Why iOS 7 was more than a design refresh – and how it influences the current OS
The iPhone is the most successful consumer product of all time, with over 700 million units sold since 2007. The iPhone’s big sibling, the iPad also regularly ranks on lists of the top selling consumer products of all time, with over 250 million sold since 2010. So successful is the iPhone, that it has propelled Apple to be the most profitable company, by a long stretch, ever.
As the software that runs on Apple’s mobile products and is the basis for watchOS, CarPlay, tvOS, iOS is crucial for the continued success of Apple.
When Apple unveiled iOS 7, it introduced a new flat design that threw out the idea that apps should use a skeuomorphic design and instead use flat colours, comprised of different layers. With iOS 9, it has become increasingly apparent that iOS 7 was about much more than a design refresh, it was Apple’s minimum viable product for its grand mobile vision.
There is a valid argument around Apple’s decision to use skeuomorphism with its first generation iOS (which we’ll now call iOS 1 to 6). Apple needed to have a way of helping users to use and learn how to interact with a slab of glass with minimal buttons. By making apps look like physical objects, the familiarity helped people understand how to use apps. Apps were standalone pieces of software designed to be used in isolation, which is worlds apart from where we are today.
iOS 7 ushered in a new, flat and often white background built around layers. With iOS 9, many people who have used 3D Touch comment on how the design of iOS suddenly makes a huge amount of sense. Layers are designed to peek and pop using 3D Touch. Apps too are designed around this. Where a link in one app opens another app, the second app slides over the existing app. The inclusion of the ‘Back to’ button gives the impression that the original app is sitting in the background.
To get to the features and interconnectivity that has been introduced with iOS 8 and iOS 9, Apple had to move away from skeuomorphism. It had to be digital first. In many ways, iOS 7 took the fundamentals of iOS 1 to 6 and truly digitised them. The move to a relatively simple, flat design meant that the OS would easily scale to different sized screens (apps on iOS now need to support 4, 4.7, 5.5, 7.9, 9.7 and 12.9 inch screens, with apps on iPad also supporting slide over and Split Screen).
The starting point
To build its new future, Apple needed to have a clean design that wouldn’t look out of date in a few years time. Though some commentators thought iOS 7 was overly simple, it’s a design that still looks and feels fresh three years later. It’s more timeless and therefore requires fewer overhauls. Instead of having to do major design overhauls, Apple can focus on adding new features and refining the OS as it advances.
Rather than making any big design overhauls, it’s likely that Apple will continue to focus on building added intelligence to iOS. Apple’s hasn’t taken a sledgehammer approach and introduced everything all at once, but instead has phased in features with every iOS improvement.
Last year, for example, saw the introduction of Share sheets where users could choose which apps to share or open specific file types with. This year, Apple introduced Proactive Search, to make certain terms searchable at a system level. Apple is likely taking a cautioned approach to this because of its stance on user privacy.
Mobile operating systems are going to become increasingly smarter over time, taking vastly different approaches. Apple is reportedly hiring an increasing number of artificial intelligence experts to help build added intelligence to its mobile OS. Recently, it acquired VocalIQ, a UK based company that could help to bolster Siri in future versions of iOS.
Indeed, looking at the companies that Apple has acquired over the past few years, all signs point towards it adding intelligence to its software. One of the big challenges that Apple has when doing this is how to add intelligence, without compromising a user's privacy and security. Apple is very vocal when it comes to its stance on user privacy, making it more of a challenge to add intelligence.
Adding intelligence is usually done by collecting as much information and data as possible to analyse it and deliver back contextual results. So far, Apple hasn’t opened up Siri to any great extent to developers, though with HomeKit and Proactive, Apple is starting to approach ways in which it can add intelligence, without compromising user privacy.
iOS is Apple’s future
At a recent Box conference, Tim Cook reaffirmed that Apple has no plans to merge iOS with OS X, instead keeping them as two separate platforms that are able to communicate with each other and use features like HandOff to work together. According to Cook, “These operating systems do different things. We have no intention to blend them.”
Yet, iOS is the underlying operating system for Apple Watch, tvOS and CarPlay. Not only does iOS account for the majority of Apple’s revenue, thanks to the iPhone, but it is also the base for all of its new device categories. Of course, it makes good sense for Apple to base new products on iOS - the phone is the device that you will use to control all other devices.
Why is this important?
From a development perspective, it helps to listen to what Apple says with its new OS updates. Apple will often lay the groundwork for new, larger features that are due to come in future versions of its OSes. Recent examples of these include Auto Layout, first introduced in 2012, and Size Classes, introduced with iOS 7.
With iOS 9, Auto Layout and Size Classes have become increasingly important for developers to work with following changes to the iPad and the introduction of Split Screen and Slide Over. Developers who have built apps using Auto Layout for the past few years have had to make only minor tweaks for iOS 9 and iPad Multitasking.
The same is true across a number of different new technologies that Apple has introduced in recent years. By keeping up with new OSes and optimising apps to work for these updated versions, developers have less work to do when it comes to major changes that get introduced.
By following best practice when it comes to creating apps, across any of the platforms, companies are able to not only deliver the best apps possible, but also to ensure that apps are optimised for future changes.