From the original Mac System 1 through to Mountain Lion and iOS 6, Apple has strived to make revolutionary technology look familiar. Now that's all changed. K. Stewart reports
In 1984, the Mac's desktop metaphor was a revelation, but by May 2012 the photorealism of stitching on a calendar app prompted hardware design chief Jony Ive to stress to the Daily Telegraph that "those elements you're talking about, I'm not really connected to that."
A few months later the Maps fiasco blew apart the executive team Steve Jobs built, Scott Forstall departed, and CEO Tim Cook unified design teams under Ive. In November, Ive met with software engineering VP Craig Federighi to set a radical new direction for iOS.
Talking to USA Today, Ive makes the point that "we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn't need physical buttons, they understood the benefits. So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally."
Literalism was out, minimalism was in. "We wanted to defer to the content, and just get out of the way."
Static screenshots suggest a simplified iOS, flattened and child-like, but technically the reverse is true. Rather than clever, but computationally simple 2D animations, iOS 7 makes heavy use of translucency and 3D, layering levels of content to help maintain visual context. When you scroll a webpage with bright images, you see their colours through the translucent chrome at the top of Safari. When you exit the start screen, home icons fall onto the page, while folders zoom to fill the screen at the lightest touch. Everything is more dynamic, more open, more alive.
The technical achievement is admirable, but isn't cost free. While Apple prides itself on supporting older hardware, the first generation Retina iPhone 4 and iPad 3 struggle to keep up. The lower resolution iPad 2 and mini iPad fare better, while the 4S works surprisingly well - albeit with some effects simplified to preserve speed.
It's also clear that this first iteration is primarily tuned for the iPhone. Animations which look slick on that compact, narrow iPhone screen can seem a little overblown on iPad. Most egregiously, while the iPad once increased the iPhone's 12 item folder limit to 20, iOS 7 prunes both back to a mere 9. Granted you can scroll within the folder to over a 100 items, but it feels more than a little clumsy - a rare opportunity for Windows RT owners to feel smug about a tablet-first OS.
As The Guardian's Charles Arthur observes, the overall effect of minimising chrome wherever possible and making it translucent where it does appear is to create the impression of a larger, less cramped screen - a useful trick in the war against the large-screen Droids. iOS 7's modern look is also far brighter, filled with light - not simply designed in California, but giving the impression of living under its clear blue skies.
The key functional innovations of iOS 7 are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Notifications have been cleaned up and enhanced. The start screen begins with today's weather, your calendar and a list of reminders. Swiping right brings in third-party notifications. Pulling down with two fingers immediately accesses iOS search. In Safari, or any other app set to support it, a one finger swipe from left to right pulls the current page off-screen and brings back the previous page.
A one finger upward swipe provides immediate access to frequently used controls with toggle options for bluetooth, WIFI, do not disturb, Camera and AirDrop, as well as music controls of course.
The multi-tasking operation is most radically changed - swipe up to see the icons of running apps (as before) but also above them a row of screenshots. To fully close an app, you simply swipe upwards - which is cooler and faster than the hold, jiggle, press, close from before. Seeing screenshots of the apps also looks cool, it's not perfect (sometimes the screenshot is slightly delayed or at the wrong angle or simply blank), it can stutter a little even on an iPad 4, but it's nice enough. More importantly, the ability of an app to operate in the background is enhanced. Under General in Settings, there's a new heading called Background App updating and you can toggle this for each app. Enable Reeder 2, for example, and you can be confident it'll continue to update your RSS feeds in the background as you switch to Safari.
All of the built-in apps are now 64bit compatible and most are re-designed to suit iOS 7. Notes has been something of an embarrassment from the moment it was introduced with its comic sans font and Post-It yellow background. It was a painfully literal example of Apple trying to make everything new seem old and familiar.
As you'd expect the new Notes sweeps all that away, but rather than having a simple plain white background there's actually a subtle texture simulating real paper. In this sense, then, it's even more skeuomorphic than the original Notes and a welcome sign that Ive's new look isn't a simple dogma - it bends and adapts to suit functionality. Stripping out the cotton binding of simulated pages in your Contacts 'book' makes for a cleaner fresher look and the plain white background works well. When you're writing a long essay, however, a plain white page isn't fresh, it's a cause of eye strain.
The principal weakness of iOS 7 Notes today is it synchs with the horrid old Mac OS X Notes, but even this is ameliorated by the ability to use the iCloud online app version which is fully iOS 7 in design and also uses a textured look - albeit to not such an impressive effect on a non-Retina display.
Calendar, like Contacts, is uncompromisingly iOS 7 - a plain white background, simple lines and sharp black/red typography making for a pleasing, fresh design. Its functionality is little changed, however, and selecting appointment times via the rotating date wheel looks different but isn't any easier than before. Third-party calendar apps can breathe easy for now.
Safari is where people will spend a great deal of their time when using their iDevice and it's got the latest code to be faster than ever, while a single url/search box finally brings it up to date with the desktop version. Browsing tabs is particularly impressive, with a vertical view of web pages - but doesn't come across to the iPad version.
