Apple

iOS 7 first look and first impressions

After a full generation of innovation and cutting-edge products, one could argue that Apple became so good at what they do that they gave themselves a Microsoft problem.

Huh?  For those who remember (or for those who weren’t around yet), let’s take a trip back to the Microsoft of the mid-90’s. Their products were widely considered the best in the industry by a wide margin; even their failures, at the time, were viewed through rose-colored glasses and forgiven. (Windows Millennium Edition immediately comes to mind.)

Gradually, they faced product pressure from two fronts: on one hand, an inability to continually drop groundbreaking innovations to their bread-winning products since they became so good and were so far ahead of any competitors, and on the other, a reluctance to stray too far from what works for fear of messing with the goose that laid its golden eggs. When you can’t keep bringing the lumber to your PC product and you don’t totally refocus to mobile out of worry for your business model and relationships, you get to where Microsoft is today; the king of a shrinking kingdom and an also-ran in the race that matters most. Stannis Baratheon, if you will. (minus the fire priestess)

Applying that narrative to Apple of today could come off as lazy, but parallels exist. Apple created the modern smartphone era, has ruled the space since their entry and set the pace for the industry through their forward-looking hardware and software update cadence, winning untouchable consumer confidence in the process.

Harkening back to the “Droid Does” campaign of 2009, all Android has done to chip away at Apple’s lead is to simply be everything Apple is not: a nearly 100%-open operating system and ecosystem with thousands of hardware styles from which to choose. Somewhat shrewdly, this approach recruited the hardware vendors—Motorola, HTC, Samsung, etc.—to play a part in the innovation of Android, as one could argue Apple is competing against Google’s update cadence, openness and mass adoption as they are Samsung’s marketing muscle and feature-gasm, as well as HTC’s hail-mary of industrial design.

Apple—now potentially in second place in the industry they kinda sorta created—faces its Microsoft problem. They can’t shake up their formula too much, as they might alienate their millions of passionate users that are already very familiar with how to use their product. On the other hand, they have to do something—some kind of step forward if they don’t want to be left behind.

Is iOS 7 big enough of a step forward to keep them marching in this multi-front war? Keep in mind, we’re looking at a beta version intended for developers. The final look may vary by this fall, when Apple will introduce the consumer-ready version. However, this beta provides us an early look at what position Apple’s position could be by that time, when I imagine they’ll announce a new iPhone and iPad to potentially address the hardware competition. With that, let’s begin.

Lock screen

Your first reaction: the font. It’s…different. Very.  And…slide to unlock? Where’s the little arrow telling me how to unlock? Apple now believes you’re smart enough to figure out this whole “mobile” thing on your own. And it’s so…clean! It’s so much less…boxy! Indeed—and these three concepts pervade every change in iOS 7, arguably having the biggest impact on the design approach Apple took in this update.

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A long-untouched piece of real estate—save for the addition of notifications—the lock screen earns a much-needed boost to its functionality. Look hard, and you’ll see nearly transparent arrows at the top-center and bottom-center. From the top, you can now access notifications from the lock screen, either representing a welcome addition to accessibility or a potential security risk, depending how you look at it.

From the bottom, a swipe-up—from the lock screen or anywhere in iOS 7—opens up the all-new Control Center, which we’ll tackle in a minute.

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Another welcome addition to the lock screen: you can now open directly to any notification on the lock screen by swiping it—whether it’s new or not—or simply unlock your phone to your last state by swiping at the bottom.

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Also, you get a new icon for when you plug in your charger. AMAZING, MAGIC!

Control Center

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In Control Center, Apple delivers functionality that will make many iOS users jump for joy, yet functionality that Android phones (and others) have enjoyed for quite some time.

Swiping up from the bottom of the screen at any time opens up Control Center, an easy-access spot to toggle many popular switches for your iPhone. Along the top, you can set to airplane mode, toggle Wi-fi, Bluetooth and Do Not Disturb, and lock your screen orientation into portrait mode. In the middle, you can toggle the brightness via a slider. Just beneath that lets you access music playback controls, be it from iTunes, Spotify or other playback apps with track control. Continuing south, you can quickly toggle your AirDrop discoverability settings—making you discoverable to everyone, just your contacts, or to no one at all—and also quickly enable AirPlay, streaming whatever content you’re playing to an AirPlay-compatible device if one is set up. Along the bottom, you can quickly turn on the flashlight, access the Clock app (for alarm clock, stopwatch, etc.), the calculator, and the camera.

The camera button is curious—it’s redundant, but also purposefully in the same exact spot that the camera has been quick-access-able on the lock screen for quite some time. Apple likely took the latter path, opting for usage continuity over packing more quick-access buttons into Control Center.

Everything here works as advertised. The flashlight is bright, and having quick access to brightness controls is just as wonderous as it sounds. It makes you wonder why such an idea didn’t make its way into iOS sooner.

