Thoughts on WWDC & iOS 7

I’ll admit I was so pumped when Tim Cook walked on stage at Moscone West last Monday. I knew new Macs were coming and that a new version of Mac OS X was going to be previewed. However, what I really wanted to see was Sir Jony Ive’s take on the reason that Apple has been one of, if not, the most dominant players in consumer technology since 2007, iOS 7. The proverbial ball was in Apple’s proverbial court and they had to shoot it from downtown due to Google’s ascendancy with Android and the bad press the Cupertino giant has been receiving recently.

Before I dive into iOS 7, how about those new MacBook Airs eh? Especially the 12-hour battery life on the 13-inch model thanks to Intel’s Haswell platform. The new Mac Pro seems like a win, but the pro users will ultimately decide its success. It does, however, clearly resemble a Braun coffee maker. Mac OS X Mavericks…really? Not sure about the name, but it did tick all of my boxes and given that it’s over a decade old and a totally mature platform, the improvements were nice, in particular the new external monitor features. The power management stuff is truly innovative too, from an engineering perspective. iCloud is still handicapped and the new iWork web suite didn’t help improve things. Apple, kill it, suck it up and just sign a deal with the devil and integrate with Google’s cloud. Building cloud services, which are becoming increasingly important in today’s mobile world, is not your thing and likely will never be. The implications of this statement are crazy and could severely damage Apple in the long run, but let’s table this discussion for another day.

After more than an hour into the keynote Sir Jony Ive appeared in front of his heavenly white screen and the high priest of design had me mesmerized instantly. The video drew me into the wonderful world of iOS 7 and the dramatic changes to the user interface (UI) had me stunned, even as they, 15 minutes later, were still demoing the thing on stage. I was just staring at the screen, gobbling up whatever the Apple executives had to throw at me and I was trying really hard to wrap my head around the whole thing. I even published a quick Facebook update proclaiming my iPhone 5 was proudly coming out of the drawer. A week later, I’m calmer and have been able to gather my initial thoughts. This is not my final say on the matter and my views will evolve as I actually use iOS 7, but here goes.

The UI has been completely overhauled and it’s both a good and not-so-good thing. The app icons seem off to me, perhaps a touch too large and disproportionate relative to the screen size. Also, the interface just seems too bright and colorful. Yes iOS has been called dark and dull in the past and rightfully so, but it looks like Jony Ive was eating a bag of Skittles and they overflowed on to his canvas and he forgot to remove the color stains. Maybe throwing a darker wallpaper on there will fix it, but for now, I need my shades. However, the new typography is stunning, I love it. They’ve slimmed everything down across the operating system (OS) and it just works. I must mention that Apple has taken a lot of design queues from Windows (Phone) 8 here and I have to say, kudos to Microsoft. They were the first in this new era of flat, minimalist design. Even though they may not currently have the sales that they want, especially in mobile, Apple’s approach to designing iOS 7 has validated them as trendsetters in this new era of flat and minimal design. The core apps, which needed a thorough revamp, have been re-done in fine fashion with the same modern look that the other platforms have already achieved. However, I feel bad for Yahoo! because their new weather app has effectively been ripped off completely. The new multitasking is a fresh approach for Apple, but not at all foreign if you were a WebOS user. Straight from that old Palm Pre on to this new iPhone 5 running iOS 7. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really good, but nothing new.

iOS 7 essentially functions the same way as previous versions of the OS. It’s still a grid of static app icons, except the clock app, which is now also dynamic along with the calendar app. Third party app icons could benefit from having the ability to be dynamic, but they will have to live without it for now. It’s definitely not a big drawback nor a deal-breaker though. Notification center has been slightly improved with categorized notifications, but there was no mention of actionable notifications, which are less intrusive to your on-screen experience. It’s very odd since they had just demoed actionable notifications for Mavericks on the Mac. You can’t even do a global clear to remove everything, rather having to go down the list and dismiss each app’s notifications individually. Control Center is a nice addition, but Android users have been able to do this for a long time, whether by default in Samsung phones or by adding third party apps/widgets on other phones like the Nexus 4. Again, it’s not anything new.

AirDrop actually has potential but from what has been shown so far, it’s limited to certain types of files you can share and certain apps you can share to. It’s a broader problem with iOS’s lack of inter-app communication, which was not mentioned at all during the keynote. Apps are mostly walled off from each other and the OS itself, unless Apple gives certain ones like Facebook and Twitter more access to other parts of the system. Siri got a facelift but I don’t think much will come from it unless it’s opened up to third party developers, which again, Apple refuses to do. It’s like they are afraid to let the people who shot iOS to superstardom and such a dominating position take more control of the OS. Sure, there’s a definite risk that the user experience may be harmed by poorly designed and programmed apps, but the potential number of them that could improve it is way too much for Apple to disregard completely. One possibility would be to introduce strict guidelines for developers who want deeper hooks into iOS, but it is ultimately Apple’s platform to control. Maybe there are legitimate reasons why Apple keeps iOS so restricted from outside tinkering and developers are aware of and agree with them, but if Android allows it and it has not completely destroyed my user experience as a Nexus 4 user, Google must be doing something right. Yes, I know these complaints are not new, but the fact that Apple didn’t address enough of them warrants continuing discussion. There are other features that iOS 7 has that I haven’t talked about like the new iTunes Radio service and the improved Photos app but frankly they are not as interesting to me and the main reasons I use a smartphone.

Have I unfairly bashed iOS 7? Maybe, maybe not, depending on where you stand. Is iOS 7 far inferior to Android 4.2 Jelly Bean? Google has the advantage in some areas, especially cloud services, but overall they are still close in my opinion. Has Apple borrowed from other platforms to make iOS 7? Certainly; from Android, Windows Phone and even WebOS with those multitasking cards. But you know what, Apple, to varying degrees, has been doing that since the original Macintosh. To quote Steve Jobs, “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Apple is the best at taking what has already been done, which is usually poorly implemented, improve upon and refine it, and produce a beautifully polished, functioning and, in many cases, innovative final product that’s a pleasure to use for everyone. iOS 7 is on its way to being that, barring the issues I’ve highlighted above. At this point, I really don’t know if Apple has drained the three or if the ball has thudded off the rim, but we’ll know for sure in the coming months. Until then I’ll be waiting in eager anticipation.