It’s too early for a review of iOS 7, which will be officially released next month. But following our initial June Multi-Editorial on iOS 7, readers asked us to weigh in with deeper opinions on Apple’s latest mobile operating system—a task that demanded more real-world testing, an opportunity for Apple to make pre-release changes, and enough time to really adjust to what had changed.
Today, we’re sharing our collective opinions on iOS 7, though we’re internally more sharply divided than with any prior iOS release. For weeks, we’ve debated whether and how long mainstream users will need to adjust to the new OS. We’ve discussed the prospect of losing iOS users to Android or other platforms as a result of the modifications. And we’ve talked through sometimes opposing views on small and big changes alike. Despite our remaining differences, we all agree on the following several statements.
* Developers and early adopters who started using iOS 7 in June will be considerably ahead of the curve in embracing the new operating system, and may not fully grasp negative reactions from mainstream users whose first hands-on exposure is in September.
* In the absence of a smart pre-release mainstream awareness campaign from Apple, iOS 7 will have a polarizing debut, but mainstream users will likely move past some early Apple Maps-like grumbling after tweaking their backgrounds, folders, and settings.
* While initial mainstream discussion will focus on controversial aesthetic changes, a handful of major quality-of-life improvements will—when discovered—transform most naysayers into at least partial fans.
* Apple’s look-and-feel changes were not ideally executed, and some mainstream users will wonder why the company deemed them necessary. If no further cosmetic changes are made to iOS 7 before it goes public, its looks will continue to be the primary subject of debate for some time to come. A small number of users will threaten to flee the iOS platform in protest, but most will not, despite hasty claims to the contrary.
What led us to reach these conclusions? The following lists of positives and negatives highlight the key improvements and issues that iOS 7 introduces—changes that are likely to win support or cause debates in the weeks to come.
iOS 7: The Positives
1. Control Center. Most users will agree that Apple implemented this new feature almost perfectly. Sliding upwards from the bottom of the screen, this panel brings on-screen brightness, volume, track control, wireless, do not disturb, and orientation lock settings within a single swipe and tap on any iOS device, along with AirPlay/AirDrop controls and access to several key apps—including a handy new LED flashlight toggle on iPhones and fifth-generation iPod touches. Once users memorize the simple activation gesture for Control Center, they’ll use it often, and it will become one of the most popular features of iOS ever implemented.
2. Improved Media Apps. Although many of iOS’s bundled apps have received little more than cosmetic tweaks, Apple has fundamentally improved the core media apps Photos, Videos, and Music for iOS 7, as well as nicely redesigning Calendar. Photos provides a superior hybrid date and location sorting mechanism for stored content, and impressively adds video sharing via iCloud. Videos can now instantly stream iTunes-purchased videos from the Cloud, a massively important change for iTunes customers, and gets a much nicer user interface. Music adds the free streaming service iTunes Radio and gets a sharp UI overhaul. Calendar gets a new Year view on iPhone and iPod touch, a cleaner design, and improved views for days and months.
3. Siri. While Apple’s visual redesign of Siri is questionable, the audio and AI are both dramatically better. Siri’s synthesized American female voice has become noticeably smoother, and is joined by an American male voice that’s arguably superior. Additional voice recognition depth has been added, including new iTunes Radio commands that will make batches of music easier to access in hands-free situations, Twitter searching, and control over key settings. It took a while, but Siri is closer than ever to becoming awesome.
4. Automatic App Updates. iOS 7 can eliminate one of the prior big annoyances of iOS—your need to manually update apps all the time—by automatically downloading app updates in the background. Turn this optional feature on and the little red number badge next to App Store will disappear; a notification will appear to let you know the updates were handled for you automatically. You can still manually update apps if you’re in a rush to get something new.
