If you want to see the future of apps, look to Apple’s new stock apps. Photo: Ariel Zambelich / WIRED
You probably feel strongly about iOS 7. Maybe you love it. Maybe you hate it. Maybe you just can’t get over that Safari icon (what were they thinking!?). But change is polarizing, and this is a fairly big change, so the general freak-out is understandable. Soon enough, though, you’ll get used to it, and iOS 6 will be the one that looks weird.
But the shake-up won’t end this week. Apple’s new OS isn’t just a wham-bam makeover–at least, it isn’t only that. In months and even years to come, iOS 7 will set a different trajectory for apps, changing not just how they look, but how they work, and in some cases, who’s building them, too. A phone full of fresh new apps is a nice treat today, but the most exciting thing about iOS 7 is the groundwork it lays for the future–the space it clears for a new generation of apps yet to be cooked up. As Jony Ive has said, iOS 7 isn’t just a new direction; in many ways, it’s a beginning. But the beginning of what, exactly?
iOS 7 will change how apps work, and in some cases, who’s building them.
Bulldozing the App World
The story we’ve all heard is that with iOS 7, Apple’s going flat. In a sense, that’s true. Things are indeed flatter in iOS 7 than they have been in versions past. But it’s not flat for flat’s sake. The new software looks the way it does not just because the shadows and bevels of previous incarnations were stale or tacky; it’s because they were fundamentally limiting the types of things that were being built for the iPhone. The new visual language not just about stripping away unnecessary visual ornamentation–it’s about tearing down the whole thing down and starting anew.
Gentry Underwood, the co-founder of Mailbox and a former IDEO designer, is excited about that new beginning (and he’s not even ticked off that Apple’s new stock mail app was clearly, um, influenced by some of Mailbox’s colorful, swipe-activated sorting options). To understand the full significance of the current moment, Underwood thinks we should look at the history of iOS. Back when the iPhone was launched, Blackberrys ruled the world. “If you imagine launching the iPhone in 2007, here you are trying to sell this iPhone that’s one big glass screen, and far and away the best and fastest growing phone at the time has 30 or 40 physical buttons on it,” he says. So it fell to Apple to ease people into this strange new buttonless world. They did it, understandably, by making a bunch of fake buttons. “I think there was a need to hold the world’s hand and help them transition into interacting with glass by creating a visual suggestion of the world they were familiar with,” Underwood says. “So Apple spent a lot of time creating these artificial worlds.”
iOS 7 isn’t just prettier to use, it’s more accessible to build for, too.
Developers spent a lot of time on those artificial worlds too. Apple led; devs followed. And it quietly established an ecosystem where building an app not only took an idea and a work ethic–but also the visual chops to let you get things looking a certain way. In previous versions of iOS, the idea was just the start. “Then you had to spend a lot of time creating a visual polish on top of that function that was very specific to the medium,” Underwood explains. “It required a lot of trickery. You had to know how to use all sorts of esoteric features of Photoshop.”
That, of course, meant you lost a lot of people who could be potentially making great products. But with the stark new visual style of iOS 7, that’s likely to change. Apple’s new OS isn’t just prettier to use, it’s more accessible to build for, too. It refocuses the whole expectation of an app to the solution, not how flashily that solution is packaged. Basically, the new design language makes it simpler to turn a good idea into a first-class app, even without knowing how to bounce fake light off of a lickable button. As Underwood puts it, “I think iOS 7 fundamentally makes it easier to build a great app than ever before.”
Apple’s spirit level app leads the way for “simple, thoughtful” digital tools.
Deferring to Apps
On one level, iOS 7′s new simplified visual language lowers the bar for entry. But it also puts a premium on genuinely thoughtful design. Whereas iOS 6′s stock UIKit gave designers all the trappings they needed to build something that read as a “good app,” now content and interactions are pushed to the forefront. “This is a space where there’s no reward for fancy veneer for its own sake,” Underwood says. “It’s a space that rewards thoughtful application of design focused on simplicity.”
This shift is something we can trace to Jony Ive. Across all the different products he’s overseen as hardware demigod, one of the enduring principles of Ive’s philosophy of hardware design is one of deference. Apple products should be beautiful, his thinking went, but not beautiful for their own sake. Even at their most stunning, or their most spunky, the stuff you’re doing on those devices is what’s really important, and Ive’s work, since the start, has been one of building products that get out of the way.
