Back in September of 2013, Apple released its newest iteration of iOS 7, and marked the biggest release of iOS since Steve Jobs showed the world the first iPhone in 2007. As Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, puts it, the day iOS7 Launch was “the biggest day in technology ever. There has never been another day like this in the history of the universe where hundreds of millions of people will see a big change to something that they’re used to. Nothing of this scale has ever occurred.”
Over the last two years Apple’s technique of imitating the user interface as ordinary objects (skeuomorphism), from the green felted Game Center to the leather stitched Notes app, have intimidated designers the world over. For the many, it was regarded as the “new Comic Sans” of user interface, but using skeuomorphism is not necessarily a decision that Apple can avoid. Apple’s genius has always been in creating innovative user interface that look and feel like something much better than the future, but in order to achieve such a goal, skeuomorphism has to be used. From the very first folder icon on the Mac, skeuomorphism has been crucial to advancing and maintaining Apple’s reputation for “intuitiveness.”
The iPhone is testament to why skeuomorphism and imitation must be used to bring to this world a truly innovative product. The hardware was beautiful and the skeuomorphism user interfaced allowed it to be approachable for millions and millions of consumers around the world who had never had a smartphone. If skeuomorphism was not used, the iDevices we know of today may not have taken off the way we had seen in the last few years.
But it has now been 7 years and hundreds of millions of people around the world have grown accustomed to use them, and thus the market is, without a doubt, ready for something new, something exciting. Skeuomorphism is no longer a solution to a problem but instead a problem that needs a solution. Enter Jony Ive’s iOS 7.
When it comes to apps it does not necessarily mean a simple change in color, font or design. Its about the “physicality” of the operating, a platform that has taken skeuomorphism out of the user interface and put it into the layers behind the scenes that makes up the apps. This helps users to identify levels and structure within the apps as if they were papers in a folder. No longer will apps be about visually mimicking real-life objects, it will instead be about how the apps work, and the way objects move and interact with your finger and other elements on the screen. iOS 7 stripped back extraneous visual elements and user interface of and made it so content was center stage instead.
Apart from redesigning apps that utilizes the physics of iOS 7, effects and UI animation are key to creating the “feel good” factor for the users. Another way to put it, its not necessarily about aesthetics performance. Apps that are optimized for iOS 7 not only looks better, but feels better.
With iOS 7 there is a push now to create the illusion of “direct manipulation”. Apple has always been at the forefront in creating this illusion from implementing swiping to scroll, pinching to zoom, and dragging and dropping objects. With iOS 7 Apple has taken the concept one step further, where apps spring into life from inside their icons and pages within apps can be swept aside when you want to go back.
“Previously, a lot of time was spent on making interfaces skeuomorphic (with buttons, app icons, tape decks as pod casts, etc.). By stripping those visual elements away, you move the interface conversation toward one of function over form.” says Cap Watkins, design lead at Etsy. When apps chooses to focus on function instead of serving weird looking buttons, users benefit, and an app is inherrently better.
Leading up to the launch of iOS 7 many developers are in a stalemate in the same way that iOS has been for the past couple of year. At the time there seems to be very little innovation left in the platform with only the releases of incremental updates year after year and additional features as consolation gifts for the fact.
As soon as it was released at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference in the summer of 2013, everyone was excited. It was with the disruption in the looks and feel of iPhones and all Apple devices. iOS 7 allowed developers the opportunity to redesign and remake themselves into something new, in the same way that Jony Ive remade iOS. It allowed developers to give users a reason to buy a new version of an app. Not only did developers need to remake the looks and feel of apps, but they also had told to rewrite an entire app to take advantage of all iOS 7 had to offer.
However, re-creating any application can definitely pose difficulties for developers. Many believed that the most difficult part in designing an app is when one has to reinterpret their app and truly find what is at the core and heart is the change in feel in iOS 7 is so radical, and minimalistic, that the instinct was simply to take away everything to boil down to its fundamentals.
While the foundations of how interactions work in iOS 6 and iOS 7 are similar, the looks and feel is redefined in the latter. Many users will immediately perceive apps that is not “optimized” for iOS 7 as bland and old. The consensus between all developers is that iOS 7 is simply harder to design for than iOS 6, even though its interface elements are simpler in nature. In fact the simplicity and minimalism of the platform makes every choice important and sometimes forces designers to settle for “minimal” when the answer to the problem is not necessarily, simple.
Commonly, people think that the overhaul of iOS 7 is simply a redesign of the old platform. Jony Ive opened the door to other product categories that Apple had never ventured into before. The overall visual look of iOS is no longer only limited to the iPads and iPhones, instead the new design could potentially be used in the iTV, iWatch, and perhaps even an iCar of the future.
Even though iOS started with smartphones and then on to tablets, the long term goal for Apple is much more ambitious. Alongside iOS 7, Apple announced that iOS will also be running on cars in the future with it’s partners—dubbed “iOS in the Car”. New features include allowing drivers to call, listen to music, access maps, or even send messages, all from the car’s dash screen.At the time no one actually saw at the time, but iOS In The Car was a hint why iOS had been redesigned in the first place. As it turns out, an operating system designed to be flat is much better at adapting itself for multiple platforms, screens, and devices.
From a design perspective, visually, iOS in the Car is consistent with its bigger brother in iOS 7 on iPhones and iPads, but it’s user interface, however is quite different for example, instead of square icons, iOS in the car uses rectangular buttons and the display is usally in landscape. Having a flat designs allows for this type of transformation. If you put two icons next to each other, one from iOS 6 and one from iOS 7, the latter will be able to expand easily both horizontally and vertically by simply filling the new occupying space with the colors on the edges of the original icon, while the former would require the icon artist to redo the art to better suit the new shape to better adapt the chrome and effects.
By going all flat, it would be a very easy job for Apple to adapt its array of icons and its entire visual language to any new device from car to watch. If Apple had not redesigned iOS 7 to be flat, this would be impossible.
Since it’s launch in 2007 with the iPhone, the question at the start has been whether iOS can truly have all the features to be a complete smartphone? We now know that iOS is able to do more than be feature rich. With skeuomorphism out of the way, Jony Ive has cleared the final large road block out of iOS, it is up to app developers to bring more to the platform.
Going forward it will be increasingly harder to guess what features will come next on the succeeding OS, since the essential of what we need is already here but what we want is not necessarily known. Right now, for all of us, it is perhaps better not to be excited about what the new OS will be, but instead be excited about what the devices iOS will be running on in the coming future.