This week I’m at Apple’s big event of the year – the World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco. Yesterday’s keynote introduced the next major release of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7.
Following the unexpectedly rapid departure of Scott Forstall as the Senior Vice President of iOS Software at Apple last October, speculation had been mounting that significant changes were in the air for iOS 7, which is exactly what we got.
Most obviously, iOS 7 takes a radically different visual design approach from the previous iterations of the operating system, which until now could be considered on the more skeuomorphic end of the spectrum. That is, the visual design reflected highly detailed graphics simulating real world objects, to give users hints and clues as to how a particular app was to be used. For example buttons had outlines, gradients, and shadows, just like real world mechanical buttons, providing a familiar cue to users that it was a button, which could therefore be tapped, and would perform a given action.
iOS 7 takes an entirely different approach, gone are the gradients, shadows, and textures. The new visual style is flat, very flat. Buttons no longer have outlines to indicate they’re buttons, instead colour is being used to identify those elements which are tappable. The system typography has been thinned to use a light variant of Helvetica Neue.
The revamp will inevitably draw comparisons to Windows Phone 8’s look. It appears some of the apps have had more love than others in the redesign process at this point. Calendar is particularly beautiful now, and Photos sports some very clever new browsing views to categorise photos into “Moments” providing a vastly improved browsing experience.
Putting the visual design to one side, the interaction and functionality changes and refinements introduced are delightful. Swiping up from the bottom of the lock screen will present a sheet full of useful functions such as toggling Airplane mode, turning on and off WiFi and Bluetooth, fast access to the timer, calculator and camera, and much more. System animations and transitions have clearly been further refined for the better.
This isn’t just superficial change just for the sake of it, there are some principles underpinning it:
- Clarity. Showing only what’s relevant. Providing features which are self explanatory.
- Deference. Users care about their content, the user interface should not compete for user attention.
- Depth. Parallax, blurs and translucency replace gradients drop shadows and cut lines in defining content areas.
At this point it’s perhaps worth noting that this is currently just a beta. It’s far from shippable software at this point. I understand the overhaul has been only 7 months in the making so far, which is a very short timeframe to overhaul an entire operating system look and feel.
I do have some concerns with some aspects of the changes. Personally I’m incredibly disappointed in the quality of the iconography. It really is abysmal. Not what I expect from Apple at all. The unrefined, amateurish gaudy gradients, the inconsistent light sources from one icon to the next. It doesn’t make for a pretty home screen. I suspect this will be fixed before shipping, it feels very sloppy visually right now.
The removal of virtually all interface chrome also concerns me a little. One of my criticisms when I looked at the Windows Phone interface, was that it was difficult to tell which elements were tappable, and which were not. It lacks a certain obviousness which is off putting, particularly to those new to an operating system.
Perhaps Apple believes that there are enough iOS devices and people in the world who have learned the interface conventions they’ve set over the last 6 years, that this won’t be an issue. Users know there is a navigation bar at the top, and that the button on the top left takes them back to where they came from, and that the button on the top right typically performs a function such as new, or add etc.
In truth it feels a bit like a knee jerk over-correction from the skeuomorphic, to the completely flat and chromeless. I think there’s a medium ground somewhere which would achieve Apple’s aim of deference, but still avoiding this potential for confusion.
Having said that, the fundamental principles driving the changes are exciting. iOS is long overdue for a comprehensive overhaul, and that’s exactly what’s happening, they just need some refinement in execution, which will hopefully come with time, before it’s publically released.
As day two of the conference wraps up, I’m also getting insight into the significant under-the-hood additions in iOS 7 relevant to us when developing our apps. While these additions are currently confidential to conference attendees until iOS 7 is publicly released, there are some exciting additions which will make developing beautiful and engaging native apps for iPhone and iPad even easier. Can’t wait!