‘This is a space where there’s no reward for fancy veneer.’
As Ive has taken control of the software, he’s brought that philosophy along with him. “In many ways, we have tried to create an interface that is unobtrusive and deferential. One where the design recedes, and in doing so, elevates your content,” he explains in the hero video for iOS 7. Where iPhones were once built to get out of the way of iOS, now iOS is built to get out of the way of apps.
As developers find their way in this new world–one where they’re being deferred to instead of actively planned for–we might see a more homogenous App Store, at least to start. “In the early days, you’ll see a lot more unification, where devs are taking what they’ve seen Apple do and using that very literally,” says Jamie Hull, Product Manager for the new iOS 7 of Evernote, the popular note-cataloging app that saw a full overhaul last week. “But I do believe that will be temporary. You used to see that a few years ago, back in iOS 4. The apps that were up to date felt very much like they sat on the same platform. Everybody started picking up those same tap bars and tables, and they looked fairly similar. Then there became a lot more freedom for figuring out what that meant for you.”
Gabe Campodonico, Hull’s colleague and Evernote’s lead UI designer for iOS 7, agrees. And far from being a simple steamrolling, he thinks the new direction will yield more interesting genres of app design. “There were people saying everything’s going to flat design–that’s not really a real thing. That’s a made up thing. As if the world is split into what’s flat and what’s not flat. In reality, there’s a whole spectrum of things,” he explains. “I do think you will see a broader spectrum of things on iOS 7.” And in addition to the visual style, there’s iOS 7′s new emphasis on animations to consider–something Underwood thinks will offer a “new axis” of user experience for developers and designers to explore.
Expanding What’s Possible
The new stock apps are cohesive in philosophy, not flourish.
For a sense of what the next generation of apps might look like, look no further than the ones Apple includes with the new OS. Instead of a suite of glossy applications, unified by their rigid adherence to pseudo-physicality, they’re now a collection of simple but distinctly independent tools. Each looks and works totally different from the rest–which makes sense, considering that voice recorders and calendars and compasses all pose their own problems and demand their own solutions.
On one hand, these stock apps exhibit a shift in what matters in iOS 7. “Because you don’t have to worry about building a bunch of extra pseudo-physicality, it creates these opportunities to create these beautiful, simple, truly digital first experiences that are unlike anything in the real world,” Underwood says of the native apps. Not only does iOS 7 free designers from focusing on the tiresome details of the old visual language; it liberates them from thinking about real world analogs for their designs entirely.
It also quietly opens up the opportunity for more functionality. In the case of the new iMessage, for example, the fluid, bouncing chat bubbles allow Apple to solve one of the app’s greatest annoyances–by bringing some liquid life to the individual messages and freeing them from the their locked-in grid, Apple gave itself a way to let users access the timestamp for each message, revealed by sliding the conversation to the left. “The new morphing, fluid bubbles solve one of the oldest trade offs in that app,” Underwood says.
The stock compass also got an overhaul in iOS 7–a gorgeous minimalist read-out that strips away all the older version’s visual cruft. But it also includes a stunning geometric spirit level–a precise digital tool that undoubtedly would’ve been rendered as a fake air bubble (maybe an old iMessage?) in iOS past. The new voice memo app, instead of shoving an old timey microphone in your face, lets you see the wave form as you’re reading, offering a sense of how loud your level are. “Some of those native apps in the new OS are just incredible,” Underwood says. “They’re delightful for themselves, and they’re delightful in a new way … It makes me wonder how much we’ve been missing building fake versions of tape players and paper shredders.”
These are the types of thoughtful, simple apps Apple’s encouraging with the new OS. It’s a totally new lead for developers to follow. In Underwood’s words, the new example leaves devs “free to focus on facilitating function as efficiently as possible, with a form that’s as simple as possible.” With iOS 7, he says, “you’re given the permission to express yourself in a much more simple and direct way…It’s a wonderfully liberating experience.”
If you want to step back and look at it in that larger historical context, it’s easy: The big slab of glass won. We might miss our Blackberry keyboards now and then, but at this point, we know just how these touchscreens are supposed work. Apple built the first iOS with the intention of easing us into a new digital world. Now that we’re comfortable in it, we’re going to start seeing what it can really do.
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