Another year, another WWDC, another iOS beta to inadvisedly install on my only iPhone. If people were upset last year by a relatively moderate set of updates in iOS 6, they will need to find a new point of angst this year. Here’s where I discuss the publicly acknowledged features in iOS 7 and how they’ve affected my day-to-day with my phone over the past week.
It’s difficult to weigh many of these changes objectively. We’re currently used to a polished, time-tested iteration of iOS that has earned a great deal of love from users and developers. Any updates to our phone can be jarring, and many of them won’t show their true colors for many weeks yet. It also should go without saying that this is a very early beta, and the experience is bound to improve before release. It’s important to view the comments here with that perspective.
Apple is presenting iOS 7 as an update that furthers their efforts to make content the top priority. It’s important to remember this isn’t a new goal. Apple has always been in pursuit of elevating content above interface in iOS. Even from the 2007 iPhone keynote there was language lauding your email, music, contacts, and photos. Letting the phone, apps, and controls get out of your way when they aren’t necessary has been a constant aim.
Many new interface elements including status, navigation, tab, and tool bars have a default appearance of translucency that blurs the content behind, giving them an appearance like frosted glass. The translucency is intended to let content show through. It gives a sense that the content is the foundation of the app, and the controls are just a layer resting above. The blur is more of a technical necessity, it brings contrast between the controls and the content that would otherwise conflict visually. This is a beautiful effect, but one that seems to be making people nervous.
Navigation and tab bars in particular are a common point of customization for apps, and many find it worrisome that to hold with the translucent aesthetic, apps will need to give up their personality. However, standard controls have existed since the beginning of the App Store, and so have the tools to circumvent them. Apps can stray from the standard look and feel in whatever way they feel suits them, and many have in the past to great effect. It’s up to developers to determine what is suitable for their users, and I’m excited to see where people find it necessary to break the mold.
Parallax has been implemented in a few places to bring more dimensionality. Most notably, the home screen background, icons, and badges pan as you tilt the phone to give the illusion of depth. I’ve been warming up to the effect, but initially it felt gimmicky. One redeeming quality is that your background image is no longer doomed to have sections permanently covered by static icons. Tilting your phone lets you see behind them, and view more of your wallpaper.
Buttons don’t quite look like they used to. Instead of borders, bevels, and shadows, now color is the cue for items being tappable. This is one of the biggest visual changes, but the reasoning is clear. We all get it, it’s a touch screen OS, we can tap on things, and they don’t need to be polished like a glass capsule to get the point across. Color has been identifying links on the web for ages, and that makes this a pretty natural change. It’s not a naive implementation either. For instance, the navigation links in an app which may appear blue when they are active, automatically desaturate when a modal view appears indicating they can’t currently be selected. Again, many are worried how this will negatively affect the personality of apps, but I’m convinced developers will find other ways to add character.
On top of the gesture to bring down Notification Center, iOS 7 adds a gesture for Control Center, Spotlight, and a standard back button gesture by swiping in from the left edge of the screen. This is a clear win as it’s keyed against the back button in a navigation bar, and makes going back and forth significantly easier one-handed. This is especially true if your thumb has a hard time reaching that top-left corner on the 4-inch screen.
The new lock screen is much more understated. It has a crystal clear full-screen shot of your wallpaper, covered only by a few subtle indicators. It is far less heavy handed than the previous iterations, with no chrome or gloss. However, depending on your choice of wallpaper, it can become difficult to read the time. If your iPhone is your most frequently used clock, you’ll need to choose your wallpaper carefully. If you have any unread notifications, the entire background gets the new frosted glass treatment, and greatly improves text legibility. It’s nice to have some full Notification Center and Control Center access here, and you can conditionally control whether these show up when your phone is locked so this doesn’t become a privacy concern.
Great typography has been a mainstay of Apple products since the first Mac, and it has clearly been a big focus of iOS 7. Along with a general trend for lightness across the board, the system font has lost some weight as well. It seemed too light at first, but after a few days it really starts to give an impression of clarity. Additionally, kerning and ligatures have been enabled in standard text controls. There are also more options for users to select text size, weight, and contrast that work throughout the system, and any apps that wish to utilize them.
