A new beginning, yet rooted in the past
When Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage to announce the next generation in iOS at WWDC this summer, I was nervous. Rumors had been swirling for months – quite literally months, if not a year – that Apple was working on the biggest change to hit the iPhone since its inception. iOS 7 would be new, the rumors said – gone would be the skeuomorphism that infested modern incarnations of Apple’s software; the wooden bookshelves, the fine Corinthian leather, the drop shadows – and in would come the flat user interface, the heavy use of whites, the loss of virtual “depth”.
But from the second Tim Cook played that Jony Ive video that accompanies the announcement of any major Apple product these days to introduce iOS 7, I was taken aback. It was an odd feeling – even though we knew almost exactly what Apple was going to be introducing with iOS 7, it was clear that none of the rumors had prepared me for what Apple was actually unveiling.
Read more to check out our full review of iOS 7. You won’t want to miss this.
Let’s get this out of the way now – iOS 7 is a radical departure from any previous version of iOS. It feels new, it feels fresh – more playful, yet also more serious. But what iOS 7 is not is a radical rethinking of the way Apple approached mobile platforms. For all that’s new in iOS 7, there are a million more things that have stayed the same, laying continuously dormant. Apple has essentially created a newer, more simplistic take on the iOS that millions of users already know and use every single day. They have created something obviously different, yet intrinsically the same all at once. And so, to properly review iOS 7, we need to focus our attention on the one thing that makes iOS 7 truly different – we need to focus on its design.
If there’s one thing that iOS 7 is successful at, its creating controversy and passionate debate. Until now, Apple’s mobile software team – lead by Scott Forstall, the man responsible for previous versions of iOS (yes, including Apple Maps), Apple’s software philosophy has been to create a digital representation of a physical object. Contacts looked and felt like a real life contact book, Podcasts like an old fashioned tape reel – the Dock a highly reflective “table” that commonly used applications are placed on, Notification Center alerts etched on linen.
iOS 7 is, if nothing else, a complete departure from that long held design philosophy of the company- of which it was rumored that Steve Jobs was a personal fan. It removes every single imitation of a physical object, and replaces them with a design that authentic to the digital medium. Contacts no longer imitates a physical contact book, instead it represents the idea of what a digital contact book should look like.
That general trend can be seen throughout the entirety of the operating system. One of the most egregious examples of skeuomorphism, or the digital imitation of physical objects, has always been Newsstand, a ridiculous looking representation of a wooden bookshelf that just made itself at home in the middle of your iOS devices’ homescreen. In iOS 7, Apple has stripped Newsstand to its absolute basics, removing the wooden textures for a clean alternating solid white/light blue pattern. It’s minimal, it’s authentic, and it undoubtably works better than the old iOS design philosophy did.
Unfortunately, there are some rough spots in the new design as well, things that I fully expect that Apple will polish in iOS 7.1 and beyond. The internet seems to agree that the new icon set is the biggest source of inconsistency and poor design in iOS 7, and I tend to agree. Apple has redesigned all of the icons for their built in applications to match the new “authentically digital” design. While they’ve taken the spirit of the older icon set, some of the original messages have seemingly gotten lost in translation. The Weather app, for example, is a beautiful minimalist approach respectful of the old iOS 6 app icon, while the Safari icon is an outright hideous bastardization of the vastly superior old icon. Worse yet is the Game Center icon, which is if not merely awful then a confused mess of colors with no distinguishable meaning.
Another beautiful example of iOS 7’s design is the built in Weather app. Gone is the glossy, oddly designed Weather app of iOS 6 and prior that was originally inspired by Apple’s Weather widget introduced in OS X 10.4 Tiger. In comes a vibrant new design that takes advantage of the new digitally authentic philosophy, rendering a beautiful, dynamic background that’s obviously visually representative of the current weather conditions. Is it night time and snowing outside right now? The background of the weather app will show a snowstorm at night. Is it lightly showering in the middle of the day? A gentle rain will fall over an accurately colored sky. Thunderstorms? Lightning and thunder will fill the darkly cloudy sky. And the combinations just go on, and on, and on, and they’re really beautiful to behold in a way that no other Apple-designed application has been ever before.
But with every good is a bad. Weather may be beautiful, but pages in Safari are suddenly unwieldy and, frankly, unattractive to look at. Apple has removed the “cards” metaphor that they’ve used in Safari for iOS since the days of the original iPhone and have replaced it with a confusing stacked paper design that looks just as out of place on iOS 7 as Weather looks at home.
