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Monday

iOS 7: Apple's mobile OS undergoes its largest facelift "since the first iPhone". Was the operation a success?

Apple has unveiled its latest 'innovation'.  Should we bite?

For the past couple of years, it seemed that Apple's ability to maintain its high-level of secrecy was beginning to wane.  Before the iPhone 5 was officially announced, I already knew what it would look like and what new features to expect.  While that type of foreknowledge isn't uncommon in the tech industry, it is something unique when we're talking about Apple, the company famous under the late founder Steve Jobs for its ability to keep everything, from small details to entire products, hidden from the press and general public.  This secrecy is what has inspired the rapid sell-outs of Apple press events, the reason that people are so transfixed by Apple's activities.  Not only do we not know where they're going to go next, but it's likely that they'll change the industry in some key ways as they have in the past. The Mac made personal computing more friendly and minimalistic, the iPad surged life into a dying tablet market, and the iPhone led the frontier of the now ubiquitous smartphone.  Anyone who claims that Apple's role in the industry has not been pivotal, a fan of the brand or not, is simply misinformed.

When faith in that same mysticism was beginning to fade, Apple wowed consumers again with the announcement of iOS 7.  While the announcement of the next iOS was expected, and a redesign rumored, no one was expecting the complete overhaul that came with the first screens of the new software in action.  Frankly, Apple has earned a reputation over the years for selling a tweaked version of something strikingly similar to its predecessor as an entirely new product.  On the Mac, look at Leopard and Snow Leopard, or Lion and Mountain Lion.  On the iPad and iPhone, glance at every iOS up until the present.  None, with the exception of iOS 7, has made any large-scale design changes.  Apple, you have restored my faith in your ability to do the unexpected.

So what is iOS 7?  Introducing a slew of new features and design changes, iOS 7 offers the largest change in the company's mobile software since the inception of the first iPhone.  Everything, from the lock screen to application interfaces, has been entirely redesigned to fit a new, streamlined theme.  Every default application has adopted a minimalistic style and has been crafted in a similar fashion.  iOS 7 also introduces Control Center, Notification Center, Multitasking, AirDrop, and iTunes Radio.  Some of these new features will be discussed in detail later on.

Many die-hard Apple fans are jumping in joy at the unveil of iOS 7, claiming it is Apple's next innovative step-forward.  Others claim that Apple is simply stealing from Android, and that the new design is a preposterous step backwards for the company's history of creating beautiful displays.  With the former claim blind and the latter claim irrelevant, I want to share with you my experiences with iOS 7.  I'm not concerned with where a feature came from, or what feature on Android it resembles, but simply with how well everything is working and whether or not you should be excited for this autumn when it is officially released.

First impressions

Lock screen: Finally, the lock screen has been redone.  No longer are photos bound by two black rectangles on the top and bottom of the screen.  While some will note that the new clock and design of the lock screen bears some similarities with that of the Android OS, the change is nonetheless beneficial, and makes those frequent time or text checks all the more desirable.  There are also dynamic wallpapers now, a long-awaited addition to iOS.  Currently only two are available (for both lock and home screen), featuring a light background with bubbles that move depending on the phone's orientation. 

Home screen: The home screen is much the same from iOS 6 in terms of structure, but shows little resemblance. Every icon has been given a makeover, some better than others.  It is apparent that with the ousting of former head of iOS Scott Forstall, his design influence was also kicked from the company's memory.  The small reflection, which had appeared only in some applications in iOS 6, showed a certain discord among Apple's design crew and has been eliminated outright.  While Phone, Messages, and other applications still resemble their former selves, each application appears to have been designed in the same mindset and under the same rules: simplified and sleek.

Notable Applications

Phone and Messages: Among my favorite new application designs is Messages, which features a
simple, white design and a beautiful sans-serif font.  The basic layout is the same, but now message "bubbles" change color from the top to the bottom of the page, appearing lighter up top and darker down below for incoming messages.  No structural changes have been made, aside from a new "delete message" animation and a "Contact" button in the top-right of every text conversation.  