5. AirDrop. Sharing content between (most) iOS devices becomes considerably easier thanks to this dead-simple feature, borrowed and improved upon from Mac OS X. If two iOS 7 users have their screens and AirDrop turned on in the same room, wirelessly sending photos, device-recorded videos, contacts, notes, and other files is as easy as tapping a contact’s face icon in the Sharing menu. It’s faster and easier than using Messages, Mail, Photo Stream, or other indirect sharing tricks, though dependent on wireless hardware found only in newer iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad devices. (OS X AirDrop compatibility remains a question mark.)
6. FaceTime Audio. Not quite a stealth feature but unlikely to be pushed by Apple with verve due to cellular partners, FaceTime Audio offers integrated VoIP calling for iOS 7 devices. If you know how to make and receive FaceTime video calls, you can make FaceTime Audio calls, reducing your need for cellular voice calling “minutes” and potentially third-party VoIP apps such as Skype… except that you can’t call a traditional telephone this way, only another iOS 7 device.
7. Translucent Panes. For all of the texture and shadow detail that has been lost in iOS 7, Apple has included one new thing as a replacement: nice translucent panes, which shift in color depending on the Lock Screen and Home Screen backgrounds you’ve chosen. These panes look particularly impressive when dividing lists in Spotlight, offering contact choices in FaceTime, and creating control overlays for Camera. Are they better than the linen that used to run through Siri? Reasonable people will disagree, but as new design themes go, this one works for us more often than not.
As beneficial as the aforementioned iOS 7 changes are, they’re offset by a substantial collection of problems, listed below. That these negatives are either aesthetic or capable of being “learned” by users over time are the strongest reasons that iOS 7 will eventually succeed, but they’ll create some tension for mainstream users in the short term.
1. Problematic Home Screen Changes. iOS 7 makes multiple questionable and arguably unnecessary changes to the iconic Home Screen. Fonts accompanying icons have been made thinner and taller, simultaneously compromising their readability and cluttering screen layouts. Previously thoughtful icons and matching folders have become almost cartoonishly simple and occasionally downright off-putting. The top-of-screen status bar has lost its opaque backing, sometimes impacting readability, while the bottom-of-screen Dock has needlessly become large and translucent, reducing the background’s visibility. Folders now span multiple pages, but oddly display far fewer icons per page (now only 9 per device versus a previously device-dependent 12-20, a particularly nonsensical limitation on iPads). None of these changes is definitively for the better; they’re just different, and sometimes worse.
2. Some Unintuitive UI Elements Will Confuse Kids + Older Users. Outside of the Home Screen, iOS 7 “buttons” have almost entirely done away with edges and visible boxes in favor of plain text that’s differently-colored. Where iconography appears, it’s commonly thin-lined for reduced visibility, and confusingly different from prior icons. And in the name of eliminating “skeuomorphism”—real-world textures and tropes—Apple has literally whitewashed apps, creating a more uniform appearance while stripping away distinctive visual elements that previously made parts of the operating system look unique. Notes, for instance, has become a collection of white screens with black text; so have apps such as Game Center and Contacts. And despite the strong positives of Control Center, users will need to learn to find music, brightness, and AirPlay controls in that new location since they’ve disappeared from the multitasking bar accessed with a double-click of the Home Button. Even the classic Slide to Unlock feature has changed. Will people learn? Yes. But they’ll initially be frustrated. Some will learn quickly, but others will find the changes daunting, and need time or help to get through that frustration.
3. Users Will (Again) Bemoan The Lack Of Downgrade Options. Apple’s Software Update mechanism makes iOS updates extremely simple—once an update is out, installing it can be as simple as waiting for a notification that it’s available, then hitting “OK.” And once you’re updated, there’s no easy way to go back to an older iOS version. As a rule, Apple has never warned people during this process how major a software update’s changes might be; most of the time, that’s not a problem, and no one complains or cares.
But there have been flare-ups. There was no disclaimer before installing iOS 6 that the Maps app was about to become unreliable and lose public transportation routing capabilities; this led to months of very public complaints and the departure of some key Apple employees. Earlier, iOS 4’s sluggishness on the iPhone 3G came as a shock to users, who demanded downgrade options. Unless Apple learns from these past “surprises”—things beta testers knew but mainstream users found shocking—the complaints over iOS 7 are likely to be louder and more widespread this time. A special “are you ready for iOS 7?” preview screen showing upgraders what’s about to happen to their devices could nip this in the bud.
