WWDC 2013: OS X Mavericks and iOS 7

OS X Mavericks

In the past few weeks it was reported that the iOS 7 engineering team was borrowing engineers from the Mac OS X team to have the product ready for the impending WWDC deadline. The first impression I had while Federighi was talking about the new features in the next version of OS X was: it shows. When I got to watching the iOS 7 segment of the keynote, another impression set in: iOS 7 screams ‘new’ in every corner, while OS X Mavericks simply whispers ‘tried and tested’. This might sound a bit unfair an assessment, but apart from the new core technologies under the bonnet, little of what I saw in the OS X Mavericks demos felt like material deserving of a major release of an operating system. In the past, new little features like Finder tabs and tags were the kind of things that would have been introduced in a minor release.

OS X Mavericks breaks the traditional ‘mighty feline’ naming scheme. It was bound to happen, sooner or later: the number of mighty felines is somewhat limited. But the shift to ‘California places of interest’ leaves me a bit puzzled. Given Apple’s international image and reach, I thought they would choose a naming scheme with a more international or universal flair, instead of picking names of places that are probably unknown outside the US (or even outside California — I’m curious to hear what the name ‘Mavericks’ suggests to a New Yorker or South Dakotan, for example). The alternatives coming to mind are plenty: names of cities, of famous artists (I don’t know you, I kind of like names such as OS X Picasso or OS X Matisse), or renowned scientists, etc. With the ‘California places’ choice, it’s like writing a tag line such as “OS X 10.9: the all-new American operating system for desktop computers”.

I was also a bit deceived by the new OS X logo. Being very similar to the new iOS 7 logo, I was almost expecting a partial redesign of the graphical user interface. Not that I find the OS X GUI boring or dated, but if you think about all the debate as to why it made sense to expect a drastic redesign for iOS now that Jonathan Ive is also supervising the software design group inside Apple, those same reasons apply to OS X. If skeuomorphism was becoming a dead end for iOS, and a visual mismatch between hardware and software in iOS devices, well, you could say the same for OS X and Macs. Perhaps it’s just a matter of priorities (iOS had to come first at this moment) and time (maybe we’ll see a visual design overhaul in OS X 10.10 or OS XI or whatever the name of the next major release will be).

Negativity aside, some of the new features in Mavericks really impressed me. I like the improvements in Safari, and I like the idea behind iCloud Keychain. About the latter: yes, it might ‘kill’ third-party products like 1Password, but I generally prefer that certain features — especially related to security — get to be ultimately developed and introduced in the OS by Apple itself.

Also impressive were the demos of new advanced technologies like Timer Coalescing, App Nap and Compressed Memory. I like the ‘power efficiency’ direction Apple is taking here also because I think that features like these will have a beneficial impact on previous Mac models and hardware that is now three or four years old. A better memory and power management is a boon to those who still rely on slightly older hardware, and I’m really curious to see how my mid-2009 Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro will behave under OS X Mavericks in this regard.

Paint It White: iOS 7

The first impression

My first reaction when I saw the new iOS 7 interface was It’s a breath of much-needed fresh air. What’s interesting, and ironic, is how the design looks ‘fresher’ while actually being reminiscent of mid-20th century design — or rather, it’s a mixture of certain design rigor of the 1960s and the ‘colourful vibe’ typical of the 1970s. John Gruber, Marco Arment, Matt Gemmell, Frank Chimero and Harry Marks, among others, have already shared their very smart observations about iOS 7, and I especially agree with Matt Gemmell when he writes:

iOS 7 forgoes borders, instead relying on colour to indicate interactivity, and dividers to organise information. Controls are implicit, based on labels or icons, positioning, and having visual ‘energy’ via a theme colour […]. Icons are elemental and presented as outlines, and there seems to be a trend towards omitting headings from screens within a hierarchy.

Legibility and calmness is the order of the day […]. Some people are complaining about the slender default typeface (you can thicken it if you choose, and even boost the point-size globally for apps that support the feature), but Retina Displays ensure that everything is sharp and readable.

Clarity, of course, can’t be added – it must be the result of removal. For iOS 7, the vestigial appendage was faux depth.

[…]

iOS 7 isn’t flat. There are subtle shadows, lighting effects, gradients, and even new (rather gratuitous and distracting, in my opinion – and thankfully optional) parallax effects. It’s more flat, certainly, but not two-dimensional.

Apple doesn’t design things by having a goal like “let’s make it flat”. That’s a bizarre concept, because flatness in itself doesn’t have a corresponding rationale regarding user experience.