Apple’s apps have a completely new set of icons. They are slightly larger than before, and the corners on the rounded rect are a little more round. The grid behind the icons is a good concept, but as a whole, they seem to be missing a unity that used to exist in the shading, imagery, and yes, even the gloss of the old icons. It looks like the icon grid and a color palette were tossed to a dozen different designers and they were asked to recreate individual app icons behind closed doors without peer interaction. The result is an icon set that looks scattered, divided, leaderless. The sentiment is that surely some of these will change before the public release. We can only hope.
Messages has a very fluid feel, mostly due to the content bubbles sliding into position when scrolling. This is a little disconcerting, and I’ve even heard complaints of motion sickness from a few people after letting them try it out. Hopefully, this is an option if it makes it to the public release.
The ‘Edit’ button in the top right has been replaced with a ‘Contact’ button giving quick access to the contact from the current thread should you need to call or email them. Consequently, selecting one or more messages for deleting or sharing now requires a long tap on a message and selection of the ‘More…’ button, which is quite a bit more cumbersome.
The Mail app feels a lot nicer, though I’m not sure what to credit that with given the features and UI seem to have changed very little. One new feature I have noticed, when setting the recipient to someone from work, my ‘from’ address is automatically updated to my work account. This is a welcome change for someone who mixes this up on a weekly basis.
Now a pageable, 3 by 3 grid, this change makes folders look smaller at first despite the ability to hold far more apps. The smaller grid is nice in that it improves spatiality, giving the folder icon one-to-one correspondence with its appearance when opened. I still think “folders” are a strange concept in iOS given the lack of the rest of the desktop metaphor, but their value on the homescreen is hard to argue. I do wish they would open more quickly though.
Once the most glaringly bad example of skeuomorphism gone wrong in iOS, Game Center’s new look is still playful without the heavy handed approach of a Vegas game table. With very little changes in actual interface and features, it’s cool to see how much better of an impression the app leaves with just a visual overhaul. It’s as though they scraped layers of old chipped paint off a fine mahogany desk and replaced them with a nice clear varnish. The app itself, its features and functionality, show through right at the surface.
The big change here is the new ‘Today’ view which gives a summary of calendar events, reminders, weather, stocks and traffic info. It’s a more valuable slice of data than the weather and stocks widgets it’s replacing. Although, it can skew a little personal depending what you have in your calendar, and I imagine a fair number of people excluding it from their lock screen. There is also a new tab to toggle “all” notifications versus “missed” notifications, but as of yet, it’s unclear to me what differentiates the two.
The subject of approximately 2 million mockups, iOS finally has fast access to a long list of common settings and shortcuts on your phone: Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, Orientation Lock, Music controls, AirDrop, AirPlay, flashlight, Clock, Calculator, and Camera. This will undeniably be the favorite addition to iOS 7 for many people. It’s one of the oldest remaining unaddressed complaints about iOS, and it’s very satisfying to have so many important options close at hand.
The new UI for app switching is another one we’ve seen in designer mockups, jailbreak hacks, and other mobile operating systems. Basically, the old multitasking tray has grown up. A screenshot of the last view seen from an app is displayed above the icon, and a upward swipe gesture quits an app without the need to enter jiggle mode.
This could be a valuable feature for you if, like me, your Wi-Fi is often stronger than your cellular signal. I tested a call to another iOS 7 tester and it worked as expected. Audio was surprisingly clear, far better than a regular FaceTime call with video. It was better even than a well-connected cellular call. Already having free mobile to mobile minutes, this won’t affect me too much, but it could definitely let some users lighten up their rate plan. Down the road, this feature could also enable more teenagers to get by with an iPod touch, and prevent their parents from adding them to an expensive contract. We just need an iPod with a built-in ear speaker.
Apple knows we don’t want to see a notification on 3 devices, any more than we want to have 3 people remind us to put a cover sheet on our TPS reports. Unfortunately, this feature has had no impact on me so far, because my phone is the only device that supports it presently. However, as someone within 3 feet of 4 Apple devices for hours a day, here’s to hoping Apple gets this right.
The smart search field is a great feature enabled by what appears to be a new or altered keyboard type. It has both a spacebar (more like a space button given its size) and a .com button. My assumption is that the separate keyboards is what kept this feature from happening sooner, though truth be told, it wasn’t in desktop Safari until recently either.
