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Early Observations of iOS 7

The critics said that the iOS had grown long in the tooth, that Android and perhaps Windows Phone had passed it by. So where’s Apple’s rebellious streak? Where is the change you can believe in? Has Apple indeed become yesterday’s news?

Well, it didn’t take long for the rumor sites to suggest that a total redo of iOS 7 was in the offing because design guru Sir Jonathan Ive was put in charge of software. When the presentation began at the WWDC, it was clear Apple had upset, well, the apple cart. Thin and understated are in, and shading and skeuomorphism are out.

The changes are up close and personal as soon as your iOS gadget boots up for the very first time with the new OS. Suddenly that thin and minimalist interface makes it crystal clear that this is not the iOS of old. After responding to a few setup assistant prompts, I was exposed to the full brunt of the interface, and for a moment I thought I was using a totally different product.

Now I’m talking about a third generation iPad here, not a new iPhone, although that’ll happen real soon now. So my wife and I had been accustomed to doing things a certain way. Indeed, when Barbara spent some face time with her newly upgraded iPad, she thought I had betrayed her somehow, but soon realized most everything worked the same way, even if buttons and other interface elements looked different.

Since it’s easy for the critics to point to how iOS 7 resembles the competition, I focused on the Control Center and even the stick figure artwork to see where and how Apple might have been influenced.

Certainly minimalist artwork is part of Windows 8, though done in a far more garish fashion, if you see the distinction. So my biggest criticism of the iOS 7 Control Center is that quick settings icons do not have labels. The comparable features in Android, in the Notification Center, sport clear lettering in case the purpose of an icon momentarily eludes you.

Under iOS 7 on that iPad, the only visible label is for AirPlay. Everything else is indicated strictly by an icon. It becomes white when a service is activated, and remains dark gray when it’s turned off. But audio playback and other toggle switches are also dark gray, and only become white momentarily when tapped. Now it’s also true that the icons are designed well enough so that the purpose ought to be clear at a quick glance, but labels would be nice.

Although most critics want to liken Control Center with the Android alternative, Apple offers a significant advantage. Android stuffs the service toggles into a crowded Notification Center, and it’s awfully easy to accidentally turn off a service with a wayward tap. By putting these settings in a separate pane, one that would be consulted for limited functions, the chance for error is sharply reduced. This is an area where Apple clearly understands how and why things should “just work,” and to allow for user error.

When it comes to performance, navigating through iOS 7 again demonstrates how Apple’s mobile gear works so much better than even the most powerful Android product. Understand that I’m not referring to the latest and greatest iPad, but the previous model. Yet scrolling and animations are smooth and fluid. When you scroll through a page, it’s a seamless process, and there’s not a trace of raggedness or thickening of the letters or artwork while in motion. When I do the same thing on the most powerful Android smartphone on the planet as of this past spring, the Samsung Galaxy S4, you do see that ragged effect, with an occasional stutter. It’s as if the hardware is fighting an unfinished and bloated OS to make things happen.

Despite all the new features, Apple clearly prizes simplicity and elegance. Although apps may have their own settings panes, you can get most things done direct from the Settings app. Going through all the options, which are expanding as more features are added, can be done in minutes. With Android, you may have to spend hours traveling through extensive system and app settings before you get things just right. Sometimes you wonder what Google’s OS team was thinking, such as the option to make lettering sharper. This is equivalent to the Windows ClearType feature, and it appears to have a similar result. On the iOS, no such setting is present or required. Why should getting the sharpest text require finding a well hidden setting and turning it on?

I realize we are talking of a point-zero release, and there’s already a 7.0.1 awaiting owners of the Phone 5c and iPhone 5s when they first set up their devices. So I expect things to go wrong from time to time, and I did get a few sudden quits when changing something in Settings. What’s more, I would also have preferred somewhat thicker and maybe darker lettering on some interface elements, since they aren’t quite as readable as they should be. I assume if enough people complain, Apple might make changes.

Right now, however, iOS 7 is working pretty much as advertised. The long-term battery impact of background updating and other enhanced multitasking features remains to be seen. Clearly battery life on the newly tested iPhones, however, seems very much in line with Apple’s claims based on the early reviews.

But I’ve just started writing this story, so stay tuned.