And his remark about the new lightness of iOS 7 is spot-on:

iOS 7 is much, much lighter – in the colour sense, and consequently also in visual weight. Breathable whitespace is everywhere, and is used to unify and homogenise previously disparate interface styles.

The overall impression is of brightness and openness.

Which is exactly the first thing I noticed in the iOS 7 introductory video that opened that particular section of the keynote.

Criticism: rush hour

What I find really appalling are certain reactions of self-appointed designers, and even of designers by trade, who started bashing iOS 7’s interface after simply looking at the screenshots, videos and demos shown at the keynote. The act of creating a mockup and presenting it as a supposedly better alternative has very little value. It’s an external intervention that is made outside of the whole design process of the iOS 7 interface, and it’s something entirely superficial and cosmetic that seems to focus only on the form, leaving the function aside. An operating system interface is not just visuals, and you cannot say that something ‘doesn’t work’ or ‘isn’t right’ just by how it looks. You have to interact with it, you have to see it live on your device, before your eyes.

Take the mockup by Leo Drapeau referenced by Gemmell in his article. While some of the icons redesigned by Drapeau may look better than their iOS 7 counterparts, this kind of proposed redesign as a whole is equivalent to seeing the trees and not the forest. The Apple design group might have failed to create that single perfect tree, but the forest is a remarkable result. Look at the iOS 7 home screen carefully: there is a much stronger underlying homogeneity in its icons. The bonds that tie them to one another are more apparent. The iOS 7 icons all reflect a certain identity, a certain style; they all come from the same place, and it shows. Drapeau’s Camera, Settings and Stocks icons all retain a faux depth and 3D hints which are still suggestive of an iOS 6 mindset.

In other words, it’s easy to retouch someone else’s finished work. Much harder to think and design it from the ground up. An exercise for all these “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” designers is: imagine you have to design the whole user interface of iOS 8, and the final result must be as deep a departure as iOS 7 is towards iOS 6. Let’s see what you come up with.

There is a remark in Generosity of Perspective, the article on iOS 7 by Frank Chimero, with which I agree in full:

It’s worth remembering that Ive took over Human Interface only 7 months ago, and they redesigned the whole phone in that time. Straight up: seven months is a ridiculous deadline.

Part of being a good designer is having a hatred for inconsistencies, so I take the interface’s unevenness to mean a hurried timeline, rather than an unawareness of the inconsistencies.

I’m not saying that criticising the new direction in visual design of iOS 7 is wrong and a futile, fruitless activity. I just think that, at this stage, it’s simply premature. There are a lot of things I found myself liking of the new interface, and certain details that fail to convince me, but my perspective may very well change once I install iOS 7 when it’s an out-of-beta product, available for everyone to download.

Meanwhile I’ll point out just how silly certain nerds are in their criticisms: previously you could hear them say that iOS should have been more like Android, especially as regards to notifications, lock screen, and the like. Now they accuse Apple of having copied Android in the implementation of the new Notification Centre, in how the lock screen looks, etc. And remember all those who complained about the lack in iOS of a panel with the most-used toggles (for WiFi, Bluetooth, brightness, and so on)? Well, now many are criticising the new Control Centre panel because “it’s too crowded”. And how about those who were bored and disgusted by iOS 6’s skeuomorphic visual details? Well, now they say that iOS 7 is “too flat” and “too colourful”, that it “has gone too far in the other direction”.

My ‘beta’ take on iOS 7

As I briefly mentioned earlier, I’m surprised by how much I like of the new interface. The reason I’m saying this is because I’m usually not a fan of the so-called ‘flat design’ and unlike others, I never really minded a bit of skeuomorphism here and there, and I always found Apple’s skeuomorphism more innocuous and playful than something actually detrimental to usability. When rumours about a stark change of direction in iOS 7’s visual design started circulating, and knowing Ive’s hardware design æsthehic, I honestly feared iOS 7 would end up looking frigid and austere, utilitarian and ultra-minimalist, doing away with any playfulness characteristic of Jobs and Forstall’s taste.

I’m glad I was wrong. iOS 7 to me looks elegant and whimsical at the same time. It is perhaps the first iteration of iOS for which I’d use the term ‘stylish’ but in a positive way. iOS 7 displays a very distinct sense of style. It has a kind of personality previous versions of the OS lacked. As Gemmell aptly states, it’s an enormous improvement, and a typically opinionated move.

I won’t make the same error of many design-oriented critics, so I won’t discuss details like the new icons or transparencies. Firstly because it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste (there are a lot of app icons out there, both first-party and third-party, which I simply can’t stand, yet I tolerate them because they belong to apps I find very useful); secondly because, as I already said, I think it’s pointless to debate whether a design element such as an icon or a button or a slider ‘works’ or not without actually interacting with the OS. (It’s also pointless because at this stage there’s no guarantee those elements will stay exactly the same until iOS 7 comes out this autumn.)

