iOS 7, the most recent update for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, has been with us for a few weeks and we’ve had a good chance to test drive the changes. We’re about to update our student iPads so I thought it was a good opportunity to take another look at the operating system.
iOS 7 is a much needed refresh of a stale operating system. The brighter colours and redesigned apps are clean and modern. I’m especially pleased to see the back of the awful skeuomorphism so prevalent in iOS 6. In fact one of my pet hates about the iPad was the terrible contacts app which appeared to be designed solely to use screen space as inefficiently as possible.
The whole operating system now feels more cohesive. Features which have been slowly added to iOS over time, such as Spotlight, multi-tasking, and the notification shade, now feel part of the OS rather than tacked on. Task switching and app management now works intuitively and smoothly. Okay, the UI is taken wholesale from Palm’s defunct WebOS, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t work.
The Control Centre panel, which opens with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen is brilliant in concept but fails in execution. This feature should be a list of relevant and timely options. Instead it is a jumbled mishmash of oddly grouped toggles and sliders. Why are my volume and media controls in the same place as my screen brightness, bluetooth toggle, AirDrop, screen mirroring, flashlight, and alarm clock? It doesn’t make sense. The Control Centre also has a habit of accidentally opening at unwanted times. You can be playing a video or working in an app and one misregistered swipe can pull you out of your work. Luckily there is an option to disable this.
A Touch of Minimalism Goes a Long Way
iOS 7’s core apps have also been stripped back to the bare essentials. Contacts, Calendar, Mail, Note, Reminders and others have all been given the minimalist treatment. Gradients, buttons, and toolbars are all gone to be replaced with stark white backgrounds with only the occasional splash of colour to brighten up the screen. Personally, I can hear Jonny Ive whispering in the my ear, “Be careful what you wish for.”
I, as did many others, hated the faux leather binding and torn paper, that defined iOS 6 apps. You can argue whether the skeuomorphism worked to encouraged the technophobe use digital technology instead of their physical analogs, but for me all it appeared to do was take up productive screen space. So, when I saw the pared down style of iOS 7 I was extremely pleased. But the final version is, in my opinion, a step too far.
Take the Mail app. While the core function of the app remains the same as in iOS 6, the lack of separation between the mail list, the viewing pane, and the UI above feels unstructured and confused. Likewise, in the Notes app, it is difficult to differentiate between toolbar and usable space. Overall iOS 7 refines the operating system into a neater package, but for many teachers and students it will come at the cost of having to relearn basic operating system tasks.
iOS 7 suffers from the same flaw that pervades Windows 8. The minimalism is at the cost of user interface. Standard and commonly understood UI elements, developed over decades across multiple platforms are eschewed to be replaced by indistinct textual commands which become lost in the content of an app.
The result is that in many apps it’s difficult to differentiate between app content and user interface. Gone are buttons, and clearly defined labels, even iOS’s iconic “Slide to Unlock” element is replaced with a simple text instruction. You can swipe from three sides of the screen to access additional features, but there is no indication of what will happen at any given time. Also, when you are inside an app getting an upward swipe slightly wrong brings up the Control Centre settings interrupting whatever it is that you were doing. Luckily there is a way to disable this in the settings menu.
This minimalist trend in mobile operating systems, also seen in both Windows 8 and Android, allows content to take centre stage on a screen limited in size, but if it isn’t done well can cause confusion. It’s this that has concerned me when upgrading our school’s iPads to iOS 7. These simple changes might not seem that important to us tech folk but for many, those for whom the iPad is an appliance, these are massive changes in the way they access their information.
iOS 7’s Font and Accessibility Settings
iPad features a new font called “Helvetica Neue Ultralight” which is used throughout the OS. As someone who has poor eyesight I find reading even the icon app name difficult. This is something that Apple is clearly aware of as if you look closely iOS dynamically increases the boldness of the font as the text size decreases. But my concern is more about students who have special needs, how easily will they be able to navigate the OS before having to turn on the accessibility settings?
Teachers and iOS 7
When iPad was first announced in 2010 Steve Jobs, the press conference, made that point that “If you have an iPhone, you already know how to use this.” Making reference to that fact that iPad ran the already popular iOS and customers would already be familiar with navigating the operating system. iOS 7 assumes people are already comfortable with the OS that they’ll slip comfortably in, which is not always the case.
[pullquote]One member of staff told me “since I upgraded my iPhone I can’t find anything.” [/pullquote]
One member of staff told me “since I upgraded my iPhone I can’t find anything.” iOS 7 changes many of the core app icons. Photos, for example, changes from an image of a sunflower to a circular spectrum of colours, and Settings changes from a group of cogs to…well…what is that…a crop circle? iOS 7’s icons have been the subject of much controversy online, and I have to agree with the general consensus. iPads core app icons are garish, inconsistent, and just plain ugly.
Teachers I work with have been reticent to update their personal iPads, and I think this reflects the fact that iOS 7 bring very little additional functionality to justify the time and upheaval required to get used to the new design. As a home user I apply any update as soon as possible, but we’ve had very little demand to update our student iPads either. In fact, I’ve deliberately delayed updating our student iPads to give teachers a chance to familiarise themselves with the changes.
This may seem like a rant, but it’s really not intended to be. The strength of feeling over iOS 7 simply reflects the importance it now plays in our schools. Overall iOS 7 represents a much needed refresh of a mobile operating system that visually at least hasn’t changed much in the last six years. Has it really only been six years?
iOS 7 doesn’t advice the iPhone or iPad in terms of function, these are still the same devices, but does give the OS a much needed coat of paint. The only decision you need to make is whether new looks are worth the additional training staff and students will require.