One design nit here, which recurs throughout the OS. I’m surprised Apple opted to allow both circle icons and square icons in the same space, especially in such close proximity of each other. I think I get it—circles are for toggles and squares are for apps (save flashlight?)—but it’s very un-Apple to put so many differently shaped “things” into the consumer’s face at once. The combination of all the shapes, and words, and sliders, and text-free icons, and…if I didn’t tell you this screenshot came from an iPhone, it might just remind of you of Android.

OK, I get it, unlock the phone already

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The icons…they’re different! I’m first to admit that I’m not a design dynamo, nor will I ever be. I guess the above is what “flat icons” means. They look nice. (I really like new Safari icon.) But, let’s center our expectations here—they’re app icons. No one buys phones for app icons or a background parallax effect, and if Apple keeps pacing one design overhaul every 5 years, I’m sure some Android manufacturer (or Google itself) will introduce a similarly beautiful iconography soon, to join the litany of beautiful Android iconographies out there currently.

A few details:

  • When I handed the phone to a friend, his first reaction at the new icons: “they’re really bright colors.” The greens and blues and reds are undoubtedly sharper and “louder” in iOS 7. It makes the gray of the Camera icon look drab in comparison.
  • That said, I can’t tell if there’s any rhyme or reason to the coloring scheme for the app icons. Phone and messaging are “green,” while Mail is “blue” and Music is “red”…all good so far… but then, why are Photos and Game Center both white? And why didn’t Video change? That logo looks ancient in comparison.
  • The Photo app icon saw, by far, the biggest overhaul, getting a sort of colored-pinwheel adaptation. No problem with that. However, how and why did they decide on the Game Center icon? Even if anyone can explain how four bubbles makes anyone think of social gaming, I could see the average consumer quickly confusing the Game Center app with the Photos app. I know that sounds ridiculous to us technophiles, but I would be stunned if the final Game Center app icon looked like that.
  • And yes, the Newsroom icon is really how Folders currently look: a drab, gray box. I’d be similarly surprised if this were the final design for Folders.

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Worth noting: while the Setting app referred to Spotlight search, it could not be accessed on this beta build. It’s entirely possible that Apple is simply holding that till the consumer release.

Freshened up

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Unnoticed, undiscussed (or simply just un-demoed) at WWDC was the new keyboard for iOS 7. It works just fine; the biggest difference (at least in the beta) is jumping back to apps that won’t be making calls to this new keyboard likely until the consumer release of iOS 7 in the fall. After using the new keyboard, the traditional iOS keyboard looks positively ancient comparison—though I’m unsure if it’s simply because I’ve used it for so long and something new just feels…new.

That’s how I view many of the design changes within iOS 7: simply refreshed. This isn’t a bad thing—many of the core apps hadn’t been touched for years and were long overdue for a change of clothes. In some cases, a re-design may have come with the addition of a feature here or there, or even an update to animations (as you’ll see all throughout iOS, and something which my screenshots can do no justice).

The calendar is a great example: it certainly looks better, and I’m inclined to give it a chance simply based on how nice it looks, but I’m not sure it did anything to unseat Sunrise.

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love the “Collections” concept that debuts in the Photos app. As demoed on stage at WWDC, our on-phone photo galleries have been like endless scrolls pretty much since iPhone’s allowed us to take pictures. This concept works as advertised. You can sort, view and scroll through your photos organized by year or location. The introduction of any organization would have helped, but this was executed well.

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The camera app, in addition to its new filter feature (because what’s a camera these days without a filter), earned itself a little design refresh as well. I have a sneaking suspicion that the font within this app (and a few others) isn’t yet final; within a few places on the phone, the all-caps approach forces the iPhone to refer to itself as “IPHONE”—a self-inflicted misbranding hari-kari that I doubt Apple will commit.

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I’ll likely face disagreement over this one, but I bundle Safari and Mail into the same category. They both look clean and beautiful and simple as ever. However, Apple achieved this by merely adding look and functionality that other browsers and mail apps have showcased for quite some time. Crucially, Apple did little to unseat Google’s apps as my defaults for web browsing and mail. Further, mobile Safari faces the same challenge desktop Safari does: Chrome wins because if its hooks into my favorite services, not for a few milliseconds of performance. Until Safari can check that box, it won’t earn any more of my browsing time.

Multitasking

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My conversations with friends and folks in the industry led me to believe that Apple’s new approach to multitasking—at least from a looks and usability perspective—has raised a few eyebrows. It works very well, due in no small part to changes in how iOS handles background apps. It’s a breath of fresh air after years of the “shaky red x to close apps” that has been part of iOS since time immemorial. Best of all, this new multitasking mode lets the user see a small preview of what’s going in in the app, a nice adjustment favoring increased functionality.

