Is iOS 7 Just A Mask?

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Jony Ive and the rest of the design team at Apple really pushed the boat out when it came to refreshing the look of its next-generation mobile operating system. Everything from the icons to the menus is dramatically different in iOS 7, and largely unlike anything Apple has ever developed before.

While reactions to the new design have been mixed, you have to commend the Cupertino company for making such significant changes in such a short space of time. Scott Forstall, who was previously in charge of all things iOS, left Apple just eight months ago, and it wasn’t until then that Ive was given the opportunity to make his mark on the platform.

 Ive has  made it very clear that his idea of software design is very different from Scott Forstall.

One thing’s for sure: Ive has certainly made it very clear that his idea of software design is vastly different than Forstall’s. If Forstall was still at Apple, there’s a good chance iOS 7 would look largely identical to iOS 6… and iOS 5, iOS 4, iOS 3… you get the picture.

iOS 7 doesn’t just boast a new look, either; it also delivers a number of key new features, some of which we’ve been asking for a long time. Those include Control Center, which gives us the ability to control music and toggle certain settings from anywhere; and improved multitasking, with scheduled updates and the ability to preview what’s happening inside your apps before you jump into them.

The Mask

The iOS 7 home screen.

The iOS 7 home screen.

It’s true. A number of the things we were calling for ahead of iOS 7 — the new look, the ability to change settings from anywhere, automatic app updates — have now been delivered, and we have to appreciate that Apple can only change so much in 12 months.

But there are a number of other important features — maybe more important than the annihilation of skeuomorphism — that are still missing from iOS. These things aren’t being talked about right now, because the novelty of iOS 7 is yet to wear off, but these features are still conspicuous for their absence.

iOS 7’s new design is currently acting as a mask. It’s so significant that for the majority of users, there isn’t a second thought about anything else. The question isn’t “Can I do anything new?” but “How new does it look?” But when the dust settles, it’ll be easier to spot the features that are still missing.

And things are missing, because underneath all the new frost and parallax, iOS 7 is essentially the same operating system as iOS 6. While there are some terrific improvements, it’s not the grand departure from its predecessors that it seems.

Let’s go over some of the things that are still missing.

Communication Between Apps

We’ll start with the big one. iOS apps still don’t talk to each other like they should.

Let’s use an easy example to illustrate what we’re talking about. Let’s say you want to share a photo from inside the Photos app. If you tap the ‘Share’ button,  your options will include messaging, email, iCloud, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

Fair enough. But what if you want to share via WhatsApp? Or Google+? Or Skype? Or send your photo to a service like Dropbox or Evernote? Your only recourse is to open each of these apps separately and upload the image to them, one at a time.

Sharing options on iOS vs. Android.

Sharing options on iOS vs. Android.

This isn’t the way it has to be. OS X, for example, allows apps to communicate with each other. You can fairly easily shoot a file from one app to the next. The ability for apps to talk to one another without each app having been specifically programmed to know some arcane secret handshake with every other app is part of what gives an operating system its sense of cohesion.

Yet this rudimentary ability is missing from iOS. In fact, it’s all over the place, whether sharing links in Safari, videos in YouTube, and files in Dropbox. Unless an app has been pre-programmed to “know” it can share with one specific app, they simply can’t communicate. It’s a messy and inconvenient system: not at all what you’d expect from Apple software.

But this isn’t a mobile limitation. Apps talk to each other just fine on Android without any fancy tricks. When I take a picture on my HTC One, I can go into my Gallery app and then send then image just about anywhere — and I’ve only had to open one app manually.

iOS apps need a deeply integrated service to talk to one another. That’s more important than iOS getting a fresh new look: it would result in a fresh new feel, and untold new possibilities for app developers. Why isn’t Apple concentrating on that?

Default Apps

While we’re on the subject of apps, let’s quickly address the issue of Default Apps.

