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iOS 8 Extensions: How they work and why they matter to you

Marco Tabini | Sept. 18, 2014
Even though iOS 8 superficially looks like its immediate predecessor, there are some new under-the-hood technologies that'll have a huge impact on the way we all use our iOS devices. One of the most significant of these is something Apple calls Extensions.

Even though iOS 8 superficially looks like its immediate predecessor, there are some new under-the-hood technologies that'll have a huge impact on the way we all use our iOS devices. One of the most significant of these is something Apple calls Extensions.

What are extensions?

Simply put, extensions allow iOS apps to "lend" functionality to one another or to the operating system. Apple is allowing developers to create and distribute extensions whose functionality falls in six distinct areas:

Actions allow you to manipulate content inside another app; for example, you could use an Action to translate a non-English Web page right inside Safari.

Custom Keyboards provide keyboards other than the ones already built into iOS. Third-party app developers could take advantage of this functionality to offer innovative input methods, support unusual languages and scripts, or even offer input mechanisms for specialized applications.

Document Providers enable apps to save and retrieve documents from a variety of services, such as cloud-storage providers and network disks.

Photo Editing extensions can be used to manipulate photos and videos — everything from providing a filters to the host app to offering full-blown editing services without having to move your content from one program to another by saving it in your Photo Album first.

Sharing extensions expand iOS's ability to share data with external services such as social networks or cloud-storage websites. The functionality they offer is similar to Document Providers, but the process is one-way: The app can export data through a sharing extension, but not load from it.

Today widgets provide interactive functionality that can be accessed from the panel you slide down from the top of your iPhone and iPad's screen, giving you immediate access to data, such as a status report from your smart thermostat or a handy calculator.

Who can use extensions?

Any device that can run iOS 8 is also capable of supporting extensions. But an individual extension's ability to work on your device depends on a number of factors, such as whether its developer decides to support the appropriate form factor, or whether the code behind the extension depends on some hardware feature that is only available in newer iPhone and iPad models — such as, say, Touch ID.

Once OS X Yosemite launches later this fall, extensions will also be available to Mac users, although under slightly different rules and conditions.

What's the big deal? I could do most of this stuff before!

While some of this functionality, such as custom keyboards, makes its debut on iOS 8, the ability to export and share data is not new, and was widely available in previous versions of the operating system. What has changed is the way in which this functionality is made available from one app to the other.

 

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