Thursday, June 20, 2013

iOS 7: First Impressions

This was originally published for eImagine Technology Group and is available at

Even though it has been less than 24 hours since Apple revealed the successor to their current iPhone, iPad, and iPod operating system (iOS 7) at their annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), I have already been test driving it on my development phone. Part of me was just excited to put the latest release on and see the new design in action. Another part was anxious to see how the new style changed (if at all) existing applications.

The News
Apple is never short on promoting their new features, so you likely have heard them by now. If not, settle for a brief tour.

Design & Style
iOS 7 turns the former design on its head utilizing what is known as "flat design". The idea is not to concentrate on trying to make icons and apps feel like real-world objects anymore and to step away from conventions such as hard-line grids and let things fall "flat" on the usable surface. The launch icons for the native iOS applications have all received a facelift and each one feels like a notable improvement with the exception of the "settings" icon that just seems a little funky to me.

In general, the fluidity of the user interface (UI) feels remarkably smoother and more natural as you transition from one app to the next or between screens within an app. That being said, the design is only innovative when viewed through the iOS continuum specifically. More directly, it feels as though the style and design was cobbled together from the best parts of every other popular mobile OS including the likes of Android, Windows Phone, and WebOS. This isn't a bad thing - it really made pleased to see that Apple is doing something that no one believed they were: listening.

Once again, Apple takes a page from other popular systems and brings an always-accessible control panel into reach. Some would remind me that the control panel has been there for a while, however a quick comparison between what they offer now versus their last iteration makes this feel less like an evolution of an existing feature and more like the "correct fit" it has been searching for all along.

With a swipe up from the bottom, the Control Center allows the quick on/off setting of common things that were obnoxiously buried before such as bluetooth, airplane mode, wi-fi, screen brightness and such. You can still control your music from this panel, so no worries there. Other gizmos present that are of note include a flashlight function (turns on the LED "flash" normally used for taking pictures) along with quick access to the alarm, calculator, and camera apps.

My feeling: relief. For as simple as this is, it reduces the amount of fudging around in the settings for these sorts of things. The only thing I would like to see added in here is a quick on/off for tethering (a.k.a. Personal Hotspot), but it isn't a big enough deal to take away from the "win" with what they already have despite it being a bit of an also-ran from Android.

Airdrop is a feature that has been around since OSX Lion for the Mac. This feature uses wi-fi (and bluetooth) to provide an ad-hoc method for sending and receiving files with people around you (on the same wi-fi network or close in proximity via bluetooth). to not have to send something "to the cloud" each time you want to forward on a file AND maintain some security my not leaving it always-on has been a treat.

For some time I have been wondering why I can't do the same between my MacBook Pro and iPhone or, at a minimum, between iOS devices. Apple has gotten around to resolving that hang-up by adding Airdrop to iOS 7. Accessible as one of the on/off selections in Control Center (or via Settings if you are a fan of digging), this promises to reduce the thought-overhead of trying to get something from your hand to someone else's. My reaction is definitely biased here since I called for this to be in iOS 6 (last release) - but I am relieved to see it make it finally. Again, it might be worth noting that other phones have the "bump"-style transfer already so this is another little bit of catch-up.

I am mentioning this only because it appears in Apple's feature set they are promoting, but I have to say that the improvements made here are not earth-shattering. Android has far and away been the leader in this area and this one wouldn't have been marked as a "tent-pole" update for me.

The big improvement here is that you are no longer asked to click a tiny "X" to close out apps you are no longer using. Instead, you now see a large preview-style image of the app above the icon and can swipe the hovering window up to get rid of it. Is it bad that killing apps just feels so good now? Because it does.

iTunes Radio
I still disagree with people referring to these things as radio (since there are devices out there that have actual FM receivers in them), but Mr. Cook didn't call to get my thoughts on this one. iTunes Radio, as is the theme for much of this iOS refresh, a borrow (cough) from services like Pandora and Spotify where Apple hopes that you will tune into the "stations" you like and be presented with an easy on-ramp to purchase the music (from iTunes, duh) that you discover in the process.

For all of my nay-saying, this feels pretty well put together - and it should given that there are some great pioneering apps and services out there already that have found their way in this space. With the general fanfare around it, this one is sort of a "shrug" for me.

Photos & Camera
The photos and camera have been revamped for more than style. The camera now sports live-previewed filters (think Instagram) as you shoot so you can see if you really should add that sepia tone or just let it ride as-is. You can also more easily switch between modes of shooting such as video, panorama, and "square" - a quick-crop that lets you take a square photo instead of the "widescreen" format.

The photos app gathers your media into collections of moments similar to the direction they have been going with iPhoto for the Mac. While not revolutionary, it feels like a good navigation structure and is a move in the right direction.

The bump to these two apps, again, feel like a minor evolution, but one that was necessary.

If you are one of the people (myself included) that has used the app Mailbox (now owned and managed by DropBox), you might recognize the new style for Apple's iOS Mail app. With a newer, cleaner look and feel, Apple has also made it feel more responsive. Swiping a message allows for a quick delete as well as additional options. For Gmail users, the settings for Mail feel more tightly-tailored with things like allowing you to choose an archive folder and making it more clear what the app will do with messages you delete (archive to all mail or delete the message "for real").

I really enjoy the upgraded feeling of Mail and am a huge fan of any design change that makes the constant barrage of incoming email (both corporate and personal) feel less taxing on my day and, perhaps, a little fun again.

App Updates
I can already hear you groaning, Android user. Yes, you have had background app updates for a while, but now so do we. You are no longer required to hit the "Update All" or selectively update apps via the App Store app as these updates trickle in invisibly. Was this a big hangup for some? I don't know. I wasn't one of them if it was, however I can appreciate a step in the right direction and this fits well.

Siri is always a topic whenever a new release of iOS comes and this time is no different as she receives a "knowledge injection" by being able to tap into Wikipedia, Bing, and Twitter to fulfill your requests without bouncing open a web browser window. Apparently Siri is getting a male voice, too, but I haven't figured that one out yet.

In the End
There are plenty of other new items and tweaks added, but that covers the hot list. apple has made some remarkable improvements to its interface, but it is important to recognize that they are in "drafting" position right now - letting some of the front-runners of app and service categories bang themselves up figuring out the best way to do things. In the next release, we might be back to seeing some more pioneering innovation as they have an opportunity to slingshot passed some of these rivals.

Lastly: if you have any questions about a specific piece, feel free to comment and I will get back to you!

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