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Apple unveiled iOS 7, the most significant iOS update since the original iPhone, featuring a new user interface recognizes smartphone interfaces are longer an exotic novelty that needs explaining. (Apple)
Apple unveiled iOS 7, the most significant iOS update since the original iPhone, featuring a new user interface recognizes smartphone interfaces are longer an exotic novelty that needs explaining. (Apple)

iPhone ubiquity makes iOS 7's radical design overhaul possible Add to ...

There are countless new design choices throughout the operating system. Some of them are very good (the lock screen keypad; the new weather app with its subtly animated backgrounds). Others are not.

Take the lock screen. At the bottom of the screen, there’s a line of text that says “slide to unlock.” Directly below the text is an arrow pointing up. I doubt I’m the only person who saw those two prompts and took them to mean that you should slide your finger from the bottom up to unlock the phone. But no, these are two separate items – you slide from the arrow up to display the quick-access menu; you slide from the text to the right to show the unlock keypad. After a while, you’ll undoubtedly get used to this, but on its face, it’s just not the most intuitive thing in the world.

Various apps have also been given functionality makeovers. The photos app, for example, now organizes your pictures under categories called “Moments” and “Collections.” Basically, these are just fancy names for tools that group your photos by location and date. The clock app icon is now a working clock, in case you don’t have the time to look a dozen pixels up the screen and check the digital clock there.

Overall, iOS 7 is a vast improvement over its predecessors in terms of functionality. But it is in the superficial stuff – the way the operating system looks – that Apple’s customers will see the most jarring changes.

The overall iOS 7 design scheme is a kind of hyperactive minimalism. Much has been made of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s decision eight months ago to make Jon Ive, the man who designed the iPhone and iPad, the new head of Apple’s software design. This meant, in effect, that Apple overhauled the look of its mobile operating system in less than a year, which is lightning fast by corporate standards.

In the world of hardware, Mr. Ive’s definitive hallmark is simplicity. Before the iPhone, most cell phones were clunky and laden with dozens of buttons and switches. After the iPhone, the new normal for phone design is a single flat pane of glass. Virtually every company making smartphones today, from Nokia to Samsung to Research In Motion, should probably be paying Mr. Ive royalties.

That same minimalism is on display throughout the iOS 7 design scheme. Menu items are mostly text-based or very simple icons (a “+” to add playlists or calender items, a “<” to move back to previous menus or web pages). The result is a much cleaner operating system, but also one that’s based on the assumption that you know how iPhones – and, to a certain extent, smartphones in general – work.

The minimalism works best in self-contained sections of the software. The keypad used to unlock the phone, for example, is simple and beautiful and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. In more complex settings, such as when apps have to talk to one another, or when you’re dealing with dozens of menus and sub-menus, the effect is harder to recreate.

Strangely, this design minimalism is paired with a colour scheme that can best be described as 80’s Spandex. Almost all the app icons contain bright, high-contrast blues and reds and cyans – basically, the non-neon versions of colours you’d normally expect to see on neon signs. I happen to like this brighter, cheery look, but some users are inevitably going to find it cartoonish.

Generally, Mr. Ive and his team have opted to get rid of a lot of the minor design elements in iOS 6 icons in favour of streamlined representations of whatever an app is supposed to do. Two icons in particular stand out. The first is the photos app, which is represented by a mesh of various colours in the rough shape of a flower. In reality, the only reason I think of it as a representation of a flower at all is because the previous icon used to be a flower – it’s just a bunch of coloured shapes arranged symmetrically.

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