One look at the new Phone application may make you think you've accidentally installed Facebook OS on your device.  Contact photos are now circular, and appear in small bubbles alongside a person's name in the Favorites menu.  The
new keypad display is of very modern taste, and a welcome change from the dark, clunky design of its predecessor.  Almost entirely white with a large, simple green "Call" button and small, transparent circular outlines that reveal your home screen wallpaper, the new Phone app illustrates the shift in creative thinking that has taken place at Apple since the inception of iOS 6.

Calendar: The interface of the new Calendar app is open to some debate.  At first look, the previously simplistic application has been made even simpler.  Consisting of only the colors red, white, and black, the new application follows suit with the new order of simplicity instituted by iOS 7.  Despite its beautiful interface and seemingly easy-to-use navigation, I realized as I tried to share my schedule with someone that it isn't as easy as it appears.  Navigating quickly from day-to-day isn't a difficult task, truly, but it will take you a moment to familiarize and orient yourself with the way things are now set up.  Playing my part, my over-thinking made Calendar a tad harder to use than it truly is.

Weather:  The iOS Weather application has always been easy on the eyes.  When screenshots of the application on the iPhone 5 were circulating the web, I was still stunned by how beautifully designed the application was.  The redesigned application had a lot to live up to, and exceeded expectations with an even more beautiful design.  Truly, there is very little need to look elsewhere for your weekly weather forecast.

Remaining default applications: There is very little need to cover each application separately.  Below I have posted screenshots from each of them, as it is the design that has changed, not the application's functionality.

Non-iOS 7 optimized applications: Something I was greatly worried about after downloading iOS 7 was how applications would behave on the new software.  I had heard stories of applications simply not working or malfunctioning on the software, and so I was concerned that some of my favorite applications would be rendered unusable for the time being.  Thankfully, this doesn't seem to be the case.  While applications sometimes appear to be slower than they were previously, this can be attributed to the fact that it is still a beta in testing.  These issues of speed are not expected to carry over to the final product.

New Features

While the wholesale redesign that has taken place with iOS 7 is interesting in and of itself, the real matter of discussion is what has actually changed.  Thus far, it seems as though Apple has simply given iOS 6 an odd paint job and is adding a 7.  What gives?  Thankfully, iOS 7 is also rife with new features that will make for a more convenient user experience.  

Control Center is an interesting new feature introduced by iOS 7, and a welcome addition.  iOS 6 users will remember that by swiping downwards from the top of the screen they could view their notifications.  Control Center, inversely, requires you to swipe from the bottom of the screen upwards, and is a quick, easy way to access some of the phone's often used features without the hassle of going into Settings or another application.  With the click of a button you can go into "Airplane mode", connect and disconnect wifi, bluetooth, go into "Do Not Disturb mode", and enable Orientation Lock.  Moreover, users can adjust the Brightness of their device, play and pause their song, access AirDrop, and enable the phone's flashlight, clock, calculator, and camera.  All of these features are beautifully condensed into a small space, and once you begin to remember that it's there, it can become tremendously useful.  No more going into Settings every five minutes to change my brightness settings.  

Notification Center is not new to iOS but has, like everything else, been given a makeover.  It is also organized in a new way, which some will adore and others will dislike in comparison to the old layout. The first thing you'll notice is that things are no longer smushed into one page.  Notification Center now comes with three tabs, reading "Today", "All", and "Missed".  Presuming you take advantage of the phone's other features, Notification Center serves its old purposes but also gives a quick summary of your day.  As you can see below, I have quick access to today's forecast, those whose birthday is today, a quick view of my calendar and my first event on it.  If you're in a crunch, this new "Today" tab will become your best friend.  

