Live tiles, widgets. Could iOS 14 finally master the idea?

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The arrival of genuine homescreen 'widgets' in iOS (see the screenshots below) has prompted more thought about the concept and about which mobile OS has mastered them, if any. Symbian and Android both had home screen widgets in 2009, while Windows Phone reimagined the idea completely for its 'live tiles' in 2010. And, a decade later, the iPhone joins the widgets party. But have any of these mobile OS really delivered? I say no. Or at least, not yet, with iOS 14's new implementation looking promising for the future.

Let's start with a video though, something light and fun to introduce the topic. This is the promo video for Windows Phone 7, dating from about 2010:

The idea is that the Windows Phone 7 'live tile' experience means that our phone can save us from... err... our phone. By which the advert creators meant that one glance at a live tile home screen delivers what we need to know, while other mobile OS require a much longer study and so we miss out on life.

It's a fun concept but in fact the opposite was often true. Windows Phone's live tiles are designed to animate, flipping between email headers or news headlines or favourite photos (etc.), meaning that to actually take in what you might need you'd need to stare at the home screen for 30 seconds while waiting for all the tiles to flip over or cycle sufficiently. While on an Android (or, dare I say it, Symbian, from back in the day) phone you'd see static widget content and if you needed more then you'd interact with a widget directly (such as swiping through email headers) and then you'd be done. Phone back in your pocket in half the time a Windows Phone user might need. Reversing the idea behind the video above!

Sorry, live tile fans, I'm not criticising the idea - I love them as much as you do, they're fun and often very attractive. I'm just saying that they're not actually faster in terms of turning a phone on, seeing what you need to see and then putting the phone away again.

So we can discount any speed or 'glance' factors here. But what about the content of tiles or widgets? Let's go round the various smartphone platforms:

  • Symbian (2009-2014, arguably, from the Nokia N97 onwards to the end of the Nokia 808's active life)
    Perhaps the best widget implementation I've ever used. You could interact with widgets directly, controlling music, swiping through email headers, controlling device functions. Widgets on Symbian were effectively mini-applications, yet on the homescreen, and we loved them to bits.
  • Android (2009-today)
    Widgets on Android have always been inconsistent. Ten years of development haven't stopped them being a mess. Some applications have widgets, some don't, the widgets that do exist have wildly different styles and fonts, some are interactive, most are not. Still, the idea has always been that to have widgets at all is a good thing, plus most 'normobs' don't even know they exist, which is mainly why few people complain.
  • Windows Phone (2010-2019)
    Ah yes, perhaps the reason you're reading this article. Live tiles weren't so much about mini-apps on the homescreen, they were extended views of each application, presenting cycling thumbnails, weather forecasts, news headlines, email headers, and more. In terms of an IT project of beauty, live tiles knocked it out of the park, the idea was so easy to promote and advertise. And the tiled Start screen meant that no space was wasted, so live tile content could be larger and more accessible. But... none of them were interactive - you always had to tap through to the underlying application to see more or actually do something.
  • iOS (2017-today)
    Despite existing from 2007, so the oldest current mobile mainstream OS, it's only with this year's iOS 14 that 'widgets' have become relevant, since they're now allowed on the homescreens, rather than being sidelined off to their own 'view', one which most users never knew existed. And it's these that I wanted to highlight below, since they're both very new to the extent that only those on the iOS 14 public beta can play at all (the formal release is in a coulpe of months time). So far we only have Apple-written widgets, but there's an SDK, of course, and I'm sure we'll see plenty of third party widgets in due course. What we have so far are static widgets in three different sizes (sound familiar, live tile fans?), with a focussed tap taking the user through to the relevant place in the relevant application, and with some widgets allowing swipe gestures. Early days, but this is already showing promise.

Having experienced all the mobile OS above, and their various live tile/widget implementations, it has been notable that iOS, by its very nature, with software system and hardware so tightly controlled by one company, has by far the most consistent use of fonts and design elements. I pick up an Android phone today and I'm always left dissatisfied to some degree by the way fonts are either too small or too large and then, when I've adjusted the slider in Settings, some still end up too small (not having changed at all) or too large. I'd blame the mass of different companies implementing interfaces on Android, but I've struggled more on Pixel devices, and those are 'pure Google'.

In contrast, Symbian's interface and widgets were better back in the day, while the fonts and text used in Windows Phone were also much better. And I'd only knock a few points off the latter because live tile fonts were often too small to read comfortably because of the ambitions of the tile itself, packing information in, etc. In contrast, whether using the smallest iPhone (SE, 2016) or the largest (11 Pro Max), Apple controls/dictates the styling and fonts used to such a degree that there's consistency across the UI. And this now shows up in homescreen widgets, albeit only from Apple so far, but I'm pretty confident that third party widgets will also conform later this year.

So... we had Symbian's widgets, ahead of their time, consistent and ambitious, but also low resolution on an old and ageing operating system. We have Android, still the Wild West in terms of what's available and how it looks and behaves. We have Windows 10 Mobile, very pretty but needing attention while its tiles flip and animate, but now out of support and with many applications and their live tiles no longer working, sadly. And we have iOS, for which this is all a bit new, but showing a lot of promise.

As an example of how the latter is shaping up, here's my current iPhone 11 Pro's set-up. Note that I only really use two homescreens, for efficiency - the third one here is just me playing with widgets and showing them here, for you.


Home screen 1: Calendar has three widget sizes available, this is the smallest and will show your next two appointments (though only one thing happening today for me, apparently!); next to it is the Reminders widget, which currently only shows one thing - I'd expect a tweak to this to also show two at this size. Note also the non-transparent dark-grey background - this too should get fixed, since all this is only the very first public beta.


This is the medium sized Weather widget and is just about perfect - for me, at least. Just an overview of the next six days, so that I can plan ahead; Photos has several sizes and this is the smallest - it shows different 'key' photos from your past at different times of day. There doesn't seem to be much logic to how it decides this, but the results are often rather fun, with Photos here surfacing a snap of myself, Rafe, Matt Miller and Gavin Fabiani-Laymond, from a London pub meet!


Here I'm just playing and experimenting then. The Files widget identifies your most commonly accessed documents across all your local and linked cloud storage - for one tap access. Now that's pretty clever; the News widget (again, this is the 'medium' size) highlights the current top headline from your Apple News sources; and at the bottom is the 'Smart Stack' widget - this can be cycled through a number of other widgets, all within the one space, either manually by swiping or by waiting - different widgets occupy this space at different times of day, according to what Apple 'learns' about your routine. The featured photo here is an IKEA cheesecake, by the way!

In short, no mobile OS has quite got 'widgets'/tiles just right for me yet, but of the 2020 contenders then iOS is looking good in terms of readable and useful content. It's early days, of course. And the thing about Start/home screens is that everyone's needs and preferences are different, often dramatically so, so I'm sure you'll have your own thoughts here. What kind of 'live' content do you need on your home screen(s)?