Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Six Colors Staff

First Look: 2023 Public Beta platform features

It’s Apple public beta season. This is the time of year where Apple lets members of the public try out the next generation of its operating systems in advance of them being pushed out to everyone this fall. There will be bugs and missing features, but that’s the price you pay for living two or three months ahead of the curve.

In recent years, Apple has taken to making more of its new features available across all of its major operating systems. As a result, it’s made less sense for us to cover the same feature in multiple preview articles. Instead, we’ve rolled some of the key improvements you’ll see across macOS Sonoma, iOS 17, and iPadOS 17 into a single article—this one.

Password Sharing

iOS 17's Password sharing feature
A password sharing group in macOS Sonoma

Apple’s been improving its password manager a lot over the last few years. Yes, it’s an alternative to third-party password managers like 1Password, but it’s probably more important as an alternative to writing a bunch of passwords down in a notebook or—much worse—using terrible passwords everywhere.

iOS 17's Password sharing feature
Adding a password to a sharing group in iOS 17.

Most users will encounter the password manager inside Safari, but the interface for managing it is located in the Passwords section of the Settings app (System Settings on Mac). And this year, there’s a major new feature to be found there: password sharing. If you happen to share password information with someone else—whether it’s bank information with a partner, the password to a streaming service with one of your kids, or the login to a web tool with a collaborator—you can create a sharing group and share that information with them via the password manager.

Apple has wisely decided that you don’t share individual passwords with arbitrary collections of contacts. Instead, you create a sharing group, give it a name, and add people to it—then you add individual passwords to a particular group. This makes a lot of sense, as you’re likely to be sharing passwords with the same person or collection of people. So for example, a Six Colors group lets us share logins relevant to this website. After you create a group, you can see a list of all the passwords in that group, manage who is a member of that group, and add passwords or move them in from outside the group. All passwords are synced via iCloud, so if someone changes the password, that change will sync to everyone else in the group.

This feature is a major step forward for Apple, because it’s hard to imagine a full-featured password manager without the ability to share and sync passwords among a group. Sure, passkeys are the future (and they’ll be synced among users, too!), but right now the easier Apple makes cloud-based password sharing, the better.—Jason Snell

Better PDF support

iOS 17's PDF form-filling
Apple’s platforms are much better at letting you fill out PDF forms.

Even if you had given me 500 chances, I could never have guessed that one of the banner features of Apple’s 2023 software releases would be related to PDFs. But as boring as PDFs are, they’ve fulfilled Adobe’s dream of being the de facto standard for digital paper. PDFs are everywhere, and they matter. And yet Apple’s operating systems have never supported PDF forms as well as they could have.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to fill out a PDF form and either the form fields are either not visible without downloading an app or simply aren’t there. And how many times I’ve used Apple’s markup feature to float text on top of the page, then exporting the final file in order to “burn in” my entries so that people can see my text when I send it back. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Someone at Apple noticed. Apple’s platforms just got a lot smart about PDFs, using machine-learning algorithms to detect form fields and turn them into fields you can enter yourself—or even have Apple’s autofill technology do it for you.

Shortly after installing the beta, someone emailed me a multi-page form to fill out. I immediately used it to put Apple’s new functionality to the test—with pretty decent results. Though it recognized most of the fields on the form, a few at the top were uneditable, and a few fields were a bit taller than intended. But I was able to fill out the important parts of the form, and when an answer of mine was longer than the space provided, Apple’s system shrunk the font size of my answer so that it fit. (Unfortunately, a second PDF form sent by my local humane society didn’t get parsed at all on the Mac, and only partially on iOS.)

To top it all off, form entries are automatically saved back to the originating file, so you can quickly fill out a form in Quick Look (or Preview on Mac) and then send the result right back. I know doing paperwork is boring, but any feature that makes it a little less tedious is a winner in my book.—Jason Snell

(PDFs are also much better now when inserted into a note in the Notes app. For more about that, read on.)

Messages expands

Messages is one of Apple’s most used-apps across all its platforms, and it’s upgraded the experience in several ways with these new updates.

Let’s start with the biggest interface change: Apple has ditched the confusing and cluttered Messages App interface for a simple one: there’s a big plus button next to the message-composition field, and if you tap it you’re prompted with a big, easy to tap list of six common functions, followed by a More button. You can tap and hold any item to drag it between the top list and the “More” drawer, so you can choose the functions that work best for you. Camera and Photos are right there at the top, as they should be. (On the Mac, you still need to click an Applications icon to bring up a list.)

tube man sticker

The new Live Stickers feature uses Live Photos and subject-detection technology to let you “peel off” an animated image from a Live Photo and use it as a sticker. (I tried it with a picture of my dog.) You create a Live Sticker by tapping on Stickers and then tapping the plus button, then choosing an eligible Live Photo from your photo library. When you tap on that photo, you’ll see a preview of what the sticker will look like, and you can choose to add it to your sticker gallery. It works pretty well! I was able to find a picture of a flapping AirDancer tube Santa Claus (on my roof—yes, I bought the blower and everything) and turn him into a sticker with a few taps.

Apple’s also added a new feature that, funnily enough, Myke Hurley and I were just talking about a few weeks ago on our Upgrade podcast—the automatic clean-up of one-time passcodes sent via a text message. Now, when you autofill a login with that number, you can choose to have Messages delete that message so you don’t have to ever see it again. Simple, elegant, and smart!

