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iPhone ubiquity makes iOS 7's radical design overhaul possible

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.


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.

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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.

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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).

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.

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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.

The Game Center icon is even more abstract. In iOS 6, the app is represented by four shapes related to games, such as the horse from chess or the rocket ship from... some game involving rocket ships. In iOS 7, the Game Center icon is made up of four brightly coloured soap bubbles. This inexplicable icon has me convinced that somewhere in Apple's user interface design studio, there is a big red button that says, "DO A RANDOM THING," and perhaps one of the designers accidentally leaned on it during the creation of the Game Center visuals.

And so we're left looking for some kind of overriding design principle, something that explains why iOS 7 turned out looking the way it does. Minimalism doesn't quite work as an explanation, because some icons, such as the camera, are actually more visually convoluted than the iOS 6 versions. Ultra-modernism doesn't work, because the icons for apps such as Music and Videos use old-fashioned metaphors (a musical note and a clapperboard, respectively), while others, such as the camera and Newsstand, look downright retro.

The only way that the iOS 7 visual language makes sense is if its designers' overarching principle was abstraction.

A few days ago, I was talking to Matt Frehner, one of the Globe's and Mail's mobile development wizards, about skeuomorphism. This is the fancy name given to the design process by which digital things are represented visually with images of their real-world counterparts. Skeuomorphism is the reason almost every Save button on every word processor in the world has a drawing of a little floppy disk on it.

In the lead-up to the iOS 7 announcement, everyone expected Apple to ditch skeuomorphism – and, with some exceptions, the company appears to be doing just that. Matt suggested that the reason Apple's designers could leave that mode of thinking behind is because smartphones are no longer new or exotic. People know how the devices work. In much of the Western world, nobody even calls them smartphones any more – they're just phones.

Apple executives took a lot of jabs at the whole concept of skeuomorphism at the iOS 7 launch event. But in truth, making the digital world look like the physical one was necessary in the early days of the iPhone, when smartphones were still unfamiliar things. In fact, the idea of real-world metaphors has always been essential to new digital technology. Perhaps the best example of this is the most popular operating system in the world, Microsoft Windows.

But now that smartphones are on their way to becoming commodity products, and nobody's daunted by the idea of swiping a finger across the screen or asking Siri to look up the capital of Uruguay, Apple's designers can afford to speak in abstractions. Over time, other smartphone makers are going to follow suite.

For a glimpse at the future of smartphone interface design, look at the dashboard console in your car. To somebody who has never been inside a car before, almost all the icons on all the buttons will make no sense. But everybody is familiar with cars, and this allows for an efficiency of design language.

Nobody looks at the air-conditioning selector in a car and thinks, "Hey, this must be the button that fires a large arrow directly into the driver's crotch."

With iOS 7, Apple has come up with a new (and controversial) design that recognizes smartphones are no longer exotic gadgets that need to be explained with real-world metaphors. It has ditched its version of the absurd "horsepower" metric. Now the company's customers will have to wait a few more months to find out whether Apple is willing to take equally big risks with the design of its hardware.

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