How “Today Widgets” work in iOS 8, and how developers should work them into their apps

So what are the Today Widgets in Apple’s iOS 8, and what is their intended purpose? For some, that seems to be left open to interpretation.

Today Widgets are like tiny apps that run side by side with other tiny apps in the Notification Center’s today view. Apple recently updated its Human Interface Guidelines for iOS 8 to include a clearly defined vision on how Today Widgets are to be designed: to “get a quick update or perform a quick task in the Today view of Notification Center.” Some developers, however, have taken strides to expand upon that vision.

Adding Today Widgets to Notification Center

How to enable Today Widgets

According to Apple, Today Widgets are not meant to be mini versions of an app embedded within the Notification Center. Users access their favorite Today Widgets by swiping down from the top of the screen and tapping on the Today tab at the top of the screen. This offers a quick look at what information is being displayed by the widget, and the user swipes up again to close Notification Center. The idea is to offer quick and convent access to the most important information that an app you already have installed on your device.

By design, widgets are distributed through the App Store as part of an existing app and not as a standalone item. Think of them more as a companion feature of an app you already own rather than something independent that exists on its own. To enable the Today Widgets that developers have built into their apps, you need to scroll down to the bottom of the Today view in Notification Center and tap the edit button on the bottom of the screen.

From this edit view, you will see a list of all of the available Today Widget that were installed on your device along side and app that you have already downloaded. You must turn on and off Today Widgets directly from the edit screen of the Today view in Notification Center itself. There are no settings in the Settings App that you can set. You can even decide what order the Today Widgets will display in from this somewhat hidden edit feature.

Widgets designed the way Apple intended them to be

Tasks – Clear ($4.99, Universal) has been a stunning example of how task management could be reimagined on touch devices. Realmac Software has updated Clear to include a Today Widget that will show you all of your upcoming tasks. It is not a widget that gives you access to managing all of your tasks. Tapping on a Clear task in the Today View will launch Clear and bring up that specific task in the full version of the app. With an OS X version of Clear ($9.99) you can even add tasks to your Today view directly from your Mac’s desktop.

Timer – Ever wonder how long it will be until a significant event will occur in your life? Countdown (Free, Universal) will allow you to set up a series of dates and times to do just that. It will tell you precisely, down to the day, minute and second, how long until your event will occur. It also works in reverse. It can tell you how long it has been since the event has passed. This is a good way to keep track of how long you have been good at sticking to your diet. From within the app, it can be configured to show some or all of your countdown events in the Today view as well.

Navigation – When you are out and about, it is always handy to know how far away you are from the places that are important to you. Rather than constantly enter in your destination and generate a route to see how long it will take you to get to such places, ETA ($0.99, iPhone) will do that for you. Use your contacts to enter in a series of destinations and ETA will update you on how long it will take you to get to each destination. You can even configure ETA to use Apple, Google or Waze when determining how long each route will take. Your list of destinations will also appear on the Today view. That way you will know exactly how far away you are from just about anywhere.

Pushing the boundaries of what a widget should be

Weather – I am not quite sure if collecting weather apps is a hobby of mine or a curse. It seems like I am always looking for a better weather app and happily I am always finding one. Weather Underground (Free, iPhone) has what is likely my favorite Today Widget when it comes to the weather. With it I can quickly tell what the current conditions are, as well as what the weather will be in the next few hours. While the widget is great, it has not quite replaced my favorite weather app, eWeather HD, or my favorite weather radar, Radar Cast Elite. looks like I now have three favorite weather apps. What Weather Underground’s widget has done however is cut down on how often I launch other weather apps. It has basically replaced my need to use or launch a full-blown weather app as it is a mini app version of what I need in a weather app.

Calendar – I never did find the calendar widget from Apple to be all that useful. It never gave me enough information and it took up way too much space on the Today View screen. The Fantastical iOS App ($2.99 iPhone, $7.99 iPad) on the other hand has changed my opinion on just how useful the Today view of the Notification Center can be. With it I have an interactive calendar that I can select specific days and months to quickly and easily see what I am doing. The Fantastical widget on the today view is one of the most interactive widgets I have had the pleasure of using. But it does seem to be more of a mini version of the app itself. Like the weather widget, I seldom launch the Fantastical app; I pretty much only use the Fantastical widget now.

Calculator – While the Fantastical calendar widget is totally interactive, and has more buttons than any calculator I have ever used, dropping a fully functional calculator widget on the Today view is definitely over the top. PCalc ($9.99, Universal) is a fully functional calculator that has found its way on to the Today view, and into a bit of controversy. James Thomson indicated on Twitter that the widget accompanying his calculator app was not appropriate to be displayed on the Today view and would be pulled from the app store.

Apple’s own guidelines to developers do indicate that the keyboard will not be accessible by any of the Today view widgets. PCalc got around this limitation by adding a rudimentary keypad directly within the widget itself. It is not too terribly different in fact from how the calendar app functions for Fantastical. Apple has since reversed its decision to pull the calendar app from the app store, whichmeans the future of Today Widgets is not entirely clear at the moment.