The new swipe-to-reply feature makes it easier than ever to reply to a particular message in a conversation thread. Just swipe left to right on any message and Messages will jump you into reply mode. I think this will make replying to Messages a lot easier, because once you learn the gesture it can easily become second nature to you. My issues is more with the (apparently unchanged) Messages reply thread interface itself. It’s messy. Replies appear with the message they’re attached to, but it clutters up the main message thread even more.

I know there are no “right” answers to a feature like this—just look at Slack and Discord to see wildly different approaches to creating threads in message chains—but I don’t think Apple’s approach works very well. If people don’t use replies in Messages, it won’t be because the quick swipe-to-reply gesture didn’t take off. It’ll be because they don’t like how replies make their conversations look.

iOS 17's Check In feature
Once you check in in via Messages, you’ll see the status on the lock screen (top) and people will be notified when you arrive at your destination (bottom).

I got a chance to test out the new Check In feature, which lets you set a message to someone that will inform them if you reach your destination—or alert them if you get waylaid for whatever reason. To use it, tap the plus icon in Messages and then tap Check In, then specify whether you want to set a time or send an update when you arrive at a particular destination. This is a potentially useful feature, especially if you keep meaning to tell people that you’ve arrived safely but never do! (Sorry, mom.)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to use a lot of the promised changes in these early beta editions. As someone who is on a few very busy family chat threads, the addition of a new “catch-up” arrow that takes you to the first unread message in a thread is going to be a welcome change.

And the Messages feature I’m most excited about is also not quite there yet, alas: the ability to use stickers (including the entire emoji set) as Tapbacks. We’ve been big advocates for expanding the tapback universe for a long time, and while this isn’t quite what we were asking for, if I can choose any emoji to provide a tapback response, I’ll take it. The implementation—both how you select the items for tapback and how they appear to other users—will tell the story, and unfortunately it’s not there yet for me to test.—Jason Snell

Notes takes note

Over the past seventeen years, Notes has gone from being an underpowered skeuomorphic joke (remember lined yellow paper and being stuck in Marker Felt?) to being a powerhouse of an app, and this year’s updates take it even further, with two major new features: embedding PDFs and links between notes.

iOS 17's Notes PDF markup
Multiple people can mark up a PDF in Notes in something approaching real time.

The former feels very much like the kind of thing that Apple was aiming for but didn’t quite deliver in last year’s Freeform app. Not only can you drop a PDF right into any note and scroll through its pages horizontally, but you can annotate and mark up that PDF as you go. And if it’s a shared note, your collaborators will be able to see your additions as you put them in. In my testing, this works best with the Apple Pencil on an iPad, but it does work on other devices as well—you just need to activate the Markup plugin. (On iPadOS, you can use the Pencil to draw right on the thumbnail images, instead of expanding into Quick View.) This is huge for collaboration.

iOS 17's Notes linking
Finally, you can link to other Notes!

Linking between notes is a feature that I’ve wanted for some time. While Apple’s implementation isn’t likely to deal a severe blow to more complex apps like Obsidian, its utility is undeniable. Say you’re working on a preview of public beta software and want to link, as reference, to some notes you took. Yes, you can control-click or tap-and-hold and select Add Link, or even use the command-K shortcut if you’ve got a keyboard, but best of all you can type >> and Notes will offer a pop-up menu of notes you’ve recently edited. You can search that list by typing the first few letters of the note you want, or even create a new note right from there.

Notes also adds a handful of smaller features that you might find useful, including formats for Monospaced and Blockquote, as well as an ability to open a note in Pages if it happens to have outgrown Notes. Not that that even seems like a possibility these days, what with everything the app can do.—Dan Moren

Textual healing

Like it or not we’re not going to get away from typing as the main way we interact with our devices anytime soon (heck, even the Vision Pro has a “onscreen” keyboard for text entry). This year, Apple’s made several tweaks to its text entry features across the board, though some will definitely be more useful on specific devices.

First up is a new transformer model for autocorrect. This leverages machine learning to improve accuracy for text entry across English, French, and Spanish; however, improved on-device models should help other languages as well. Among the specific improvements touted by Apple during its WWDC keynote is that a certain expletive will no longer be corrected to “ducking” and in my experience, that’s true. Autocorrect also better understands sentences, and can correct words to fit an appropriate context (think “we’ll” vs “will”). But one of the best improvements in this year’s updates is an improved autocorrect interface: corrected words are now underlined briefly, letting you tap or control-click on them in order to revert to whatever you originally typed.

Apple’s also really talked up its improvements to predictive text this year. They now appear inline as you type, showing up as grayed-out letters or words after the cursor. You can hit the spacebar to accept the predictions, and in some cases it’ll even suggest multiple words to finish the sentence. It’s wild, and a little surreal, and while I find it very useful on iOS, retraining myself on the Mac—where I type much faster than with iOS’s onscreen keyboard—has proved to be a more difficult task (and ultimately perhaps less useful) .

Even the venerable cursor has gotten an upgrade this year: it can now show a tooltip icon to indicate certain types of state, including when Caps Lock is on, when you switch input languages, and when dictation is active. It’s a little weird after so long, but I quickly got to appreciate this handy little icon—especially the Caps Lock indicator.

Speaking of Dictation, that’s gotten improvements across the board as well. That includes more on-device models for translating speech into text and better accuracy overall, and the Mac gets a feature already on iOS: fluidly switch between dictation and typing. There’s even a subtle cursor upgrade for Dictation as well: a subtle glow in the background that indicates when the feature is active.—Dan Moren

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