iOS 7 - The world isn't flat

Definitely not black, white and flat all over

For designers, WWDC 13 will be considered the spiritual starting point of a race to adapt a rich ecosystem of apps to the new appearance of iOS 7. For users, it is a countdown for the debut of unexpected changes that discard six years of baggage and familiarity of the computer you use every day.

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Having used an iPhone since the day it launched, I have always received every update of the operating system as an unexpected present. What other mobile phone updates its software, right? The experience is something like a birthday gift: you are excited about it, you are grateful for receiving something for free, but you have to smile and pretend you like it even if you don't. Every new version of iPhone OS and now iOS has always felt a bit like this.

A week after Apple presented its new design direction for mobile software, I've even seen someone reading an article about Jonathan Ive and the reception of iOS 7 the Evening Standard (that's a mainstream free newspaper in the UK). That's how mainstream this flat design discussion is. After days reading the impressions of other bloggers, perhaps I should return to my live tweets when iOS 7 was announced and check how the new changes have settled.

The start of an evolution

Weeks before the WWDC 13 keynote, rumours of a new user interface philosophy were widespread, naturally supported by the appointment of Jonathan Ive boss of everything. For both the lovers and the haters, we should agree that Apple lived up to the hype with the changed introduced. As the rumours said, it will be strange enough to alienate users but loyal to the functionality we're used to. Although iOS 7 could be more radical, this is the most radical update since the iPhone was introduced by far. The result is something that will keep us talking until autumn, inevitably looking for the changes we expect with every beta seeded to developers.

Oh my! Not those icons

Even if the new spirit in iOS 7 is more about the global design language, the home screen and the stock Apple apps are the first thing every user will see after upgrading. Arguably, most users would not notice the slightly larger and rounder shape in the icons. What cannot be missed is the overly simplistic style of the gradients, glyphs and colour palette.

Squares, circles, squares with rounded corners and 45 degree angles

Squares, circles, squares with rounded corners and 45 degree angles

One of the ideas that summarises this very well is that iOS 7 has become for effeminate. Departing from the masculine wood, cold metal and shiny glass reflections, the new style favours equally skeuomorphic metaphors that I find more feminine. The overlay frosted glass panels in Control Centre and the Lock Screen give a smooth texture. They blur images and icons behind them, rendering an uneven canvas of pastel colour smears.

The icons themselves will have to be subject to revisions every now and then, as it has happened with past versions of the iPhone software. The icon for the Calculator app has changed at least three times in substantial ways, while other built-in apps have seen their icons tweaked over time. But that was with the old philosophy of iterating slowly on the designs with every release. The radical turn in iOS 7 might change this practice too.

Clean white sheets for content

As soon as you start peeking around that first shock fades away and you start to get familiar with the reinterpretation of the interface elements. In the majority of the contexts the starting point is a white sheet with a lot of text on cyan tones and predominance of why space. The strong presence of the very thin Helvetica Neue on the system is complemented by completely new glyphs. These share very thin borders and use simple shapes with 45 degree angles in Safari and Photos, outlines and silhouettes on Control Center and iTunes and object outlines on Mail and Weather.

For all the Helvetica Neue, they secretly slipped some Verdana

For all the Helvetica Neue, they secretly slipped some Verdana

The navigation elements on the top up the apps lean heavily on typography replacing buttons you where accustomed to, such as 'Back' and 'Edit'. Sharing inspiration from Windows Phones, it also shares the evident drawback that the iPhone screen is very narrow to fit too many characters. I'd like to see how this is localised and what solutions Apple and developers will come up with to solve overlapping text. Even some marketing materials show very disturbing alignments on those crammed navigation bars for an operating system that celebrates space.

When I say space, Apple says content. The whole idea is that interface elements disappear when not in use, a little like Instapaper sliding down the bottom toolbar when you're reading. This is actually very exciting and builds on what a lot of apps and web services are already doing. And this reminds me that by the end of the day, iOS 7 is a product of a design trend that makes the content the king.

Apple Weather and Yahoo! Weather. Twins separated at birth.

Apple Weather and Yahoo! Weather. Twins separated at birth.

Apple as a very design-focused company is not immune to global design influences, which seem laugh at the labour that goes into its skeuomorphic, crafting every pixel to resemble a real world object without any real justification. What we see today is not just a reaction to the user interfaces of competitors like Android and Windows Phone. It's a new product with the design sensibility of 2013. In five years these translucent panels, parallax effects and bright colours will be as out of touch as the fake leather stitching, dark linen and the green felt.

There are a lot of amazing things under the hood that I want to see in action — background updates for example — and inspire developers to take their apps to the next level. The new feature list has things for both geeks and non-geeks, so go and pick your favourite. The most striking aspect is the design, yes, but apart from your Android friend laughing at the Game Center bubbles, what you really want to care is that Game Center, Newsstand, Passbook, Notification Center or Siri might have some use now.