iOS 7: Can Apple Pull it Off?

Major Points


Pfeiffer Consulting


There is only one big question about iOS 7, and that is: can Apple pull it off? Meaning of course: can Apple  make the market, the average consumer, actually get excited about what it is trying to achieve with the new version of its mobile operating system? Is the market ready for reasonable efficiency, ready to do away with visual gadgetry to focus on what really counts on a device?

Steve Jobs was a seducer, he wanted to make consumers swoon with desire for his latest inventions, and if it took a few cheesy visual artefacts to get there, where’s the problem? Sir Jony Ives has none of that swagger: he wants things to be functional, minimalist, elegant, designs that can stand the test of time. As a world-class industrial designer, he managed to get his creations several times over into such lofty institutions as the MoMA in New York. But as a user interface designer?

Together, Steve and Jony were unbeatable. Now that Steve is no more with us, there is something essential missing. Which leaves us with my initial question: Can the company pull it off? Can Apple make consumers desire to upgrade to iOS7 the way they went along with previous versions? Or will iOS7 be Apple’s Windows 8, the operating system everybody loves to hate?

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If it achieved anything, the iOS7 announcement at WWDC 2013 and the subsequent heated discussions about the new look of Apple’s smartphone operating system showed how much the world has changed since the initial iPhone announcement six years ago.

The smartphone market as we think about it today didn’t exist six years ago; it was pretty much jump-started by the phenomenal success of the initial iPhone. In the following frenzy to catch up with the iPhone juggernaut that nobody had really anticipated, companies essentially went one of three possible directions: imitation (Android of course), bold swipes at originality (Windows Phone 8) and bare-knuckle survival (Blackberry). So far, only imitation has fared well, with Android handsets from everybody and their uncle quite successfully trying to re-enact the Windows 95 vs. Mac OS game that worked so well for Microsoft two decades ago.

In this loaded situation, Apple just announced iOS 7 which according to Apple's CEO Tim Cook, “represents the biggest change to the operating system since the original iPhone”, while pundits around the world are keeping count of what they feel Apple has nabbed from the competition.

But all this is actually besides the point. There are only two really important aspects about iOS 7: what the new operating system means in the context of the market place, and whether Apple can actually pull off its bold attempt at pushing the new mobile platform to a market-inspiring level.

What iOS 7 Actually Means in the Market Place

It is quite useful to try and understand what it is Apple is really good at; and that is understanding and condensing user needs into features and interactions that are immediately graspable even without any training.

Sometimes, Apple is starting from scratch: The original iPhone created such a shockwave in the market, because it was not like anything that had existed before, and it became the basis for the general interaction vocabulary that has become the norm for touch devices. When the iPhone was created, users around the world had no experience with touch-screen interaction, they had to learn the basic gestures like swiping, dragging, pinching that have all become common-place since.

But 2013 is not like 2007. Basic user interface concepts and interaction with the iPhone have barely evolved since the first release, while the market quickly started mimicking gestures and concepts, and adding some additional ones. (In the end, who invented these additional gestures is not very important. How original is it really to add swiping from the bottom of the screen as well as from left and right?)

What IS important on the other hand is that we now have a small, widely accepted vocabulary of gestures and interactions that are quickly becoming as universally accepted as clicking, dragging and double-clicking on a computer. What is even more important is that we have a common understanding of the key tasks on a smartphone: communicating, browsing the web, interacting with social networks, taking and sharing pictures, listening to music, consuming content - and using any of hundreds of thousands little apps that cover specific tasks and needs. What we really need is a methodology and conceptual framework for analyzing how good different devices are at dealing with these tasks.

When Apple was rumoured to announce iOS 7, it was obvious that what observers were expecting was yet another wave of mind-blowing innovation, of never-before-seen features and crazy ideas (Some grown-up version of Samsung’s silly, over-the-top gadget-features (such as eye-tracking for scrolling a web page, along the lines of "never mind if it works or if it’s actually useful, as long as it is a new marketable feature"). 

What Apple showed at WWDC 2013 is the exact opposite: iOS 7 does not aim at innovation, it aims at maturity. It aims at a friction-less implementation of the gestures and controls the average smartphone user wants—and given the number of iPhones Apple has sold, it should be in a good place to figure out what these needs are.

The bottom-line of this effort is a weird one, however: in it’s current beta-form iOS 7 does not come across so much as a completely unique product the way the original iPhone was unique, but rather as a compendium of several interactions and concepts that have been invented in the field since the first model was announced. In short, the company wants once again to create a platform that exemplifies what it is a smartphone should be doing.

This might turn out to be more difficult than envisioned. The current smartphone market is facing a strange phenomenon: fragmentation instead of increasing domination of a unique leading platform. It is as if the world was not rallying towards a single, high-and-mighty platform, but towards a multitude of competing niches: Windows Phone 8 is slowly gaining traction; Blackberry OS 10 is a mess, but it is still a far more promising mess than previous iterations and even if BlackBerry is continuing to lose market share, there are still millions of loyal users out there), Android is slowly falling apart between the plain-vanilla Android phones and the customised versions from vendors such as Samsung—not to mention fragmentation between different releases of the OS itself.

So what Apple is trying to achieve in this increasingly messy picture is simply to build a consensus platform: a solid, modern smartphone OS that can lead the market into the next phase of smartphone evolution. Can it pull that off? Apple is extremely good at marketing, but a not insignificant part of the equation will be how the company’s actual hardware offering will evolve - there is just no way a single model can compete with slews of manufacturers spitting out tons of competing cheaper models. 

But the main story remains iOS 7 itself: will it be able to rally the minds of potential users the way the initial iPhone did? 

That’s a very tall order….

Andreas Pfeiffer, June 18, 2013

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