Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

On Continuity’s Complexity

For several years, Continuity has been a growing set of features that ties macOS to its more mobile cousins. Here’s how Apple describes these features:

When you sign in to your Apple ID on all of your devices, you can use Continuity features that make it seamless to move between your devices. Click a feature below to learn about it, such as how to automatically unlock your Mac when you’re wearing your Apple Watch or how to use your iPad to extend the workspace of your Mac.

Better together, mostly.

Under the Continuity umbrella live several different features:

  • Handoff — Switching to an application or document from one device to another.
  • Universal Clipboard — Copying and pasting content from one device to another.
  • iPhone Cellular Calls — Making and receiving calls on Macs, iPads and iPod touches on the same Wi-Fi as an iPhone.
  • Text Message Forwarding — Sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages on non-iPhone devices.
  • Instant Hotspot — Connect to Personal Hotspot without the need of a password.
  • Auto Unlock — Logging into and authenticating on an Mac while wearing an Apple Watch.
  • Continuity Camera — Using an iOS device to take a photo for instantly inserting into a document on a Mac.
  • Continuity Sketch — Creating a sketch on an iOS device for inserting into a document on a Mac.
  • Continuity Markup — The same as above, but for uhhh … marking up a document.
  • Sidecar — Using an iPad as a second Mac display.
  • AirDrop — Wirelessly sharing content between devices if the stars are properly aligned.
  • Apple Pay — Using an Apple Watch to authenticate Apple Pay on a Mac without Touch ID.

That’s a lot of stuff under one overarching name, and while I understand the impulse to unify these features, I would argue that this particular collection is a bit out of sorts.

Many of these features feel like children of Handoff, especially Continuity Camera, Sketch and Markup, as well as Universal Clipboard. On the other hand, AirDrop feels like it doesn’t belong on the list at all.

Beyond just being angsty about labels, my main problem with Continuity is the overall lack of control a user has over its many features. Additionally, what features can be tweaked are often scattered across various Settings screens and System Preferences panes.

Here are just a few examples of how messy this can be:

  • On the Mac, there is a single setting named “Allow Handoff between this Mac and your iCloud devices” at the bottom of the General preference pane. It doesn’t say this, but this single checkbox enables (or disables) both Handoff and Universal Clipboard.
  • Auto Unlock is enabled in macOS’ Security & Privacy settings, which requires a mid-2013 or later Mac, and an Apple ID with two-factor authentication turned on. Even then, macOS seems inconsistent about when it will prompt to confirm something via a connected Apple Watch and via a password prompt.
  • To set up Text Message Forwarding, a user has to go into Settings on their iPhone, then navigate to Messages and then “Text Message Forwarding.”
  • To take advantage of Continuity Camera, Sketch and Markup, an individual Mac app has to support it, and so far, the list of those that do isn’t very long. To use it, a user has to find an insert or import command, which vary in location app to app.
  • AirDrop lives in the Share menu across devices, and the settings for which devices can be accessed via the features live in Finder, Big Sur’s new Control Center, and in the Settings app on iOS.
  • On the Mac, phone calls are managed through the FaceTime app’s own settings screen.

I know this messiness is the natural outcome of Apple adding these features piece by piece over several years and several OS revisions, and on the whole, they do make using the Apple ecosystem a more fluid place to work and play.

However, many users need more control over features than Apple’s current web of confusing settings and features. If someone wants to use Handoff, but Universal Clipboard poses problems for them, they don’t have enough options. SMS forwarding relies on device names, which can be confusing and very slow to update via iCloud when one is changed, and I’d wager most users have no idea what Continuity Camera, Sketch and Markup even are.

It’s not that these features are bad; Apple just needs to clarify what they do and how to manage them. That’s just as much as a marketing challenge as it is an engineering one.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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