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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Apple’s new iOS 14 home screen brings Windows Phone Live Tiles back to life

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Microsoft showed off the future of mobile home screens a decade ago with Windows Phone. The key to the vibrant interface was Live Tiles, animated widgets that felt alive. Nothing has lived up to it ever since.

I’ve always wanted Apple to bring these Live Tiles to the iPhone. Apple’s overhauled iOS 14 home screen finally does that, enabling lively widgets for apps that sit on the home screen. It’s the final addition to the iPhone that I’ve been missing from Windows Phone, 10 years after Microsoft first introduced Live Tiles to the world.

Live Tiles were one of Windows Phone’s most unique features. They enabled apps to show information on the home screen, similar to the widgets found on Android and iOS. You could pin almost anything useful to the home screen, and Live Tiles animated beautifully to flip over and provide tiny nuggets of information that made your phone feel far more personal and alive.

Live Tiles were a core part of Windows Phone’s design, letting you glance at the home screen to get information, like the weather forecast, your next calendar appointment, or traffic information. They were so important to Windows Phone that Microsoft even recruited Gwen Stefani and other celebrities to promote them.

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Apple has long kept is home screen almost identical to how the iPhone originally launched in 2007. There have been UI tweaks, the addition of folders, and some dock changes, but for the most part, it’s a static row of app icons with widgets hidden away in a sub-menu that nobody really uses.

iPhone users have been calling for a better home screen for years, and one designer even created a striking concept for iOS 8 six years ago that’s eerily similar to what Apple unveiled for iOS 14 this week. The concept was an approach that attempted to mix the best of Android’s widgets system with the design and functionality of Windows Phone’s Live Tiles.

ios8 hack assets

Jay Machalani’s iOS 8 concept.

Naturally, Apple has taken its time to consider its options for the home screen in iOS 14, and the implementation has the usual polish the company is known for. Apple allows widgets to be added to the main home screen on iOS 14 to sit right alongside other apps. A new “widget gallery” acts as a central place for users to easily add and customize widgets, and there’s even a “Smart Stack” widget that cycles through relevant apps based on the time of day.

iOS 14 will let you pin widgets like music to show what’s playing, photos to see images from your camera roll, clocks to show multiple time zones, or even the weather to quickly look at the forecast for the day or week ahead. It all looks and feels very similar to the original vision for Live Tiles. App developers will need to build in support, but given how quickly apps are updated for new iOS versions, it’s reasonable to assume a lot of the top apps will work with this new home screen once iOS 14 debuts later this year.

iOS 14’s new home screen.

Apple has taken the best of both Android widgets and Windows Phone’s Live Tiles and combined them into iOS 14. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Windows Phone features appear in iOS or Android, and it underlines how important Microsoft’s mobile efforts were even if they were a glorious failure.

I’ve said this many times before, but one of the main reasons I miss Windows Phone is it pushed both Google and Apple to do better. Microsoft’s striking Metro design prompted Apple to respond with iOS 7 and a flatter user interface, and Google later introduced its Material Design with bright colors, playful transitions, and a much flatter and simplified interface.

Windows Phone has influenced iOS and Android in many other ways throughout the years, but I’m just glad Apple is finally creating a better home screen for the iPhone I use every day. Windows Phone might be dead, but the Live Tiles dream looks like it will live on through iOS 14 and beyond.

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