The moment a new technology reaches maturity and morphs from novelty to the mainstream usually coincides with the moment when it no longer needs to be explained in relation to something else. For the smartphone industry, that moment may well have come a few days ago.
Consider the example of horsepower, which is a ridiculous unit of measurement. Like feet and Fahrenheit, it was originally calibrated using a wildly unreliable point of reference – namely, the power of a horse. Today, scientists and engineers prefer the more scientifically dignified watt as a measurement of power output, and horsepower is largely used only to describe the brawniness of car engines.
But in the eighteenth century, horsepower was absolutely necessary. Most people weren’t familiar with newfangled steam engines, but they were familiar with horses. As such, it made perfect sense to explain the new technology by using the old one as a metaphor.
Earlier this month, Apple announced the launch of iOS 7, the latest iteration of the operating system that powers the company’s tablets and smartphones. The new operating system marks the most significant overhaul of the software since the release of the original iPhone in 2007. But it also marks the moment Apple decided that smartphones have become ubiquitous – no longer an exotic novelty that needs explaining.
iOS 7 won’t be available for public consumption until some time in the fall, at which point Apple will probably bundle it with a new iPhone and/or iPad. But the beta version is available to you now if you are a developer or know one. That’s the version I’ve had on my phone for almost a week.
Since this is beta software, keep in mind the following caveats:
1: This isn’t a traditional review. Beta versions get a free pass on any bugs and glitches.
2: Some of the features mentioned below will almost certainly change between now and when the public-consumption version comes out. This is especially true for the visuals, which are probably easier to change than the core software functionality, and which Apple designers probably never stop arguing about anyway.
Within a few hours of using iOS 7, it becomes clear that the software’s most useful update is probably the new control centre. When the phone is locked or unlocked, swiping up from the bottom bezel brings up the control centre, which allows for quick access to a host of tools and settings that don’t rely on personal information, such as the flashlight, calculator and camera. The control centre also allows a user to toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and various music-player controls.
Swiping down from the top bezel, on the other hand, brings up the new and improved notification screen. This offers a quick look at the calendar and the weather forecast, among other things. Between them, the control centre and notification screen make the iPhone far more efficient. If iOS 7 came with no other improvements, these alone would make it worth downloading.
Other fairly useful upgrades are littered throughout the software. The tedious business of manually updating apps is largely gone, thanks to automatic updates. Apple’s maps app has been greatly upgraded, and is no longer a sad joke (although Google Maps is still better). Siri now understands a bunch of new commands, and comes with male and female voices, if for some reason you really need the talking computer in your phone to sound like a man.
Most importantly, iOS 7 now offers something that feels a lot like true multitasking. Double-tapping on the physical home button at any time brings up a scrolling list of all active apps. Flinging the apps upwards shuts them down. Just as all that swiping-from-the-bezel stuff feels like it was copied from the latest version of the BlackBerry operating system, the whole multitasking implementation feels a lot like the multitasking on the old Palm Pre.
(As an aside, it is worth mentioning that WebOS, the software that powered the Palm Pre, is perhaps the most underrated smartphone operating system ever made, and was easily two or three years ahead of its time. It is an absolute shame that Hewlett-Packard bought Palm for a truckload of money in 2010 and then proceeded to do exactly zero interesting things with the company).