A week with iOS 7: The search for innovation amid renovation

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iOS 7 Review

iOS 7 Review

Apple unveiled its vision for the future of mobile computing last week and the Internet erupted. A new feud was born, not between iOS fans and Android fans or between Apple fans and Samsung fans, but among iOS users themselves. On one side, a legion of iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users were fawning over the redesigned software shown off by Jony Ive and company. It’s a breath of fresh air… it’s amazing… it’s “positively mind-blowing.” On the other side, iOS 7 was panned. Many longtime Apple fans watched in horror as Apple peeled back the layers on its new iOS interface, and all the great features were instantly overshadowed by Apple’s controversial new design. Is iOS 7 a brilliant push forward? Is it a tragedy in the making?

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It has been a week since iOS 7 debuted and now that the rush-into-print, knee-jerk reactions are behind us, let’s take a closer look at the future of Apple’s mobile devices.

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Apple has never created anything that looks like iOS 7 before. Never, ever. This is important, because many longtime Apple users were blindsided by the bold new look.

As a company, Apple is known for many things. Design sits somewhere near the top of the list. Apple’s hardware is gorgeous and unparalleled, and its software is sleek and beautiful — even when it fails miserably. As rivals try desperately to catch up and as they spend billions on new product development, no notebooks are as sleek as Apple’s, no tablets are as striking as the iPad, and no smartphones are as stunning as the iPhone.

Apple has been matched or even surpassed by rivals in some areas, but design is not one of them.

So it is easy to see why longtime Apple fans find iOS 7 so jarring. The look and feel of iOS has been so widely praised over the years that many people are having trouble letting go. iOS also sparked a fundamental shift in the way companies design smartphone interfaces. In fact, one Apple rival loved the iPhone so much it created a 132-page document to help its engineers copy many aspects of iOS pixel by pixel.

But now, many of the core characteristics that defined iOS for six years are gone without a trace. Panic was inevitable.

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The dust has settled since Apple took the wraps of iOS 7 last week, and opinions seem to be leveling out to an extent. Bloggers and pundits who exploded with rage have since backed up a bit. Starry-eyed Apple fans who squealed with excitement have calmed down as well. So now, we can finally all take a deep breath and talk about iOS 7.

At its core, iOS 7 is a fundamental departure from earlier versions of iOS in terms of user experience. Historically, navigating iOS was very linear. Open an app, close an app. Open another app, close another app. iOS 7 is all about layers, however, and I have a feeling that this is something we’ll see Apple really start to run with in future versions of its mobile platform.

Navigating iOS 7 is different. Panels open on tops of apps and transparency effects provide a unique visual reminder that other parts of the OS lie beneath the current view. Apple really ran with this concept, too. For example, each key press on numbers in the new Phone app or on the lock screen provides a fleeting glimpse of the wallpaper that sits beneath the app. It’s a very cool effect that does not go unappreciated, and there many are other small design elements that show Apple is still a company that sweats the little things.

There are also new transition animations when navigating iOS. Transitions zoom in and out of icons when opening and closing apps, adding another element to the layering concept. In iOS 7, everything is connected. It also has a very bouncy feel to it.

I find that some animations are overly complex though, such as the transition when closing the task manager, and this makes the user wait a few extra beats in between functions. Apple is moving in the wrong direction here — but we’re talking about an early beta so hopefully the release version will see these transitions get out of the user’s way much faster.

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Apple’s new user interface appears to be quite similar to earlier versions on the surface, but it is in fact a complete departure from the UI found in iOS 6 and earlier builds.

Beyond the home screen, which indeed looks much like earlier iOS home screens, lies a completely redesigned experience. Every single Apple application has been rebuilt from the ground up, and some apps have undergone such drastic overhauls that they are barely recognizable.

As had been rumored in the weeks leading up to WWDC, the iOS 7 user interface is flat. All of the textures and skeuomorphic elements that have characterized iOS for more than half a decade are gone. But “flat” is only half the story here.

The interfaces in new Apple apps aren’t just flat, they are completely different from the apps they replace. Some applications bear absolutely no resemblance to their predecessors. And even the ones that carry forward the same basic layouts as older apps, like Messages, have such a minimalistic new look that the resemblance isn’t always immediately apparent.

Put it like this: You will have no problem transitioning from iOS 6 to iOS 7. Your parents, on the other hand, probably will. But just as they did when they first transitioned from a flip phone to an iPhone, they’ll get over it.

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For the most part, iOS is still very logical and easy to use. There are areas where the interface falls apart a bit, but the “beta 1″ label says it all — many, many things will change before iOS 7 reaches the public this fall. In its beta form though, there are some real missteps in iOS 7 that are pretty shocking. Here’s one example:

Apple, a company defined by design and collective smarts, made a pretty elementary design snafu right on the iOS lock screen.

“Slide to unlock” sits near the bottom of the display on the lock screen and shimmers, as it always has. But the simple slider button graphic is now gone. Instead, just beneath the words “slide to unlock,” sits an arrow pointing upward. Sliding upward doesn’t unlock iOS though. Instead, this arrow is meant to alert the user to the presence of the new Control Center, which provides quick access to several settings and controls. To unlock an iOS device, the user still must swipe from left to right.