The camera app is cleaned up in its UI and offers Instagram style filters, but Photos is more dramatically changed, in particular the ability to see all your photos as tiny thumbnails grouped together by year and event - a clever use of a Retina display.
The cohesive look and feel of iOS is one of its strongest advantages and if developers declined to make any effort to follow iOS 7's lead, Apple would be in trouble. As it turned out, for a time on Thursday, it seemed like every passing minute brought a new app update - at least until Apple's servers began to buckle under the pressure.
Stand-out updates include the thorough re-imagining of Evernote, the startling new Simplenote, the refinement of already iOS 7 friendly designs in eBay and Twitterific. iOS's leading news apps - Instapaper, Zite, Digg and Reeder 2 - all freshened up their design while adding support for background synch. Vimeo is updated with signature flair, showing a home screen video of a kid-zilla being filmed on an iPhone.
The commercial reasons behind developers' support for iOS 7 are best illustrated with a report on Friday by ad network Chitika that in the US market iOS 7 already accounted for a staggering 31.7% of iOS traffic, compared to iOS 6 which attained 24.7% in the same period. It's a key strength of iOS that it can keep innovating and while still bringing along enough users to keep developers engaged.
Readdle's Denys Zhadanov described to 148apps how for the 'last 3 weeks we've been working 14 hours per day with no weekends' to get ready for iOS 7 and yet most updates to already low cost apps come free, such is the scale of the opportunity, although the expensive powerful productivity apps from Omni bucked the trend with iOS 7 versions as full price new apps.
For developers who've painstakingly crafted first-class, sophisticated apps such as 2Do or Awesome Notebook, built from the ground-up to fit with Apple's skeumorphic principals, you can only imagine the pain. Apple itself has yet to update its skeuomorphic iWork office suite or iBooks, with the latter likely due to coincide with its debut on OS X Mavericks.
There's not much to say about the 5C, other than it's last year's excellent iPhone 5 in a plastic casing. It's not a cheap phone and it doesn't feel like it either. The plastic has a pleasing glossy look and there's zero flex in the casing due a steel frame. The buttons and switches all work well, although personally I'd be happier if the slender 'silence' button was metal like on the old 3GS.
The 5S is another matter entirely, apart from the new colours and the steel ring around the home button it looks entirely unchanged from last year's model. It's exactly the same size and weight, the same screen, but inside it's one of the most aggressive technology jumps yet.
The signature features are the fingerprint sensor, which works as advertised in my experience and the enhanced camera with better low-light performance and 120fps slow-mo mode. The latter is simply excellent fun to play - Vine and Instagram may be the 5S's best sales tool.
These features aside, Tim Cook called it the 'most forward looking' iPhone, which is a smart way of saying many benefits will take time to fully materialise and justify the cost. The world's first 64bit 'desktop' class CPU is a serious technical achievement while offering significant benefits now for certain types of apps able to exploit it, while providing a solid foundation for iOS moving forward.
Also impressive is Anandtech's finding that in addition to the 64bit CPU, Apple have got ahead of the curve with the 'first shipping mobile silicon to integrate ImgTec's PowerVR Series 6 GPU' AKA Rogue, which has long been anticipated in gaming circles as the first mobile CPU to seriously rival PS3/Xbox 360 performance.
So far, all the chatter about next generation iPads has focused on whether the iPad mini 2 will have a Retina display. But just maybe, iPad 5 will deliver some surprises of its own if a slimmer casing and battery requirements don't choke the chipset's true potential. Also, just imagine what that chipset could do in a truly next generation Apple TV...
Innovate or Die
Buying an Apple device has always been like buying a pricey European sports car that on the outside looks like a Maclaren F1 but has an interior festooned with walnut trim and hand-stitched leather seats. High class and comforting, but also a bit discordant. iOS 7 finally unifies the minimalistic modernism of the hardware with the software - the soul of the machine itself - into a near seamless whole.
Microsoft has found winning design plaudits with Windows 8 doesn't necessarily equate to good sales or positive customer feedback, but iOS7 builds upon rather than replaces what went before in terms of how it actually operates. Now it's got a fresh look and updated functionality to match the competition, it'll be interesting to see if retains its reputation as the safe option for the grandparents.
The most important story here though is the hardware. Bob Cringely recently speculated that the 64bit 'desktop' class CPU and free iWork suite pointed to Apple plotting to kill off the PC in the enterprise market.
It's not exactly a new idea. Earlier this year, the Ubuntu Edge project raised almost 13 million dollars in an ambitious effort to deliver exactly that kind of smartphone/desktop device. It fell short of its funding target, but Apple is paying attention. After all, as anyone who works in a corporate environment knows, IT's overwhelming preoccupation is security.
A future generation iPhone capable of running a fully fledged office suite, outputting to a full-size monitor, with minimal staff training requirements and security operating at the CPU level linked into a trusted biometrics security system looks a very interesting prospect.
As ever, behind the candy-coloured visuals and slick marketing, Apple is an extremely serious business and, after one near-death experience in 1997, it doesn't need Blackberry's startling collapse to realise innovation is essential to future survival.
By K. Stewart