Mac Musings

iOS 5: The Missing Features

Daniel Knight - 2011.10.31 -

Even at version 5, Apple's iOS lacks some basics we take for granted on traditional desktop and notebook PCs - and most competing tablets. Now that Apple has iOS-ified the Mac with OS X Lion, it's time for Apple add some standard Mac features to iOS.

Newton MessagePad
Newton MessagePad

Mac OS X is built on Unix, and its appearance and structure are rooted in the Classic Mac OS. iOS, the operating system introduced with the first iPhone in 2007, is firmly rooted in Mac OS X, but the appearance was drastically modified for use on a small touchscreen device - although you can definitely seem some influence from Apple's ill-fated Newton MessagePad (1993-98, see The Story Behind Apple's Newton), which had an icon-based launcher along with a row of fixed apps at the bottom of the display, which could be used in either portrait or landscape mode.

Like the early Mac OS, the first version of iOS didn't support multitasking, nor did it have third-party apps, keyboard and mouse support, or a way to print. iOS 2 added the App Store, which allowed users to download and use additional Apple and third-party apps on their iPhone or iPod touch. The iPad, launched in 2010, added keyboard input, and iOS 4 introduced a rudimentary form of multitasking - multiple programs could be open in memory, although only once would be active at any given time.

After five years of iOS, Apple introduced OS X 10.7 Lion for the Mac, which came with an iOS-ified launcher and a host of new features that had become part of iOS. Longtime Mac users have been frustrated with Lion's lack of support for PowerPC apps, backwards scrolling, and a host of other oddities that make sense on a touchscreen but not on a real computer.

Turning the Tables

I've been using personal computers since the Apple II+, Macs since 1986, and iOS since June 2011, when my wife and I each got an iPhone 3GS. (My wife is a former Windows user who came to the Mac kicking and screaming when her unbranded Windows PC died and all I could provide her with was an eMac with OS X 10.4 Tiger installed. She has since become comfortable in the Mac world.)


She asked me a question that stumped me last week: "How do I print from my phone?" Good questions! We have four printers, all long since discontinued: Brother HL-5250DL and Konica Minolta Magicolor 2430DL in my office (b&w and color laser printers with USB and ethernet), and Brother DCP 7020 multifunction laser printer/scanner/copier (USB) and Kodak EasyShare 500 USB/Bluetooth dye-sublimation photo printer in her office.

Technically, iOS 4.2 and later support printing, but AirPrint only works directly with recent HP, Brother, and Epson printers designed to support AirPrint. Sorry, but I'm not going to buy a new printer when I already have four that work just fine.

You are supposed to be able to activate AirPrint on any Mac running OS X 10.6.5 or newer and iTunes 10.1 or later, using a "hidden" feature to allow printing from iOS 4.2.1 and newer. There's a donationware program called AirPrint Activator that is supposed to turn your Mac into an AirPrint server, but I haven't been able to make it work on my Mac mini running OS X 10.6.8. My wife can print wirelessly to the Brother HL-5250DL connected to the Mini by USB, but my iPhone doesn't see an available printer.

Curiously, there seem to be AirPrint solutions for Windows and Linux.

Keyboard and Mouse Input

I'm a writer. Although I can get by using the onscreen keyboard on my iPhone, it's not a fast way to work, it's too easy to hit the wrong key, and autocorrect comes up with some interesting results. Editing is also a pain, as there's no mouse to quickly grab a work, phrase, or paragraph. You have to use the magnifying glass to pick the position of your cursor, and there's a backspace key but no forward delete.

There are a host of iPad keyboards available, and also a fair number of Bluetooth 'boards for the iPhone and iPod touch. But to really be able to use your iDevice for text input, it should have both a keyboard and a precise pointing device, such as a mouse, trackball, or trackpad. Touchscreens are not made for editing.

Both of these technologies (output to a printer and input with keyboard and mouse) have existed in the Mac OS since the beginning, have been part of OS X from the start, yet have been missing from iOS since the first iPhone shipped. (I don't consider AirPrint a real solution until Apple provides AirPrint server support for Mac OS X 10.6.8 and OS X 10.7 Lion.)

One More Thing

While I'm at it, I'd like to share one more thing I'd love to have on my iPhone - a VNC server. There are a host of VNC client programs that let your iDevice access and control your Mac or PC over the Internet, but the only app I've seen to let your access your iDevice from a PC is Veency, which requires you to jailbreak your iDevice.

I'm sure that's not for lack of trying to get Apple to approve Veency and provide it through the App Store, but it probably does things Apple doesn't approve of. A shame, since this could be another way to use a mouse and keyboard with your iDevice, as well as an easy way to make screen captures from your computer.

And, of course, if iOS had keyboard and mouse support, getting a program such as Veency to work with your iPhone would be even easier.

Apple, now that you've iOS-ified the Mac, isn't it about time you have iOS rudimentary features like printing to existing printers and working with Bluetooth keyboards and pointing devices?

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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