as the enemy of autonomy and Android users have always loved this possibility that makes Android much more similar to computer operating systems.

Apple has instead designed iOS as a “one task” system, following a bit what has always been the preferred mode of use for its more casual users. When the home button still existed, the typical iPhone usage pattern was “I open an app, I press home to close it, I open another app, I press home”. One app at a time, no split screens, no windows, no popups: the total attention of the user and the system resources are allocated, destined almost exclusively to the application that is occupying the screen, the one in the foreground.

The only area of ​​iOS that is currently used to give the user some additional information, compared to what happens in the foreground, is the top bar, a bar that was full width up to iPhone 8 but then, with the ‘arrival of the notch, it has been reduced to a few pixels: there is the time, there is the network signal and there is the remaining charge, but there is no real space that applications can use if they have to communicate something to who looks.

There would be the notification curtain, but it is not indicated: a notification, as the name itself says, is a message that coincidentally signals that something has happened, and is not designed to give information continuously.

Today on the iPhone it exists a single visual indication of a background activity: when using Maps or Google Maps, and navigation is active, the blue dot with the location services indicator appears at the top.

During a phone call, the sticker is green, with the handset as an icon, if the phone is ringing, it is red with the phone vibrating.

If, on the other hand, we are recording a voice memo, an orange dot appears instead of the time, with the microphone.

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The color and icon change, the combinations are not infinite and the amount of information that can be given to the user is very limited.

Apple, it has been understood in recent years, has the “terror” of all those processes that can run in the background without offering a visual indication that the process is active, and it is no coincidence that the above mentioned indication is limited to few very limited uses.

We are pretty sure that many iPhone users have, once in their life, started a stopwatch and forget they did it, finding the stopwatch still active after months. This is because if you start a stopwatch, and then open the browser, or the email, there is no visual indication that reminds you to turn it off.

A stopwatch, even if forgotten, has little or no impact on system resources, however there are activities that can be much more demanding. For example, think of a real-time rendering, a file upload queue, a scientific calculation or a virtual machine: if you forget, as happens with the stopwatch, of an active virtual machine, the result would be a rapid reduction. autonomy, the heating of the phone, the subtraction of resources from the app in the foreground and, as a consequence, a worsening of the overall user experience. User experience, the two words that occupy the first position in the vademecum of the good iOS developer.

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In all these years, the biggest limitation of iOS, later inherited from iPadOS, has been precisely the impossibility of being able to manage processes in the background, those that in classic operating systems are defined as “background tasks” or “code”.

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The casual user has never complained, but with the arrival of the Pro versions of the iPhone and iPad this limitation has emerged on more than one occasion: even today, if you open that fantastic video editing software that goes by the name of LumaFusion and you start a file import or export, everything is blocked as soon as the app fades into the background.

The only way to remove this limit is, first of all, the need to find a clear and even interactive way to remind the user, while he is doing something else, that the phone or tablet is also carrying out another operation in the background, and therefore not to forget it “active”. This is Dynamic Island.

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It is not a notification, not only conceptually but also at the system level: Dynamic Island is in fact managed by the same framework that manages dynamic widgets, WidgetKit, but is part of the ActivityKit subset.

From a programmer’s point of view, what is graphically constructed around the “hole” in the screen is a widget, just like the widgets that can be placed on the home and lock screen, now active thanks to the always on display. While a normal widget disappears when you leave the home, or unlock your phone, the special Activity Kit “widget” remains visible even if you change applications in the island area.

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It is always visible, it stays in the foreground without being intrusive and without covering the active application, it can provide additional information if it is held down and it can show a series of commands that can be used by the user.

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Apple, with Dynamic Island, planted the first seed to take iOS to a new level, adding a third dimension to a hitherto flat and two-dimensional system, which on principle did not accept everything that was “hidden” behind it.

The possibilities at this point are endless: for example, an FTP client can handle the upload of a thousand filesand it is no longer necessary to keep it in the foreground because the progress bar indicating the status will always be visible in the upper area, whether we are reading an article on the internet or replying to an email.

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The progress indicator on receiving files from AirDrop

Just hold it down to see how many files are missing, or to pause the upload or to stop it. You can have rendering queues, file imports, music processing, and on iPad Pro you can open terminal windows or virtual machines without worrying about forgetting an active shell. When it arrives, there is still no iPad version of this dynamic island.

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Pressing it you see the information and you can interact

In short, you can do everything that iOS does not allow today, and you can really talk about the iPhone “Pro” and iPad “Pro” if the developers are able to take advantage of this opportunity.

It can only happen in a few months, as Apple has communicated to the developers, because Activity Kit will not be in the initial release of iOS 16 but should arrive later. Together with him, other libraries will also be revised, to allow individual apps to continue to function, entirely or only in part, when they are closed and moved to the background. Their real-time activity will be shown, graphically, within the Dynamic Island.


The article is in Italian

Tags: Dynamic Island Apple solution biggest limitation iOS

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