One of the biggest changes in the design of iOS 7 is also hugely ironic. While the rumor sites screamed the word “flat” from the rooftops, and though iOS 7 is technically “flat” – it also has an enormous amount of depth; far, far more than previous versions of iOS, and even more than competitors Windows Phone 8 or Android. How can this be? Well, Apple made a conscious decision by changing various design elements to be slightly transparent and “glass”, very similar to what Microsoft did with Aero in Windows Vista and Windows 7. The idea behind that is that though the individual UI designs are flat, the actual UI itself consists of many layers. An app runs as a layer on top of the home screen, which remains visible when you switch pages on Safari. And Notification Center is now a layer on top of the previous two layers. And all of that lies on the home screen’s background, which is now considered a layer of its own, as evident by the use of a subtle parallax effect in which icons actually subtly move in contrast to the background image when you move the phone. It’s a nice touch, and a great way to bring a sense of hierarchy and organization to iOS that it was desperately missing before.
At the end of the day, iOS 7 is a beautiful, relevant, and needed upgrade to Apple’s aging mobile operating system. It brings the design of iOS back up to par with the competition, and though there are a few missteps – some of which are hard to forgive, like Safari’s icon – it’s enough to make you fall in love with your iPhone all over again.
By far the biggest improvement comes in the form of what Apple’s calling Control Center. The concept is simple – in previous versions of iOS, it took far too many clicks to make simple changes to some commonly used settings. In iOS 6, it would take exactly three clicks to turn off Wi-Fi; with Control Center, all you need to do is swipe up from the bottom of the screen no matter what app you’re using and click the Wi-Fi button – one click. Want to change your brightness? Swipe up from Control Center and move the brightness slider. Music controls, shortcuts to commonly used utilities, and Do Not Disturb settings have also moved to Control Center which adds to its convenience. When you finally get into the habit of using Control Center, it’ll almost seem impossible that you ever used an iOS device without it – it is an absolutely essential part of the iOS 7 user experience.
Multitasking is also improved, though not in a totally radical fashion. In prior versions of iOS, double pressing the home button would bring up a small multitasking “slider” at the bottom of the screen with a list of icons representative of your most recent applications. It was okay, I guess, though never an exceptional way to multitask – competitors’ implementations, especially WebOS’s, has always been vastly superior. And that’s why I’m so happy that Apple has essentially ripped the way multitasking works straight from WebOS. Double tap the home button for a screenshot of all of your recent applications. Want to quit a running application or clear it from the list? Place your finger on the screenshot and swipe up. Simple, easy, and vastly superior to the old method.
AirDrop, which was first implemented on OS X just a year ago, also makes its way to iOS with iOS 7. It works similarly to how it works on OS X – click the share button on the media you want to share, enable AirDrop, and poof. It’ll instantly be sent to any AirDrop supported devices on your Wi-Fi network, though I can imagine this won’t be something those of you who spend a lot of time in public places will be using all too much.
iTunes Radio also makes its debut in iOS 7. The rumors were, predictably, all true – iTunes Radio essentially acts as nothing more than Apple’s version of Pandora, built right into your iOS’s music app. It works as you would expect – tell iTunes Radio what you want your music station to play by putting in a similar artist, genre, song, or album, and iTunes Radio will do the rest. It’s free with iAds to basic users, and free of iAds to those ten of you who actually pay for iTunes Match.
There are a whole host other, little things too. Camera gets an addition in the form of “Square” mode, which essentially is just an easy way to frame your Instagram shots. A whole series of pretty decent filters are also now built right into Camera, a handy addition for all of you amateur photographers. Siri has gotten smarter and can now launch applications as well as search Twitter and Wikipedia directly, though I’ve found that the service remains fairly buggy and unreliable if you need information in a snap; she’s also got a new voice, sounding infinitely more natural and essentially up to par to Android’s Google Now voice, which is a very, very good thing.
Other things that should have been changed frustratingly remain the same. The App Store is still a giant pain in the behind to search, while notifications function in the same inconsistent and poor manner as before. Though Spotlight search has moved, now requiring a swipe down on the home screen to access, it still remains fairly slow on my not too horribly old iPhone 4S and not-yet-year-old iPad mini.
iOS 7 is the culmination of seven years of iteration; it’s got a brand new design without sacrificing what made it “feel” like iOS. In many ways, that’s a good thing – though you may be confused at first glance when you find that your Messages app no longer looks like the old Messages app, you’ll be relieved to know it still works exactly the same way.
But really, that’s iOS 7’s biggest downfall more than anything. Though trying to appear fresh and new, there’s still so much that feels stale and old – so many little ways things could be changed or improved, things that Apple has been more than happy to ignore for the sake of an all new “flat-yet-layered” design.
Does that mean iOS 7 is great, or disappointing? Neither really, yet both at the same time. The redesign is superb and beautiful – mostly – though the lack of attention to minor functionality details can really only be accurately described as disappointing. Still, iOS 7 is absolutely the future of one of the world’s most popular mobile operating systems, and it’s a future that will only get better and brighter now that the big redesign is out of the way. Apple, bring on the updates.