What I can say from what I’ve seen (screenshots and videos) is that iOS 7’s interface — even at this early stage — conveys a level of consistency and homogeneity unknown to previous iOS versions. And despite taking direct inspiration from Android, Windows Phone 8, and webOS in certain areas, the overall look of iOS 7 feels unique, and not a patchwork of rip-offs.

My favourite bits, interface-wise: the improved Safari, the Camera app UI, the multitasking view, and the improved Notification Centre. Oh, and finally the Clock app icon is live-updated like the Calendar’s.

As for the new features… well, there isn’t much ‘new’ in the sense of ‘never seen before’, strictly speaking. There is a lot of rearrangement, improvement and rethinking of what was already there… and that’s excellent, because it is exactly the kind of ‘new’ I was expecting, if you know what I mean. Control Centre is a very welcome addition, and a feature I know I’ll use very often. The improved Notification Centre is something that finally looks integrated in the system and not just bolted on as an afterthought, as it is now. Siri keeps getting better, the voices are more refined and natural, and the interface feels much less cluttered — what people want most from Siri, however, is flexibility and general usefulness, and in this department my impression is that Siri isn’t improving fast enough. AirDrop in iOS is a very welcome addition and makes a lot of sense. As I wrote in my “short wishlist for iOS 7” piece a few days ago:

Communications — Many third-party apps fill iOS’s gaps in this department, even for things that iOS could very well handle itself. For example, I often need to pass photos and images from my iPhone or iPad to one or more of my Macs. To do that, I use a truly nifty app called Scotty. Maybe its UI won’t win any design award, but the app does its job exceptionally well — and quickly. Once the devices are on the same wireless network, you choose the destination, you choose the photos to transfer, and voilà. You can even pass photos from one iOS device to another.

I want this functionality built in iOS. It’s very Apple-like and long overdue, if you think about it. I remember mobile phones in the pre-iPhone era doing something similar simply by connecting via Bluetooth. Apple has put AirDrop in Mac OS X — now it’s time to extend the concept to iOS as well.

Personal wish granted, then. As for photo management, I still can’t say much from what has been demoed of the new Photos app. I admit I find a bit ludicrous that one could store one or more years’ worth of photos in an iPhone, considering the amount of shots people take with a smartphone today (I take at least a hundred photos in a week, but maybe the images on Apple’s iOS 7 Features page refer to an ideal scenario where all the photos of A year — or years — in review are just the best, the ‘keepers’).

iTunes Radio feels a bit ‘meh’ as I was expecting a service more like Spotify, but again, it’s a matter of personal tastes here, and iTunes Radio simply doesn’t map to my musical habits or listening patterns. I don’t have a penchant for creating collections or grouping different songs in playlists or mixes. But I’m sure it’ll certainly appeal to a lot of people who do have those listening habits.

The App Store app, judging from the images on Apple’s site, looks redesigned according to the new UI guidelines, but doesn’t look much ‘improved’ to me. A much needed improvement, in my book, would be in the searching department. Actually, reverting to how the app behaved before iOS 6 would be enough: when the search returns more than 20 results, the good old ‘list view’ is the best method to skim through the results quickly and efficiently. Swiping and swiping and swiping, one app ‘card’ after the other… not so much.

Activation Lock is a smart little addition. Now, if your iOS device gets stolen and the thief attempts to turn Find My iPhone off or erase the device, he/she will have to enter your Apple ID and password. Another welcome feature.

Apple’s direction

As I commented on Twitter and App.net, this WWDC 2013 keynote has been the best post-Jobs keynote. Apple’s message couldn’t be clearer: we have been hard at work, and faithful to our mission, that is to design and produce the best devices and operating systems — and since that involves taking the time to perfect things along the way, this is exactly what we’ve been doing in the past months. With all the things showcased at the WWDC keynote, Apple has demonstrated that a period of silence, without ‘special event’ announcements or new products introduced, doesn’t necessarily mean stagnancy. Software-wise, the new direction iOS 7 is moving on is thrilling to say the least; and hardware-wise… just take a look at the Mac Pro minisite. Autumn can’t come fast enough for me.

In this context, that Can’t innovate anymore, my ass! blurted out by Phil Schiller on stage, to me sounds even more powerful and liberating than the message of the Designed by Apple in California video. You know why that remark struck me so much, beyond the joke? Because I feel it’s something Steve Jobs himself would have said if he had been there.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!