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The iOS 7.1 Report: Getting Hung Up on Technicalities

On a site such as this, and on my syndicated tech radio show, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of living in a bubble. So the discussion about a mobile OS might be focused on tiny technicalities such as the color schemes and shading, and whether or not Apple should be using buttons or links, which most people really don’t care about.

Yet another example: Consider the reasons cited by some for favoring the Google Android platform. One is a far wider choice of handsets, a legitimate claim if the choices include products you’d like to buy, but aren’t being offered by Apple. Another is the extensive customization options, where you have more power to adjust the environment that suits your needs. But most people seldom stray past the default settings. Many of the custom settings in Android are quite granular, the consequences aren’t always clear to the end user, and the results are often of little practical value.

But we still talk about such things.

So with the original release of iOS 7, there were complaints about unfinished icons, visual effects that made people dizzy or nauseous and possible crashing issues with some iPhones. Certainly anything that impacts your comfort level is important, and Apple soon addressed the complaints by offering ways to reduce or eliminate the parallax view and other visual flourishes for those who didn’t like them. These are the settings that offer a real benefit for some people.

As to the rest: Yes, icons could have been improved. Fit and finish of iOS 7 was ragged, and the changes in iOS 7.1 have, by and large, been welcomed as a result. There are more choices in the Accessibility settings to improve — or alter — type faces, contrast and even restore buttons for those who find simple links inadequate. The downside of making choices that might polarize some people is the need to allow you to alter those choices if you like.

No matter what Apple might do, however, some people will find it inadequate. Their choices might not be yours, but there’s also the risk on getting so hung up on minor technicalities that you lose sight of the whole picture. Before you dissect every single element of the OS interface and underpinnings, consider whether or not it’s actually doing the job it was designed to do.

So does iOS 7 merely look different from iOS 6, or does it provide a superior experience? It’s fair to say that iOS 7.1 focused heavily on interface glitches and refinement, but there were notable feature improvements. Touch ID, for example, is now more reliable. There was this troubling symptom, one I had experienced, where the accuracy of Apple’s fingerprint sensor would deteriorate over time. After I installed iOS 7.1, accuracy improved noticeably, approaching the level that existed when I first set up my iPhone 5s.

The interface differences, impacting the shut-down switch, the Phone app and other functions, are different. Better? I suppose that’s debatable, although iOS 7.1 does impress as a tad more finished than the original iOS 7 release. Was that the result of addressing the shortcomings of a rushed release?

Now the normal customer, who doesn’t follow tech blogs and probably doesn’t listen to tech radio shows, won’t care about much of this. Problems with Touch ID, particularly involving inconsistent fingerprint recognition, are crystal clear. The same is true for chronic crashes with some apps or, in fact, anything that impairs the actual user experience. But other issues are probably not on their radar.

One positive change was to place the Touch ID & Passcode setting in a category by itself, rather than burying it under General, which essentially makes many settings almost invisible. This is one of those important usability issues, and it will encourage people who casually examine preferences to actually give it a try. It’s about discoverability, which is one key issue that makes iOS superior to Android.

Yet another issue that may seem subtle is that iOS 7.1 contained fixes for over two dozen security bugs. That’s beyond the separate SSL bug fix pushed ahead of 7.1 because the problem was so serious.

Now Apple’s critics made a huge deal of the SSL or “gotofail” bug, which made an iOS device or a Mac vulnerable to being taken over by hackers. But it’s not as if any large numbers of Apple customers — or any — were compromised. The security leaks fixed in iOS 7 .1 are more theoretical. Under some circumstances, they could create problems, but iOS users are still far safer than anyone running an Android handset or tablet.

You see, Google has yet to figure out a way to push critical security fixes to more than a few customers. Only a small percentage of users ever get the latest and greatest OS. Market penetration of Android 4.4 KitKat, released last fall, is still in the low single digits. In contrast, some 12% of iOS 7 users installed iOS 7.1 in the first 48 hours, meaning tens of millions of people.

With Android, the best approach is to install security software and cross your fingers. Google only cares about platform freedom, not security, or at least that’s what their people say. So maybe Android offers more handset choices, and more settings to pore over. But does that matter if the settings aren’t needed, and you’re on your own when it comes to protecting yourself from security threats?