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  • iOS 7: Flat Means Cleaner

    June 4th, 2013

    In releasing an iPhone and iPad app for the forthcoming WWDC, Apple may be offering a front and center preview of the new “flatter” interface for iOS 7 touted in recent press speculations. At least if you can regard this new app as a harbinger of things to come very, very soon.

    By the way, I’ll ignore an alleged leaked image of an iOS 7 home screen for now.

    The WWDC app is available free from the App Store, but you won’t see all the features unless you sign in as a developer. But there are screen shots aplenty online, and I spent a short amount of face time with the app on a third generation iPad to see what has changed.

    Assuming this app represents Apple’s forthcoming direction in iOS, and I see little reason not to accept that as a high probability, you won’t be seeing flat tiles in the fashion of Windows 8. The changes are subtle. There are gradients within buttons as there were before, but the effect is subtler, classier. Icon labels appear to be more sharply defined. Where less is more, Apple appears to have succeeded admirably, and done so in a way that doesn’t alter the iOS user experience. That’s something Microsoft has yet to learn, and it may explain why there are now published reports that CEO Steve Ballmer is working on a major restructuring of the company. Well, better late than never.

    Returning to the iOS interface, some suggest the recently revised Podcasts app was another key example of how Apple will tone things down. Gone are the reel-to-reel tape effects, and in their place are simple controls to find, add and play your favorite shows. Maybe that was step one; the WWDC app continues the simplification process, but in smart way.

    This, of course, won’t be the first visual refresh for iOS, although it will likely be more drastic than before. For example, those controversial skeuomorphic elements, such as the ones you saw in Podcasts, Contacts, Calendar, and others, are expected to be history. Such designs may have made sense in the early days of the original Mac. Everything was new and different then, and iOS simply carried part of that tradition to mobile devices. But it’s time to move on.

    Curiously, and despite all the serious flaws, Microsoft also realized that it was time for traditional user interfaces, such as the one they “borrowed” from the Mac, to change in some fashion. Their approach, however, was schizophrenic, with one layer all new, and one layer based on the traditional Windows look and feel. No wonder customers are confused. At least Windows 8.1 will have an option to boot directly to the desktop to bypass the mess formerly known as Metro. This move may indeed be a last-ditch effort to attract a decent number of business customers.

    I also expect Apple to keep the changes in OS 10.9 relatively subtle in the scheme of things. As with iOS, you should be able to use a Mac the same way you always have, but the look and feel will be simpler and more consistent. It will probably not be near as drastic as some of the tech pundits are suggesting, and that is Apple’s way. It’s also a lesson well learned.

    Some of you no doubt recall when Apple bought Steve Jobs’ NeXT in 1996. The initial attempt to create a Mac user interface, Rhapsody, was demonstrated in 1997 and seemed more NeXT than Mac. Developers balked at having to seriously restructure their apps to support an unproven operating system.

    Apple’s compromise, Aqua, was a beautified version of the traditional Mac OS with some notable changes, such as the Dock. But it was still Mac-like, and there was a Classic feature that allowed you to run Mac OS 9 in its own application window, so you’d be able to use most of your existing apps until they were ported to OS X. To simplify the process, Apple came up with Carbon, a refined set of Mac APIs that made the migration process easier.

    In essentially redoing what became OS X, Apple learned a lesson that they cannot just throw out the tried and true when it came to user interfaces. They had to tread carefully. Even baby steps have consequences, and in the scheme of things, bringing over iOS features to Lion and Mountain Lion didn’t seriously alter the Mac look and feel. But such features as natural scrolling, and mouseover activated scrollbars remain controversial, although both features can be disabled in System Preferences.

    I am also eager to see how Apple presents the expected interface changes at the WWDC. Will they make a huge deal, or simply state that they have simplified the look and feel to make it easier for OS X and iOS users to get things done? There will still have to be loads of significant new features to make the upgrades worthwhile, although other companies would rest their laurels on the form, forgetting the substance.

    In any case, it is good to see that the WWDC app doesn’t make changes that alter iOS usability. A little can go a long way.



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