And hey, the swipe-up-to-close is intuitive. It feels so familiar! In fact, I think I’ve seen this before

Sure, this is a mechanic that a now four-year-old OS first conceived, and has been aped by BlackBerry, now Apple, and who knows who else. It’s worth noting, as I mentioned during WWDC, that tech history has shown that the industry and consumers will forgive copying, as long as you do it better. It’s rich irony, however, that Apple—at one time, an aggressive defender of its IP and UX concepts—now revives the webOS zombie from the dead. I wonder if a) Palm/HP ever patented that mechanic, and if so, b) if it’s among the patents that HP recently sold to LG. If so, LG could have some beef.

App Store

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The App Store is one of several exceptions to the “freshened up” argument. In addition to a cleaner, white-based redesign, the App Store added a feature called “Near Me,” another wrinkle to address the ongoing challenge of new app discovery. Of course, without many other phones in the area having access to such data yet, we won’t see how well this feature works until iOS 7 is available to the general public.

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Another intriguing addition is the “Wish List,” which allows you to keep track of apps you’re interested in without buying them. Presumably, this will allow you to figure out where to spend your hard-earned coin or keep track of changes in pricing. It would be cool, eventually, to have the ability to share your Wish List with friends, Amazon style.

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At this point, it’s worth noting how Apple allows users to access some of these new features. Within the App Store, the three-rowed line in the upper-right hand corner of the screen shoots you directly to your Wish List. I can’t say for sure if that’s a design hint that Apple “borrowed” from Android directly—and even still, Apple is using it a bit differently—but in our own travels across Smartphoneland, we’ve seen this iconography and “extra functionality here” behavior before, which is why I presume Apple just went with what consumers know. But, again: we’ve seen this before.

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Confusingly, Apple applies this same three-lined icon elsewhere in iOS, but to mean different things. For example, within other places in iOS, the three-lined button informs the user that this line can be manually reordered by dragging the corresponding three-lined space:

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Again—I’m surprised that Apple would allow such an oversight, and to the average consumer, this dual behavior from the same icon could lead to confusion. Such UX ambiguity is unbecoming of Apple.

iTunes Radio

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There’s no other way to say it: the long-rumored implementation of an integrated music streaming service—called iTunes Radio—is simply fantastic, and puts the major players in this space in immediate check and potential jeopardy.

It works like how you imagine any media service from Apple should work: flawlessly executed and seamlessly integrated with iTunes. A user can choose from stations provided by Apple or create their own based on a favorite artist or genre. If you like that song, album or artist, one press of a button takes you to the corresponding area of iTunes (for a potential purchase, might I add). Music streaming was as fast as it needed to be. I can fast-forward tracks I don’t like (though not without limits) And best of all: this service is free.

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In its current form, iTunes Radio is more Pandora-killer than Spotify-killer, though it’s not far from the latter. Spotify still offers great value to power users that can pay less than $10 a month to save as many songs as they want for offline listening, without having to spend much more buying those songs individually. Spotify still does have maddening holes in its music lineup (you think Eddy Cue played Led Zeppelin by accident at WWDC?) but an argument can still be made for similar services.

Pandora, however, is in trouble. Functionally, iTunes Radio delivers exactly what Pandora has done so well for so long (if not 95% of it), and boasts tighter integration with Apple services. Further, Apple knows Pandora runs the roost in a very lucrative playground, of which Apple certainly wants a share of the pie.

Most disturbing to Pandora, however, should be section 10.2 of the Apple App Store approval guidelines, which says, “Apps that look similar to apps bundled on the iPhone, including the App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore, will be rejected.” Pandora now faces a crushing decision: when they update their app to take advantage of all the new guidelines of iOS 7, they will be reviewed with this lens (and almost certainly, Apple will be waiting for their re-submission). If Apple finds them in violation of this guideline, they will be removed from the App Store entirely. If they choose to not update their app with all the goodies of iOS 7, they will look decidedly old and clunky in comparison to iTunes Radio and will be left a “zombie app,” never again to be updated for fear of being thrown out.

Summary

Consider this a speed-walk through a beta product; there’s a ton I did not address in depth and I expect quite a bit to change/be added by the fall. However, this beta provides excellent context to consider Apple’s approach to its competition. As such, we have three, equally critical directions from which to judge iOS 7.

iOS 7 vs. iOS 6: Though beautiful and a drastic design departure from previous generations, iOS 7 is largely an iterative update over its predecessor. Aside from AirDrop and iTunes Radio—which has killer potential—there won’t be many feature additions that will make people chomp at the bit for how it will change their lives. I also believe voice-only FaceTime could be a gigantic move against companies like Facebook that offer voice-only calls.