Another upgraded feature returning in iOS 7 is multitasking, and a potentially awesome upgrade, I might add.  First, multitasking is now more aesthetically pleasing than ever.  By clicking the home button twice, the window you're viewing zooms out and sits alongside the other applications you have open.  Switching between them is a breeze, and closing an application is as easy as an upward swipe.  But more interesting is that multitasking (apparently) is taking note of when you use your applications, and using that data to make your experience more seamless.  For example, if I tend to view Facebook while at lunch at noon, multitasking will remember this, and update my news feed at, say, 11:45am.  Therefore, when I click my Facebook app, I won't have to wait around for everything to update in a crowed wifi of a caf√©.  Everything will already be taken care of for me.  Truth be told, I haven't been able to determine whether this feature is currently in action, or if it works at all.  Applications do launch quickly, however, with no major speed bumps, so it is possible that iOS 7 has already figured me out ... before I have figured it out.  Scary.

Next up is the camera of iOS 7.  Considering this is only a software upgrade, I unfortunately cannot report that my photos are clearer than ever.  Although we're still working with the same hardware, there is still a lot iOS 7 does to improve its performance and foster user creativity.  Switching between video, regular photo shoot, square shot, and panorama picture has never been easier, nor looked so sleek.  For those who frequent social networks often and enjoy posting pictures of their every moment, iOS 7 also introduces filters for your photos.  Yes, you can finally make your moments look more awesome than they actually were.  Hooray!

While most of the changes to Photos on iOS is design-focused, there is a new feature that will certainly be a favorite among many photographers, friends, and family members.  Shared photo streams act similarly to iOS 6's photo stream, but allow you to share them with other iCloud users.  By creating a new stream, you determine who has access to it and thus each user who can add photos, videos, etc. to the stream.  In an increasingly photo-driven world, shared streams could become an interesting method of communication between those who don't get to meet up in person very often.  I can imagine my parents creating a shared stream with me already.

With Safari in iOS 7, Apple is taking advantage of Twitter integration and the cloud, and is undergoing some to-be-expected changes.  First, Safari has dropped the Google search bar in favor of unified smart search.  That means that the address bar is now (officially) dual-purpose, being used for both search queries and URLs.  Second is "shared links", which acquires all of the links posted by those you follow on Twitter and tells you who posted it.  If you're not on Twitter, perhaps this is your time.  Get started by following me @steven_chaffin.  Lastly, and most interestingly, is the iCloud keychain and Password Generator.  The iCloud keychain is just like the keychain on Mac OS X: every password, credit card number, username, etc. is now stored on the cloud.  While this is somewhat unsettling for many, this is the day and age of the cloud, and not a surprising development.  Welcome.  Password Generator, however, takes me aback a little.  If you have trouble creating hard-to-hack passwords, Safari will now create and remember a new password for you.  While this is certainly useful, I wonder how this will affect users over the long-term, and those who frequent more than one browser.  Something about Safari, not me, knowing my passwords seems a potential land-mine for future hackings.  

While there are a number of other new features present in iOS 7, like Find My iPhone's new method for  preventing data-theft by requiring your iCloud login information, these are features that are either best explored individually or are not yet entirely useable.  AirDrop, for instance, requires that people on my contacts list are using iOS 7.  Considering very few people actually have the software, there isn't currently any easy way (short of forcing someone else to get it) that would enable me to effectively test out the new feature.  Simply know that with iOS 7, Apple has really doubled-down on Twitter, iCloud, and My Location integration.  There are very few apps that doesn't include integration with one of these.  

Final Remarks (for now) on iOS 7

iOS 7 is the facelift consumers have been asking for.  While there was little wrong with the previous design, it was on the verge of becoming too familiar, especially for users who have owned multiple generations of iPhones.  It was only a matter of time before sheer boredom began to attract consumers towards Android products.  Thankfully, Apple delivered with iOS 7, creating a beautiful new interface and adding a number of new, very useful features.  I cannot claim to entirely understand each and every new feature offered by the software, but my first impressions are entirely positive.  Take away a few minor glitches and issues, like the random display of the Apple logo followed by a forced sleep and slightly quicker battery drain, and iOS 7 will enhance the iPhone and iCloud experience drastically as more people get their hands on it this fall.  

Whether you've tested iOS 7 or not, I'm interested in hearing what you have to say.  Are you a fan of the new software, or do you think it's a step in the wrong direction?  All opinions are welcome.  

For more from me, please follow me on Twitter @steven_chaffin.