iOS Improvements to Wi-Fi Soft AP: Better Late than Never

Published by Barbara Nelson October 25, 2017

It’s taken Apple nine years and eleven releases of the iOS operating system to address a significant usability problem in onboarding connected products over Soft AP. We are all very familiar with that painful user experience where the user has to be guided to leave the product app, go to settings, pick the Wi-Fi soft AP network, wait for the phone to join the network, and then find their way back to the app to continue the Wi-Fi setup.  

It’s painful to see how many users get lost on their way to settings, or pick the wrong network, or can’t find their way back to the app. Even more painful to watch is the end user who has to do this more than once, if they input the wrong network credentials the first time around.

The good news is that Apple is finally making this better. There is a new API method in iOS 11 that lets the application set the soft AP SSID, and have the phone join the soft AP network automatically. The user will be prompted to allow the phone to join the soft AP network, and the app takes care of the rest. The user stays in the app, and the app makes sure that the right network is chosen.  

This API is specifically designed for onboarding Wi-Fi products via soft AP, and you can set an option to have the phone drop off the soft AP network if the user leaves the app. This makes it less likely that the phone gets left on the soft AP network (one of the many problems with Wi-Fi soft access points today). This new API is only available in iOS 11, so applications will still need to guide the user to settings and back again for older phones, but as more and more users move to iOS 11, the app can take more control over this user experience, all of which is great news for connected product users.

iOS Wi-Fi Soft AP: Better but not good enough 

So, does this mean soft AP will now be good enough, and we don’t need other onboarding solutions for connected products? Definitely not.

While the soft AP experience with iOS 11 is better than soft AP in iOS 10, it’s still not a great experience. There are still many problems with soft AP, because fundamentally you’re trying to use a Wi-Fi network to send credentials to the product to have it join a different Wi-Fi network.  

Many connected products have Wi-Fi radios that are fairly limited and as soon as the product starts joining the private network, it must bring down the soft AP network (as it can’t be a Wi-Fi client and a Wi-Fi access point at the same time). So, the app joins the soft AP network, sends over the private network credentials, and then the soft AP network vanishes, leaving the app (and the user) guessing as to whether the connected product joined the private network successfully.

If everything went well, the product is on the private network. If there were any problems, the user has to wait for the app to time out, and start the whole process again. There’s no feedback to the user because the soft AP network has gone away. That one of the ways in which a cloud-based onboarding solution, like ZipKey, delivers a much better user experience, as it doesn’t interfere with the phone’s network connection, and gives the user complete feedback on the onboarding experience for the connected product, whether it was successful or not.

Beyond the initial setup, this new method does nothing to address the Wi-Fi issues users face when they move to different homes, get new routers, change their home network passwords, or sell their connected products.  All of these lifecycle issues are tough to deal with without ZipKey.  

We have already updated Cirrent's iOS SDK to take advantage of this new method, so companies making ZipKey products can quickly update to the best possible user experience. If you are using ZipKey, or are considering using it, now is a good time to get started - reach out to info@cirrent.com for more info on the new SDK. 

And while we are pleased to see Apple trying to improve the onboarding experience for connected products, I’d say it’s too little too late for the connected product users. Connected product onboarding has moved beyond soft AP, and it’s time to catch up again, Apple. Just don’t take nine more years, please.

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