4. Questionable Animations. iOS 7 is loaded with new visual effects that should be as optional as Mac OS X’s dock-animating Genie Effect. In addition to dramatic zoom-ins for icons every time the Home Screen appears, perspective-shifting animations now accompany everything from folder opening to gentle in-hand device movements. Users may get used to these effects over time, but they seem like way too much at first, and contrast markedly with the minimalist design that’s taken over this version of iOS.
5. The Iffy New Lock Screen + Phone Screen. Apple’s original iPhone Lock Screen was nearly as iconic as the Home Screen—its now-classic Slide to Unlock slider, smoke-frosted panes, and clean-looking time-date display defined class for a new generation of mobile devices. Our editors have very mixed feelings on the redesign, which trades shaded layers and sliders for animation and fading. First-time users will find that the now-edgeless controls lead to “what am I supposed to do” confusion, and sometimes blend into the background images. Other full-screen photo elements of the OS, including phone dialing and the FaceTime Audio interface, similarly look and feel somewhat underdesigned. Each has gotten better since the first beta of iOS 7, as Apple appears to know that there were problems to solve, but issues remain.
6. The Discontinuation Threat. Due to iOS 7’s substantial UI changes, some developers are planning to discontinue support for pre-iOS 7 devices, effectively stopping updates for users who don’t upgrade. Historically, iOS’s extremely high upgrade rates and relatively incremental tweaks between software releases meant that this wasn’t a huge problem—the only affected users were ones whose older devices couldn’t run the latest iOS software. This time, some users will hold off on updating to iOS 7 because they don’t like the changes. If they refuse to upgrade, they’ll be punished. Since the scope of this problem will depend on future actions by both developers and users, we’ll have to wait some time to see how big of an issue this actually turns out to be.
Past iOS releases haven’t been particularly controversial. Apple’s well-known policy of incremental updates led annually to multiple new features, alongside cosmetic changes that were almost entirely predictable—welcome resolution bumps, tiny tweaks to icons, and thoughtful interfaces for new features such as Siri. Despite a growing sense in some quarters that iOS’s look had become somewhat stale, that perspective wasn’t enough to make huge numbers of people abandon the platform. But following the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, a debate began over iOS’s “skeuomorphic,” texture-heavy design. On one side were the late Apple CEO and iOS software chief Scott Forstall, with Apple design chief Jonathan Ive conspicuously mentioned as an opponent. Jobs died and Forstall was fired, placing Ive in charge of the look and feel of Apple’s software.
For the first time in his tenure at Apple, Ive’s previously unimpeachable design sensibilities were openly derided—even by many long-time fans—for bad color, font, and icon choices. Post-iOS 7 debut leaks hinted that the highly controversial icons were designed by Apple’s marketing department and subject to change before release, both surprises. Regardless, that hasn’t happened yet, and the icons may well wind up staying the same until iOS 8. Or longer. Many iOS 7 beta testers have gotten used to the aesthetic changes, and some even say they prefer the new look by at least a small margin, but there’s no doubt that Ive’s tweaks aren’t universally home run-caliber winners. In fact, the new icons, fonts, and effects collectively raise serious questions about porting iOS 7’s changes to Apple’s Mac platform, which previously became increasingly iOS-like with every new OS X launch.
Unless something major changes between now and the date of iOS 7’s official release, this will likely be a watershed event for Apple: the point at which many users felt forced to swallow some changes that weren’t cosmetically appealing in order to get new features that were practically universally desirable. While we expect that the post-release discussion will turn substantially in iOS 7’s favor—likely in weeks rather than months—this new release is shaping up to be a rocky one for Apple users, and one we hope that Apple will mitigate with eleventh-hour improvements and clear, broad-based messaging to reduce the impact of unpleasant surprises.