Here’s a question: how is Apple going to accelerate adoption of Passbook, a service with massive potential that’s little more than an afterthought now?  Passbook was billed as a game-changing addition to iOS 6—added, if you’ll recall, during the height of the Google Wallet craze—but was left completely unmentioned during WWDC. At this point, you have to wonder about the future of Passbook, which thus far has been a huge missed opportunity.

It’s those kinds of innovations–or the lack thereof–that has left iOS and Apple in the position they’re currently in. The mobile consumer has now been through two, possibly three, smartphone upgrades in their lifetime. They saw Apple lay the smartphone industry to waste when they jumped to the iPhone 3G, and again when they advanced from iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4. The introduction of the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 may have been neat, but golf-clap worthy compared to the previous two examples. You have to wonder if the innovation curves for iOS and iPhone are flattening out.

iOS 7 vs. Android: I can’t count many scenarios that would make any consumer choose iOS over Android if they weren’t already. If you’re the rare iTunes user with an Android phone, then iTunes Radio could be a compelling reason to go all-in with iOS and ditch your other music services. Other than that, what did Apple add to iOS 7 that a consumer can’t get elsewhere? I can perform voice-over-Internet calls with many other services, including Facebook and Google, which both have large user adoption. I can filter photos with, gosh, nearly every photo-taking app on Android (and iOS, for that matter). Android users have long enjoyed more robust app discovery options than iOS, and many Android power users likely scoff at Apple’s addition of “Popular Near Me” as a means to better compete in discovery. iOS in the Car is an extremely exciting addition, but like Passbook, one that relies on other companies to integrate—in a space where Ford (and even Microsoft) enjoy years of head start. And heck, you could argue Control Center is a direct lift from select Android devices. More troubling for iOS, many Android phones now have access to services like Siri, that in some cases are more powerful and flexible.

Combine that with the Android fanboy fodder (and heck, even Windows Phone and webOS) for, at best, using their OS as inspiration, and at worst, straight-up lifting design cues and functionality, and the argument for iOS becomes more difficult.

Put simply, the wins for iOS are getting fewer and fewer. The feature offering for iOS 7 and an iPhone 5 now looks particularly shallow when compared with the over-featured Samsung Galaxy S4.  It’s possible that some of these differentiators could swing back Apple’s way with a new iPhone, but considering we’ve yet to see Apple’s “evolutionary” refresh to the iPhone 5, it would be surprising for Apple to simply jump up to an iPhone 6.

iOS 7, in a vacuum: If you could design iOS from scratch, and better adjust its design and usability to completely fit today’s smartphone user, would the result be iOS 7? At one time, iPhone’s and iOS had no comparison; it worked really well, looked beautiful and no one was even close, so it was easy to imagine that “this is how it should be”. That’s obviously no longer the case. Is today’s user more drawn to rich photos on their homescreen rather than icons, like with the HTC One? Or perhaps they want huge text with an oversized OS that takes a “flow” approach to usability versus icons? (yes, some people really do love Windows Phone 8.)

The answer, obviously, varies from person to person. However, I can’t stop asking myself if iOS 7 is merely window dressing on an OS designed for 2008. It clearly still works; hundreds of millions of people around the world use it every day and love it, and it does many things well. That said, consider how drastically Samsung and HTC have evolved their design philosophies since Gingerbread; since the big, orange background of HTC Sense. When you look at it that way, the overall delivery of iOS 7 hasn’t changed that much from the early days of iOS, and you could argue that what did change in iOS was inspired (to put it kindly) in part by what Samsung and HTC have done so well.

With even more Android super-phones on the horizon, like the long-rumored Motorola X-Phone, few would be surprised if Android continues to deliver haymakers to Apple in the coming months. That would leave Apple in a precarious position: how do you keep innovating without completely forsaking what got you there?

Perhaps Tim Cook should call Steve Ballmer to learn from his own mistakes.

 

 

  • Caleb

    Great article, Andy. A very sensible and timely first look. The once-ironclad power design and user-friendliness Apple brought to the market in the late 2000s has finally started to taper, and these days, it seems the company will find itself having to turn off cruise control and actually compete. Yes, Apple will always be a top competitor in the cut-throat mobile market, but you’re right when you pose the question of, “what’s next?” Because they don’t have it yet. But hey, you know what happens to innovative companies that feel threatened? They innovate. So, I’m recommending Apple design and build the first flying car…that folds up into an iPhone.

  • http://www.cutegeek.com Michael

    Apple is the one playing catchup now.

  • http://www.techpolitik.com/ Ed Oswald

    Great piece Andy. That background on the new lock screen looks stunning. Here’s the other thing I notice.. the flatter icons bring out the background more. Really does give iOS 7 a 3D look almost, which was one of the concepts I believe Jony Ive was after. No doubt this will get better with future releases. It’s a good start to get Apple caught up with its competitors.