Geekery, Technology

Seven

Seven months. That’s how long it has been since Sir Jonathan Ive took over the iOS reins after Scott Forstall resigned his post in October 2012. Chances are, up to that point, iOS 7 was looking much like every iteration before it – dark gradients, illustrative icons, heavily themed interface elements. Ive had seven months to make his mark on iOS or risk undermining the excitement generated by his appointment to interface design. Seven months would have been a ridiculous timeline if all they did was rerelease iOS 6 with new icons and new application skins, but that’s not what Ive and Apple did. Instead, they left no pixel untouched. They added new features, new gestures, and new APIs. Nearly every stock app received attention to how they work as well as how they look. They’ve created a system that challenges every app designer to rethink how their apps will fit onto iOS, and they probably did most of it in seven months.

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More Than An Iteration

Apple’s usual modus operandi is to release something fresh and then begin incrementally improving it, and Ive is a master of iteration. Every version of the iMac released since 1998 has been taking steps toward the current model. The look and feel of the MacBook Air finds origin in the design of the PowerBook G4. The iPhone 5 is comprised of a cumulative collection  of small aesthetic improvements that, when compared side-by-side to the original, make for a device that looks very distinct from its 2007 predecessor. There are very few pieces of Apple hardware that can’t track its evolution from a predecessor.

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The same is true of Apple software as well. Very seldom has Apple completely disrupted the look and feel of their applications. iTunes 11 can still clearly trace its origins to 2001. The most recent release of iPhoto would still feel familiar to someone used to using version 1.0 from 2002. The brand-new Keynote web app for iCloud shares strong similarities with the 2003 original. Even the advanced Mac OS X 10.9  is the result of careful and gradual evolution from the initial public beta in September 2000. Despite this, OS X  does not feel like an operating system that’s thirteen years old, and that’s largely due to the durability and timelessness of Apple’s design principles.

This is not to say Apple never disrupts, and Mac OS X is a perfect example of this. OS X rebuilt the entire foundation of what defines the Mac OS. Apps compatible with OS 9 would not run natively on OS X. The interface was completely replaced. APIs were completely replaced. OS X was less the tenth iteration of the classic Macintosh Operating System than it was version 1.0 of something completely new. It was polarizing to the user and design communities. Several longtime Mac developers even abandoned the platform after it became evident that getting their apps to work on OS X would require moving mountains of code – if not a complete and total rewrite. The transition from iOS 6 to iOS 7 is small by comparison, so there should be no fear that Apple can improve upon and refine this new transition. They’ve done it before.

The Broad Strokes

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What’s important here is not what the Game Center icon looks like. It’s not important that iOS is taking cues from other mobile operating systems in some of its design decisions. What’s important is that Apple has introduced a completely new design language for iOS 7. Everything else is a detail. Icons can, and likely will, change. Operating systems have been influencing each other for decades. (Honestly, how many Mac users weren’t  thrilled when Apple introduced a Windows-like application switcher in 10.3?) Why should mobile systems be any different?

Like any modern operating system, iOS is a marriage of ideas. Up through iOS 6, the marriage has been an uneasy one, with some modern features seeming forced while others remained stubbornly absent. It’s left Apple in the uncomfortable position of having to play catch-up with their competitors, and that’s what iOS 7 is doing. The overall message here is one of flexibility. Apple is communicating that they are aware of iOS’s past shortcomings and are now willing to step things up rather than stubbornly hold to ideas that were quickly becoming outdated.

When the first iPhone came out, Apple’s overriding design philosophy was driven by comfort and familiarity. While the iPhone was far from the first touch-based product available, it was the first aimed squarely at everyday use. People who had never used touch-based inputs before were Apple’s target market, so they had to create an interface that would be immediately accessible. Without that, potential customers would pick up an iPhone at a store, mess with it a few seconds, get frustrated, and set it down. There had to ba an immediate, “Oh, I get this!” from the user. iOS was built around that, and there is where it has firmly remained.

Fast forward six years, and touch screens are commonplace. My daughter know almost no other input method right now since my laptop is the only device in our house that requires a keyboard and trackpad. (It just now dawns on me that she has no idea what a mouse is.) It’s time for iOS to change with the times, and Ive’s direction has accomplished that without sacrificing the easy accessibility that has helped iOS be so successful. There are still rough edges, but iOS 7 lays out a framework that Apple will be able to improve and build upon for years.

To Boldly Go

iOS 7 is J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek compared to iOS 6’s Star Trek: The Original Series. The fundamental building blocks are the same. All of the faces and technologies you know and love are still there, but now they are portrayed in a brighter, shinier coat of paint. It’s a reboot that’s bound to be polarizing, but at the same time will reignite excitement and interest around the platform. At times, I might miss the familiarity and understated charm of the original. There may be some missteps in this reboot, and purists might cringe at some of the decisions behind this new iteration, but the underlying potential is pretty hard to deny. For every misstep, there are a hundred possibilities for greatness, and iOS 7, like J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek did for its franchise, infuses iOS with something that has been missing for a long time, not only from iOS but much of the mobile industry in general – a sense of fun.

Back when Mac OS X was first unveiled, it was full of bright textures, shiny surfaces, and superfluous animations. Aqua gave the graphic design community the same sort of conniptions some are having now, and OS X was less capable compared to the system it was replacing than is iOS 7 compared to iOS 6. In fact, iOS 7 is a great improvement over iOS 6 that happens to have a visual makeover to go along with it. With OS X, time has refined its many of its rough edges, and the same will be true of iOS 7’s new approach. As with Aqua in 2000, Apple has overshot their mark with iOS 7, but they will compensate with time – time the designers at Apple likely did not have during the rapid development process.

In the seven months since Jony Ive took over iOS design, great changes have happened. Surely, things like gamepad support, the improvements to AirDrop, and the work on Springboard have been in the pipeline for a long time, but managing those improvements while simultaneously redesigning the entire system has been an impressive feat. Yes, we’re left with some rough edges and some icons that look unfinished, but improvements will come. It’s important to remember that everything in the hands of developers as well as all of Apple’s marketing material is based on software that is – by definition – unfinished. And with Apple, they are never finished. Even after the public release of iOS 7, they will keep refining and keep iterating, and the bumps on the road will be short compared to the longer-lasting usability benefits. If this is how far they can come in seven months, imagine the possibilities for the future.

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