So let me get this straight. Before Apple demonstrated iOS 7, the pundits complained that little or nothing had changed in the past six years. It looked the same, after all, and Apple must make serious changes. Of course, hundreds and hundreds of new features were added, but some people don’t want to be bothered with facts. While Google and Microsoft had made major changes to their mobile interfaces, Apple was too conservative. I suppose keeping things simple and predictable has its detractors.
When possible preliminary artwork for iOS 7 appeared online, some suggested Apple was more or less imitating the flat tile motif of Windows 8. But they really didn’t know what to think.
The reality does have flatter artwork, but it’s definitely not a flat look. By clever use of translucency, layers and parallax, you have the feeling of looking at a 3D image, with differing levels of activity when you tilt the device. Wallpaper becomes alive, the Weather app delivers a video loop illustrating the conditions in the city of your choosing. Lots of things are going on, and to think it’s all so simple ignores the obvious.
But that doesn’t stop some critics from suggesting the buttons, icons, or whatever, aren’t distinct enough so you know what to tap. That reaction, from one commentator of curious credentials, comes across as downright absurd. It’s clear Apple didn’t try to emulate Microsoft. But that’s not sufficient. What about the features that Apple “cribbed” from the competition?
So we have the Control Center, which gives you a slide-up display of a small number of frequently used settings, apps and what-not. Want to turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to conserve battery life? It’s a couple of taps away. But Control Center is far better than the Android alternative, which also puts the buttons on the Notification Center panel. For one thing, it’s not so easy to tap the wrong function by mistake and suddenly find yourself without a Bluetooth connection in your car, or using your wireless carrier’s data plan rather than the nearby Wi-Fi router. Can’t happen? It happens to me on a Samsung Galaxy S4, and I’m sure I’m not alone. So Apple appears to have taken the right direction here, though I await real experience with the update to say for sure.
One thing Apple does provide is predictability and elegance. If you already know the iOS, you won’t find yourself having much to relearn with iOS 7. Left to right and upward swipes shouldn’t confuse many people. Despite the changed OS theme and new functions, most everything works as it did before. Only better, it seems.
I’m particularly impressed with the way Apple will manage multitasking. On Android, it just happens, and apps will, from time to time, steal so much CPU power as to slow things to a crawl, and battery life will suffer severely. Android handset makers get around system bloat and inefficiency with an axe. More powerful handsets, with larger batteries so they hold out longer without giving out. These days, Google is fretting over fragmentation, the fact that only about a third of users of the platform are running recent versions of Android, and some have versions dating back to 2010. What about security updates? If the handset maker and wireless carrier say no, you’re out of luck unless you jailbreak the device and do it yourself.
With iOS 7, it will work with an iPhone 4, circa 2010, a second generation iPad, along with recent versions of the iPod touch. Hundreds of millions of Apple customers will be able to install iOS 7 on the day of its release, without having to jailbreak their gear or pray their carrier will push the update.
I notice, however, that Apple said very little about Maps during the WWDC keynote, though there are improvements that extend beyond greater accuracy. There’s a pedestrian turn-by-turn alternative, for those who prefer to walk, and a new way to deliver a nighttime interface. But still nothing about public transit. For now, it appears that Apple will rely on third-party apps, although I suppose that could change between now and the promised fall release.
If there’s a potential downside, it’s one that any huge interface change is apt to cause, and that’s the impact to developers. According to published reports, Apple has devised some 1,500 new APIs for iOS 7, which means lots of potential for developers to make their apps work better in the new environment. But it also means a lot of work may be required to bring their apps in line. I wonder, for example, how much of the new look is simply inherited, and how much must be crafted within an app.
And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Apple has done a few things that step on the toes of some third-party developers, which is nothing new. Do you really, for example, need Instagram now that Apple has added some default special effect filters to the Camera app? How will iTunes Radio impact its most direct competitor, Pandora? What about all those little flashlight apps that appeared when the App Store debuted in 2008?
One thing is sure: Apple’s critics will have a field day blaming Apple for harming developers, taking eye candy too far and, of course, stealing features from other platforms. But the real success of iOS 7 will depend on the sum of the parts, and that’s where Apple does their best work.