On the surface, this might not seem like a big deal. Think about it from a new iOS user’s perspective, however — and this is very important, considering how many new iOS users there will soon be if Apple is indeed prepping a new low-cost iPhone.

You tap the unlock button for the first time on your new iPhone or iPad, and your attention is immediately drawn to the shimmering “slide to unlock” directive near the bottom of the display, which is situated directly above an arrow pointing upward.

You place your finger directly on the words and slide up. Nothing happens. You try again from the center of the display. Nothing happens. One more attempt, this time beginning right on the up arrow itself. A panel of various buttons and sliders appears, but you still can’t find the home screen.

It’s a stupid mistake. And Apple doesn’t often make stupid mistakes when it comes to design. It’s akin to placing a traffic sign showing an arrow curving to the right on a street just before the road ahead curves to the left.

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On the other side of the coin, iOS 7 has many changes that are absolutely fantastic.

While the new OS doesn’t address all of the major complaints surrounding iOS, it definitely tackles a healthy number of them. Multitasking will finally be kicked into high gear now that third-party apps can perform more processes in the background without battery life taking a major hit, and the new Control Center finally provides easy access to key settings and utilities.

The updated Mail app has big improvements and searching actually seems to work now. Safari mobile is much improved as well, with a great new interface and a unified address and search bar. AirDrop is a great new alternative to NFC-based file-sharing, the new Notification Center features are nice (though Apple really took a step backwards by eliminating the weather widget and replacing it with a text-based forecast for the current day only), and iTunes Radio is a welcome addition to Apple’s entertainment portfolio, though there are definitely better options out there for users seeking a more comprehensive solution.

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I also love the new task manager UI in iOS 7, which was shamelessly stolen from webOS. Thumbnails featuring screen captures of each open app in its most recent state are lined up on the screen. Tapping one will open the related app and flicking one upward will close the app. As someone who was a big fan of the webOS platform before HP sent it away to live on a farm, I think the new multitasking interface is a big step in the right direction, even though Apple engineers couldn’t be bothered to come up with their own solution.

But as mentioned earlier, there are plenty of things I haven’t been able to get past. I find the new icons to be absolutely hideous, for example. They’re juvenile in all cases and downright ugly in some instances, and I’m fairly surprised that this is work that left the drawing board at Apple. I would be embarrassed to have been involved in their creation. There are also a number of surprising omissions, an example of which might be the lack of any kind of indication in the Calendar app on days that have scheduled appointments. I would expect that issues like this will be addressed prior to launch, however.

And yes, it’s still always sunny in iOS, I’m afraid.

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IOS 7 isn’t about today, it’s about tomorrow.

This is important to keep in mind while reading about iOS 7 in the coming months and while using it yourself beginning this fall. There might be a “7″ in the name of this software, but it’s really version 1 of Apple’s new vision for the future of mobile. This is the foundation, and Apple will look to build from here.

Not everyone will like iOS 7 right away. In fact, some people might never like the changes introduced in iOS 7, wishing instead that iOS could have stayed the same forever. Of course, we have all seen how well that worked out for Nokia, BlackBerry and Microsoft.

And the beauty of iOS, of course, is that regardless of how you feel about all of these changes — many of which are quite drastic — one of the main things that makes iOS so fantastic remains: There is still a massive ecosystem of great apps.

Third-party apps are the lifeblood of Apple’s mobile devices, and all your favorite apps will still exist on your device in iOS 7 as they do in iOS 6. Many of them will undergo some cosmetic changes as developers look to mirror iOS’s new design identity, but their core functionality will live on. Actually, many of them will get even better thanks to all of the new APIs Apple is making available to developers with iOS 7.

Beyond that, keep in mind as you read about iOS 7 in the coming weeks that Apple really rushed to get the first beta of iOS 7 out on time. Apple’s programmers and designers were in such a rush that they couldn’t even finish the iPad build in time for WWDC. The final version of iOS 7 that ships this coming fall will be quite different from early beta versions, and you can count on that.

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My biggest problem with iOS 7 is the same problem I had with iOS 6, which was the same problem I had with iOS 5: Apple’s mobile platform just isn’t getting any smarter.

A fear I had leading up to WWDC was that Apple might be spending all of its time and resources on a visual redesign, which could have meant exciting new features and important enhancements would be few and far between. Reality ended up being a bit less grim, but Apple certainly did not strike a balance between renovation and innovation. iOS 7 does include some important new functionality, of course, but the emphasis was clearly on design.

What meaningful, innovative functions can iOS 7 perform that iOS 6 could not?

Many Apple pundits keep making the same argument over and over again. Apple doesn’t have to innovate every year. Apple is the most profitable smartphone vendor in the world. The iPhone 5 is the best-selling smartphone on the planet. iOS gets better all the time. And so on. But how much longer will this argument work before people start to want more? How much longer will we be happy with the same core feature set underneath a few new functions borrowed from other platforms?

As I noted, iOS 7 is the beginning of the next chapter in the book of iOS. This is the foundation that Apple will build on in iOS 8 and beyond. And truly I hope Apple has some surprises in store for us — some real innovation — because based on what I’m hearing from well-placed sources at one of Apple’s biggest rivals, things are about to get pretty exciting in the smartphone industry over the next few years.


This article was originally published on BGR.com

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