iOS 7 first impressions: Anything but flat

It can’t have escaped many geeks’ notice that on Monday, Apple previewed the forthcoming new versions of their desktop interface, OSX 10.9, and their operating system for handhelds, iOS 7.

Everybody can view the presentations from Monday’s World Wide Developer Conference keynote, and the marketing information that has been released. As a registered app developer who will have to make sure their app is iOS 7-ready in time for the public launch in the autumn, though, I can get legal access to the first beta.

And while (as early betas can be) it is slow and crashes more often than it should – the changes in iOS 7 are only apparent when using it on an actual device. Watching a slick video doesn’t give you the full impression.

NB: There are swathes of non-disclosure agreements surrounding early access to iOS 7. This article is based purely on hands-on access to the features publicly disclosed by Apple, and experience of previous iOS upgrades.

Flat out flatness

“We’ll be getting a flat UI”, said all the publications who didn’t really have a clue what would be in iOS 7 before it was announced, but wanted to sound in the know anyway.

Actually, what we get is less 3D. It’s not the same thing.

Icons used to have a lighting effect added to them that made them look like bulbous, convex, physical buttons. Buttons in the navigation bar also had a more subtle rounded effect, and looked as if they were sited within a slightly debossed recess. But over the last few years, more and more app developers have been deliberately moving away from that style. They’d set a flag in their app that stopped iOS from applying the curved lighting effect to their icon, and hand-roll flatter buttons within their apps.

iOS 7 formalises that trend. Icons are now expected to be 2D in appearance, save for some colour gradients: any that retain their old iOS 3D effect now look strikingly out of place. And when you think about it, that’s how the trend in physical keyboards has been for years: we used to type on moulded, clunky keys – but for years, the standard Apple keyboards have been composed of flat, squared-off keys, all on the same plane.

And when you remove the cod 3D from the icons themselves, it frees up the third dimension for other purposes. In the keynote, the cute little parallax effect – as you rotate the phone, the wallpaper shifts in a perspective, suggesting it’s a few millimetres behind the icons – was the most visible one of these, but in reality you don’t notice that all that much. However, within apps, status bars and toolbars are designed to float above data that runs from edge to edge of the phone. The data, says this visual language, is the bedrock, the foundation of your app. Controls on how to manipulate it – if you can’t do so by direct touch – hover slightly above. Any dialog boxes demanding immediate attention site directly above those, and so on.

It’s not a particularly new conceit, but in reducing the amount of unnecessary 3D ‘chrome’, as it’s known, those places where use of a third dimension is heavily implied are all the stronger.

Not that it’s completely successful: what were once buttons with clearly-defined borders are now borderless, which doesn’t always work. And some of the standard iOS iconography, from an open book suggesting “bookmarked items” to the arrow springing out of a rectangle (for ‘action’, which in practical terms is generally sharing and/or exporting), have lost some of their clarity, let alone their beauty.

Some of these may be tweaked further as the beta process progresses. But I think what strikes me most is that, among Apple’s own built-in apps, there’s a level of consistency that hasn’t been there for a long time.

Lead by example

iOS 6 – and, to a far lesser extent, iOS 5 – made it easier for app developers to “skin” the standard user interface elements to fit their own look-and-feel. When used reasonably, and when adjustments were made carefully, developers could achieve a good balance: apps that worked within the standard iOS navigation patterns so users knew exactly what to do, but which reflected the brand identity of the company whose products and services they were using.

But some went too far. And by some, I mean Apple.

The chief offenders of the “let’s skin everything” craze were Apple’s own apps. Find my iPhone and, in particular, Find my Friends were far more egregious examples of the “textured effect” design ethos than the oft-quoted Calendar and Reminders apps on iPad ever where. Indeed, last year’s WWDC session videos (session 216, if you have access) included a whole section on how to skin your app as extensively as Find my Friends does.

It’s little wonder that Apple’s range of apps began to diverge from one another. And when that happens, why should third party developers continue to toe the line with bog-standard app layouts?

There’s been lots of speculation about how internal company politics fuelled the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-use-fake-leather-effects within Apple. I know that interests some people – but focussing on office politics is just as destructive as the politics themselves, so I’m not particularly interested in that side.

Regardless of how it has happened, Apple is now heading back to where it was at the start of the iOS development cycle: stating a firm intention on a good way to design apps, and putting its money where its mouth is. And yes, some of the design principles on display in their iOS 7 implementations bear a resemblance to well-designed Windows Phone and Android apps. That’s not really all that surprising.

What it hopefully means is that some of the excesses of third party developers also get reined in. When iOS’ big hitter apps rely upon clean interfaces with plenty of whitespace, hopefully others will follow so that their apps feel like they belong on the same phone. And the beauty of Apple’s basic iOS 7 being so clean and white is that other branding elements can possibly be introduced in subtler ways, so that companies who want their iOS apps to fit in with their multi-platform portfolio (imagine I used wanky air quotes around those words) will be able to do so without resorting to huge makeovers.

Let others take the credit

Much of the above is observation based on the public announcements within Monday’s keynote. However, most of what really changes within iOS 7 is under the hood, and therefore protected by the NDA all developers sign as part of their developer agreement.

However, I will say that with both iOS 5 and 6, the biggest advancements of all were not in the cosmetics, but in the APIs that developers were able to utilise within their own applications. With successive releases of iOS, certain tasks have got easier as more sensible defaults were assumed, common coding patterns were abstracted away and libraries were expanded to allow easier access to complex functions.

As a result, great app developers could spend more time innovating, thanks to improvements that would never make for a sexy phone shot on the Apple website. As a result, users benefit from improvements made by Apple, but the credit tended to go to the third party developers, without much user acknowledgement of the shoulders on which they stand.

I don’t mention this to denigrate the great third party app developers out there who have created powerful, successful commercial apps, or the developers who have open sourced some truly amazing code libraries that today form the basis of some of the biggest apps. I mention it only to say that previous criticism of iOS upgrades – from 4 to 5, from 5 to 6 – tended to ignore the underlying improvements in favour of critiques of the cosmetic.

With the transition from iOS 6 to 7, those cosmetic changes are huge. There’s no doubting. Opening up an iOS 6 app now, straight after using one designed for iOS 7, is jarring. The changes are also incomplete, and there are some very rough edges (I’m already hating the new Safari icon, which looks more like a wireframe approximation).

According to links that friends have shared with me, iOS 7 is just “catching up” with Windows Phone and Android with these changes. In some respects, that’s true. But without them, it was trailing – and catching up is the first thing you have to do if you intend to overtake.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.