Apple is prepping the release of iOS 7 to their users sometime in the next couple of months. The developers are already testing it out to find bugs and polish their apps in anticipation of the user base adopting Jonathan Ive‘s vision for a mobile operating system. In many ways, it’s still the same core software we’ve been using for many years now with a few radical changes to the look and feel. The icons and lack of skeumorphism are getting the most press. But I found something that I think has the ability to be even bigger than that.
The user interface (UI) elements in the previous iOS builds all look very similar. This is no doubt due to the influence of Scott Forestall, the now departed manager of iOS. The dearth of glossy buttons and switches looked gorgeous back in 2007 when the iPhone was first released. But all UI evolves over time. Some evolve faster than others. Apple hit a roadblock because of those very same buttons. They were all baked into the core UI. Changing them was like trying to correct a misspelled word in a stone carving. It takes months of planning to make even the smallest of changes. And those changes have to be looked at on a massive scale to avoid causing issues in the rest of the OS.
iOS 7 is different to me. Look at this pic of an incoming call and compare it with the same screen in iOS 6:
The iOS 6 picture has buttons. The iOS 7 picture is different. Instead of have chiseled buttons, it looks like the Answer and Decline buttons have been stuck to the screen with labels. That’s not the only place in the UI that has a label-like appearance. Sending a new iMessage or text to someone in the Messages app looks like applying a stamp to a piece of paper. Taking all that into consideration, I think I finally understand what Ive is trying to do with this UI shift in iOS 7
Labels are easy to reapply. You just peel them off and stick them back on. Unlike the chiseled-in-stone button UI, a label can quickly and easily be reconfigured or replaced if it starts to look dated. Apple made mention of this in Ive’s iOS 7 video where he talked about creating “hierarchical layers (to) establish order“. Ive commented that this approach gives depth to the OS. I think he’s holding back on us.
Jonathan Ive created UI layers in the OS so he can change them out more quickly. Think about it. If you only have to change a label in an app or change the way they are presented on screen, it allows you to make more rapid changes to the way the OS looks. If the layers are consistent and draw from the same pool of resources, it allows you to skin the OS however you want with minimal effort. Ive wasn’t just trying to scrub away the accumulation of Scott Forrestal’s ideas about the UI. He wanted to change them and make the UI so flexible that the look can be updated in the blink of an eye. That gives him the ability to change elements at will without the need to overhaul the system. That kind of rapid configurability gives Apple the chance to keep things looking fresh and accommodate changing tastes.
I can almost hear people now saying that making future iOS releases able to be skinned is just another rip off of Android’s feature set. In some ways, you are very right. However, consider that Android was always designed with modularity in mind from the beginning. Google wanted to give manufacturers and carriers the ability to install their own UI. Think about how newsworthy the announcement of a TouchWiz-free Galaxy S4 was. Apple has always considered the UI inviolate in all their products. You don’t have much freedom to change things in iOS or in OS X. Jonathan Ive is trying to set things up so that changes can be made more frequently in iOS. Modders will likely find ways to insert their own UI elements and take these ideas in an ever more radical direction. And all because Apple wanted to be able to peel off their UI pieces as easily as a label.