In iOS 7, Apple still won’t let you choose a third-party app as a default app. Hate Safari? You can’t set Chrome as your default web browser. Don’t like Mail? You have no option to make Mailbox your default mail client. And even after Mapsgate, iOS users have no way to make Google Maps the default maps app, short of a jailbreak. Apple still forces you to use its own apps, and there’s no good reason why.

It’s almost as if Apple doesn’t trust us to choose our own default apps.

It’s almost as if Apple thinks we can’t be trusted to choose our own defaults — like Apple’s worried that it’s going to have a Genius Bar full of people who accidentally set Chrome as their default browser and can’t work out why Safari won’t open when they click on links.

Maybe this is a genuine concern. But we’ve all learned to deal with this kind of thing on our desktops, and other mobile devices powered by other platforms. We should be able to deal with it on our iPhones and iPads, too. And as iPhones and iPads replace our PCs and laptops, it’s only natural that they inherit some of their tweakability

Customization

What SwiftKey might look like on your iPhone.

What SwiftKey might look like on your iPhone.

The ability to tweak our iPhones and iPads doesn’t have to end at setting default apps, though. We should also be able to install third-party tweaks on our iOS devices, and we shouldn’t have to jailbreak to do it. These don’t have to be big changes that will completely change the way our devices operate: even simple tweaks, like third-party keyboards and icon packs, would greatly enhance the way in which we connect with our iDevices.

After all, not everyone likes the keyboard Apple provides in iOS, and it would be nice if we could install something like SwiftKey, which has become so popular on Android. Tweaks like these could be sold through the App Store just like iOS apps, and Apple can demand the same 30% cut it does on everything else — it’s a win-win situation.

Admittedly, this is a big ask, especially from Apple, who is famous for locking down its software and not allowing us to tinker with it. But there is some hope. During his interview at D11 back in June, Tim Cook said, “I think you will see us open up more in the future.” Let’s hope this means the ability to customize our devices.

Live Icons

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see today’s weather forecast, or the latest sports scores, or how many page views you’re getting on your blog, without having to open up an app? Simple information like this should be accessible from the home screen, but that’s still not possible in iOS 7.

The Clock app has a live icon in iOS 7.

The Clock app has a live icon in iOS 7.

Apple has given us one live icon with the Clock app, which now shows the time, but that’s as far as live icons go on iOS. Hopefully, it’s the start of something, and future iOS releases bring us more.

I have a great idea how live icons should work on iOS. Imagine you could tap and hold an icon and then change the size of it, so that instead of taking up just one space on your home screen, it could take up two or three, or even more. The more space it has, the more information it can display.

I’ve created a (poor) mockup below that explains what I mean. I’ve used Twitterrific as an example. As you can see, when it’s taking up just one space, the icon is static — just like normal. But as it gets bigger, it can display things like the number of mentions, direct messages, and retweets that are waiting for you inside the app.

iOS-7-live-icons-mockup

This is a simple example, of course, but the same concept could apply to all kinds of different apps.

These aren’t simple changes, and Apple cannot implement them all in one year  so we shouldn’t have expected that. Apple’s priority with iOS 7 was clearly to remove all of the design niggles we had been complaining about and introduce a fresh new look that would immediately signal its change of direction under new leadership.

iOS 8 should be something special.

But let’s not forget that rival platforms have had some of these features for a number of years. Apple has had lots of opportunities to match them, or even take the basic concepts and create even better experiences. But it hasn’t.

As a result, iOS has gone from a cutting-edge mobile operating system that’s way ahead of everything else to a platform that’s now trying to catch up to its rivals in many key areas.

But iOS 8 should be something special. Now that the new design is here, Apple can finally concentrate on the core features beneath it and address the things that iOS is currently lacking.

I’ll bet that a lot of the features I’ve mentioned in this piece or others like them are here next fall, alongside many more that could give iOS the edge over its rivals once again.

About the author

Killian BellKillian Bell is a staff writer based in the U.K. He has an interest in all things tech and also covers Android over at CultofAndroid.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @killianbell.

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