Safari is also sporting a new tab UI without the 9 tab limitation. It has a vertical scrolling set of page thumbnails that feels a lot like coverflow, but it does in fact make it quicker to scroll through tabs. Also, on top of the system wide back gesture being mapped to the back browser action, a swipe in from the right side is mapped to forward as well.
The new camera has quite a few changes. Square and panorama join photo and video as new modes. Switching between modes is a little difficult because they are small, but tapping on them is a easier than swiping. Live filters have been added for the photo/square modes, an obvious play into the trend of photo filters apps led mostly today by Instagram. But the filters are tasteful, and subtle when compared to what’s out there. Otherwise, the changes here aren’t too drastic functionally, and the Camera app is still the first place I go to take a photo I’m not immediately planning to share to Instagram.
The photos app has a new view that breaks down images into years, collections, and moments, utilizing location and time stamp information to group photos into logical sets. This has been a feature of iPhoto on Mac for quite sometime, and works surprisingly well to improve browsing your library. Any type of automatic organization that works may as well be magic, and this feels like magic. Similarly to the Calendar app allowing you to visually track a date as you drill from the yearly into the weekly view, the new photos view let’s you see the photo thumbnails animate smoothly from their spot in the yearly view, all the way down to the moment view. This goes a long way in reinforcing the theme of maintaining context that iOS 7 is trying to foster.
Your digital assistant has a little more power this time around, and while it’s not earth shattering, Siri keeps marching in the right direction. There’s a sense that in a few years we’ll wake up, and Siri will be able to answer just about anything we ask it. The biggest win here are tie-ins to device capabilities like “turn on bluetooth” or “increase brightness” that we saw during the keynote. It makes Siri feel more like the voice behind your phone, not just another feature.
Automatic updates are nice. As a compulsive updater, it’s one less thing to keep up with. It integrates well with the update tab, displaying clear information about updates and when they happened. The new ‘Near Me’ tab is a discovery tool that shows you popular apps near your current location. The few times I’ve checked, it hasn’t been populated with results yet. This could be a nice feature while traveling, but I don’t find that most of the apps I use are valuable to me because of my geographical location. That makes this merely another viewport for browsing the store. It will be interesting to see whether or not this data changes often, but I don’t think it will inform too many buying decisions for me.
Music and Video
Not much has changed here. There is no more ‘Purchased’ tab for these apps. Rather, any purchased content simply shows in your library with an iCloud icon indicating which items aren’t currently on your device. It looks like we still can’t stream items in iOS, despite having the ability on Apple TV. Perhaps cellular network performance is still an issue here, but that doesn’t explain why streaming isn’t available over Wi-Fi.
iTunes Radio makes a first appearance in the Music app. It is very much like Pandora. Letting you launch existing radio stations, or key new ones off of artists, genres, or songs. I haven’t heard any ads yet, although I haven’t spent too much time listening. Perhaps the ads are coming between now and the public launch. I would have preferred Apple to clone a subscription service like Rdio rather than Pandora, but I’m guessing they have some empirical evidence that Pandora is more popular or valuable. Either way, the experience is nice and I’ll probably give it some playtime.
In no way have I exhausted what’s coming in iOS 7. There are more unannounced features, and I haven’t scratched a few that I either have no access to or haven’t been fully baked yet in the beta. Among them are iOS in the Car, AirDrop, and iCloud Keychain. If opinions arise as I get some exposure to these features I’ll try my best to write about them.
1500 New APIs
There are new toys for developers too. Many of which are firmly in NDA territory, but also many of which are very exciting. I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised when we see the newest crop of apps coming around built with iOS 7 in mind.
While visually, there are some arguable choices being made with iOS 7, the first party apps are better off for the changes. The key takeaway here is that Apple isn’t slowing down. iOS is moving from a crawl to a walk, and yes the first few steps might be wobbly. But walking will take the platform to a more mature place where its impact can continue to grow.
There is a level of shock you work through when something you’re very familiar with undergoes such a significant change. The more time people spend with something the more resistant they often are to what comes next (just ask Facebook). But Apple is a company, more than any other, that constantly puts us in a place to leave something we loved behind to embrace something better.