Forget Home: The iPhone becomes more social without Facebook
Facebook has spent much of the last few months trying to convince you that the iPhone isn't a truly "social" device, largely because its homescreen is dominated by applications instead of your friends' status updates, photos, and disembodied heads... er, profile pictures. The iPhone is "an incredibly powerful and incredibly social device," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said at D11. "But the way we use it, the way it's organized, is still around activities and apps. And we believe that phone will get reorganized around people." Facebook wants to be more than just another icon.
But the company seems to be back-peddling a bit, having updated the Facebook Home launcher -- the software that allows the company to insert itself into every aspect of your Android smartphone -- with a "Favorite Apps" tray meant to make it easier to move past your friends' baby photos and into your most-used applications. Even the people willing to surrender their smartphones to Facebook aren't quite ready to give up every other aspect of their devices, it seems. (Raise your hand if you're surprised. And then put it back down and hang your head in shame because unlike the NSA -- ha! topical humor! -- I can't see you.) The applications have it.
Apple announced iOS 7, a massive update to its mobile operating system that Apple CEO Tim Cook called "the biggest change to iOS since the iPhone," just a few days later. Besides featuring a few neon-colored icons, the latest version of iOS added a variety of new features meant to make the platform a bit more social. Everything, from the Safari browser to new sharing tools and the App Store, is now more connected to the outside world and the people who inhabit it.
Safari was made more social by way of a new "Shared Links" section in its sidebar. The feature works about as you'd expect: Links shared by the people you follow on Twitter or LinkedIn (Facebook is notably absent, at least for now) are gathered into a single, unified stream and placed just a few taps away. You're able to see who shared the link, what they said about it, and the link itself without using any of the social aggregation tools that offer a similar feature.
New sharing features have been added as well. You can now share "photos, videos, contacts — and anything else" through AirDrop, a feature brought to the iPhone from OS X. Whatever you're sharing is sent directly over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, allowing you to bypass email, Twitter, Facebook, or however you might have otherwise shared the content and send it directly to your contacts' iPhone. You're still able to share via SMS, Twitter, Facebook, and email -- you just don't have to.
And then there's the App Store, which was updated with a new "Near Me" tab that shows applications popular among other iPhone users in your area. The feature replaces the improperly-named Genius tab, which purported to show you new applications based on the software you'd already downloaded. (Genius was, at least in my experience, a poorly-functioning service only opened if my thumb accidentally grazed the bottom of my iPhone's screen.) Genius was all about you and the applications you downloaded -- Near Me is all about the people around you and the software they're using.
This newfound focus on others isn't restricted to software, either. Apple has made iOS 7 more communicative with other devices than ever by adding advanced support for Bluetooth devices -- hello, smart watches-slash-glasses-slash-whatevers! -- and game controllers. Applications are still isolated islands of bits and bytes, but the iPhone and the operating system it's powered by are becoming increasingly chatty.
Your iPhone still features a grid of icons and still favors applications over trivial status updates, but it's more social than ever before without being reliant on any one social network or technology. Facebook tried to make it easier for you to connect with your friends by becoming the only thing you see when you unlock your phone -- Apple is trying to realize that same goal by building social features into its existing applications. That might not be what Zuckerberg & Co. wanted, but which seems more likely: People sharing more because Facebook has made it harder to do anything else with their smartphone or because multiple sharing methods are just a few taps away from the applications and services they're already using?