The Real Power of iOS 7 Will Be Unlocked by Developers

Playing with early betas of iOS 7 tells you little about what to expect from Apple’s latest iOS update

A lot has already been written in reaction to Apple’s announcement of iOS 7. Most of the focus has been on the aesthetics of the changes. A number of articles have been written on the new app icons alone. (Interestingly I’ve read more than one article panning the icons, yet an online poll showed that most users prefer the new icons to the old iOS 6 icons.) And a lot of focus has been put on the debate between skeuomorphism and flat design. At the same time, most reviews have criticized the lack of new features in iOS 7. The gist of many reviews is that iOS 7 is little more than a lipstick reno of Apple’s mobile operating system. These reviews miss some the big changes in Apple’s new operating system. In short the early reviews should be ignored, because it’s not until users see what developers do with iOS 7 that the real depth will be revealed to users.

Saying iOS 7 is just about going flat is akin to writers calling the iPad nothing more than a giant iPhone when it was announced

The announcement of iOS 7 reminds me a little of the announcement of the iPad. At the time one of the most common comments made about the iPad was that it was nothing but a giant iPhone. It’s easy to understand why the iPad was so quickly dismissed by tech writers. At the time of it’s introduction, other than the small collection of Apple made apps, every app in the App Store was designed and written for the iPhone. The iPhone’s 3.5″ screen was the only display size developers had ever considered when building apps. The iPad stopped being referred to as nothing more than a big iPhone when developers unlocked the true potential of the new device by designing apps tailored to it’s larger screen size. And to help developers Apple provided developers with new SDKs when they launched the iPad; SDKs designed to unlock the potential offered by the larger screen of the device. For example Apple added the UISplitViewController that allowed developers to present master/detail data in a way that made much better design use of the larger iPad screen than the standard UITableViewController developers would use in iPhone apps. (The UISplitViewController is what allows the Mail app on the iPad to show your inbox on the left while showing your currently selected email on the right, a rather important design difference between the Mail app on iPad versus the Mail app on iPhone.)

The details are in the SDKs

Tech writers may not have explored all the goodies inside the new iOS 7 SDK but the mobile team at Intelliware has taken a look and we’ve found some truly exciting new features that are going to change the way a lot of developers write apps. As those new apps roll out, users are going to realize that iOS 7 brings more to the table than a flat design. In fact iOS 7 adds depth more than it flattens and iOS 7 does not get rid of skeuomorphism, but rather simply changes the skeumorphic metaphors. Let’s take a closer look at just a couple of examples.

New text layout options

One focus in iOS 7 is new tools for developers for handling text. I can tell you from personal experience that doing magazine quality content layouts for iPhone or iPad using native UI widgets can be a pain. In the past we have often chosen to produce fancy content layouts using a UIWebView with HTML 5. While this choice has some cross-platform advantages over pure native development, the real driving force behind the decision has often been that it’s just easier to achieve the desired content design using HTML 5 than it is using the native UI widgets provided by Apple. With iOS 7 Apple is looking to fix that. The new SDKs for doing content layouts and handling text mean developers can quickly achieve almost any design conceived by the graphics team. For example getting text to flow around in-line images is now easy, as is loading new fonts or controlling how text flows on different screen sizes. In fact Apple has integrated these tools at the OS level for an even better overall user experience. For example Apple allows developers to now specify text as large, medium, small rather than using a specific font or point size. The advantage is that a user can specify a specific size for “small” “medium” and “large” fonts in their iOS system preferences, choosing the type size that suits their eyes and reading preferences. Meaning 3rd party apps coded using these new text properties will automatically adjust their content presentation based on global users preferences and present a better experience for users without extra work by developers.

Physics metaphors for a new modern UI

Another exciting SDK addition to iOS 7 is the addition of UIKit Dynamics. Apple has put a physics engine right into the UIKit layer of iOS 7, allowing developers to achieve some pretty interesting effects with just a few lines of code. For example if a developer wants to have a sheet of options that a user can drag up from the bottom of the screen, they can place a UIView on another view and give it gravity. When the user pulls up the view they will see the additional options but when the user releases their finger gravity will take effect on the view and it will drop back down to the bottom of the screen automatically. The same effect could be achieved in iOS 6, but the developer would have to manage all the animations manually. Now it’s just a couple of lines of code. To achieve a similar effect, but where the info view is pulled down from the top of screen the developer can attached a spring to the view so that when the user lets go it automatically snaps back to the top. Developers will no doubt find many creative ways to use these physics tools. At WWDC Apple showed a few interesting examples of ways to use the physics engine in your UI to make interfaces more intuitive and interactive. For example they used gravity on views to allow a user to “flick” photos at different containers in order to sort the photos. The gravity on the container views would pull in the photos.

Apple is about design and design is something you experience

Apple is a company that is always focused on good design. They take care with the design of their products and promote themselves as a design oriented company. (In fact a new ad campaign is all about the “Designed by Apple in California” stamp you see on all Apple products, so design is something that Apple doesn’t take lightly.) The importance Apple places on design is the reason they insist on controlling so much of the user ecosystem for their products. Apple directs users to iTunes for content, and spends the money they do to curate content, because Apple wants to get the end to end user experience for each product perfect. And design is about more than how something looks. Good design is an experience and that’s what Apple sells. iOS 7 is an overhaul on that user experience and a large part of iOS 7 is about giving 3rd party developers the tools to provide users with a continuation of that great Apple experience whether the user is in an Apple app or not. Since the App Store opened Apple has always published design guidelines for developers and has even rejected apps for not adhering to Apple design guidelines. With iOS 7 Apple is giving developers new tools, guides, and help to produce apps that reflect the new design focus at Apple. This is important because since the iPhone launched it’s become clear that the phone is really only as good as the apps users choose to install on it. The real power of iOS 7 will be revealed to users only when developers take the new tools Apple has provided and build apps specifically for iOS 7.

Some final notes

With iOS 7 expect the very best developers of the very best apps to push the design bar higher. When developers can use physics simulations and parallax effects with a few lines of code expect the bar to be raised on what constitutes a great app that stands out from the crowd. If you have apps in the App Store now and you want your apps to continue to stand out as best in class you’d best start thinking about how to use what’s new in iOS 7 in your app, because the expectations of your users are going to change as other developers delight them with the powerful new features. And remember, iOS is really about a new design direction for Apple and in that sense it’s more like a version 1.0. iOS 8 and 9 are going to build on direction Apple has taken with iOS 7.

It’s also going to be interesting watching how Mobile cross-platform development tools, HTML 5 frameworks and other mobile OS makers respond to iOS 7, especially after it’s had some time in market and developers have had an opportunity to build apps with it. Is JQuery or Sencha going to add in physics effects to match what native developers can do. Will Google give developers similar tools in a future version of Android. If the apps built for iOS 7 prove to be popular and people clamor for these new UI features that may force others to follow Apple once again. iOS 7 is a lot more of an innovation that anyone yet realizes, but when the new apps start pouring in the store that will become clear.

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