The big announcement at Apple’s 2013 World Wide Developer Conference was the brand new iOS 7, whose look and feel are the largest changes to the iOS since the original iPhone was released in 2007. Apple has a great page about it http://www.apple.com/ios/ios7/ with a lot of screenshots, videos, and explanations of the features. iOS 7 has been re-themed and re-thought to incorporate what is called “flat design”. It essentially strips away the majority of the extra visual noise to focus on the data and tasks at hand. Flat Design has been popularized by Windows Phone and Android and now it is coming to iOS. iOS 7 says goodbye to textures, gloss, and drop shadows and says hello to blocks, monochromatic color schemes, and layered elements.
I’ve been using iOS 7 for about two weeks now on my primary phone and overall I like it. The look is certainly fresh and exciting. It’s very different but somehow familiar. The majority of the original structure of the OS – navigation, interaction concepts, organization – remains, but it has been visually redesigned and enhanced. The opinion of the internet was originally toward one of two extremes: it is a trashy redesign that looks like Android or it is the savior of a dying platform. Opinions have started to recede from the extremes and are now settling somewhere in the middle. I am firmly in that realistic down-to-earth camp. I realize what Apple is doing here. It isn’t just putting on a new coat of paint for the sake of freshness (though many argue that iOS looks dated in comparison with other platforms), it is also changing behavior in an effort to improve the user experience. I also realize that it isn’t inventing many new interface concepts – the majority of these have already been tried on other platforms such as Android, Blackberry OS, Windows Phone, and Web OS. Finally I realize that iOS 7 is still a work in progress. Jony Ive has been in charge of the software design team for less than a year. A year is a very short period to add new functionality to an operating system let alone redesign the entire UI and major applications.
According “the internet”, iOS 7 is still undergoing heavy development and its interface will change. There were rumors prior to its announcement that it was slightly behind schedule and had to take resources from the Mac OS 10.9 team in order to be ready on time for WWDC. I think that is very likely given the scope of the work. Apple cannot simply change the look of the OS, they also have to enhance the feature set as well and that is a lot of work. The team most likely had to cut some scope in order to meet the WWDC deadline, focusing on making sure that the APIs were stable for developers instead of adding whiz-bang UI features. It’s a lot less disruptive to change some icons or interactions of the UI than it is to change APIs that a ton of developers have already spent time learning and implementing.
Due to the reasons above I fully expect iOS 7 to change and improve with each beta and that excites me. The last few releases of iOS have been relatively stable feature-wise and didn’t see many changes during the beta cycle. What was announced at WWDC was basically what shipped in the final release with only minor tweaks. That differs from the development cycle of say iOS 4 where the sheer number of new features required multiple changes during the betas making them very interesting to install. Every beta was a gift packed with new gems for me to uncover. I expect iOS 7 to be the same. There are just so many new interactions, so many redesigned apps, and so many new features that they will not be perfect out of the gate – they will need refinement. There will probably even be functionality that won’t be ready for the final release and will get lumped into a 7.1 and even a 7.2 release with noticeable changes.
That being said, I feel that the first beta of iOS 7 is a pretty good one. It certainly exhibits typical beta issues including performance problems, app issues, graphical glitches, broken functionality, and random reboots but it is remarkably solid for the amount of change that it includes. Some of its beta behavior plagued production releases of other mobile operating systems for years. The brand new UI brings a new element to the beta cycle: unrefined experiences. By the time Apple introduced the iOS beta program the design of the UI had been complete for a year. Developers did not get to see Apple build new experiences and refine them. iOS 7 is different because its UI is new. Some of the new buttons, layouts, and user interactions are just rough. Buttons are too small or too close to other objects on the screen, text is not readable on top of certain backgrounds, UI elements are hard to trigger or don’t work well. These are the most exciting to me because I know they will change and improve throughout the cycle and I’ll get to notice and appreciate them.
iOS 7 will be a big deal for a lot of people when it ships this fall. Unlike previous versions where it was often hard to tell the difference between the outgoing version and the latest and greatest, iOS 7 will be very very noticeable. Apple has made a lot of progress but there is a lot more work to do. I’m looking forward to discovering even more new features as the beta cycle continues. It’s an exciting time for iOS.