It's still iOS, after all these years.
Last week, Apple pushed its iOS 7 beta 3 out, smoothing and stabilising Apple's new mobile operating system. It's still far from being ready for consumers, but it's also far from launch; I'm anticipating late September or early October, when the new iPhones and iPads come out.
So why the early betas from such a famously private company? This redesign is a huge deal for app developers. From what I'm hearing, a whole bunch of third-party apps – even big names like PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz – are crashing on iOS 7, and many others look pretty bad. Developers have to take action to include the new keyboard, for instance, and they'll probably want to fix their fonts and background styles to fit with the new look.
This isn't a review. Nobody should be "reviewing" this software yet. It's months away from launch, and the primacy of third-party apps in Apple's world means that a huge part of the iOS 7 experience will come down to how many app developers refit their software before the OS breaks big. We'll have a real review, with plenty of hands-on time, when that happens.
New look, old metaphors
I'm thinking about iOS 7 with a different perspective than a lot of people writing about it, and I've been pretty amused by all the hullaballoo. I usually spend about two months a year using iOS. The rest of my time is spent with Windows Phone, Android, and a bit of BlackBerry 10.
The number one thing that strikes me about iOS 7 is this simple fact – it's iOS. Most notably, it keeps the central metaphor of the app grid which sets it apart from the other major operating systems. Customisation is still very strictly controlled compared to Android and Windows Phone. You can shuffle around your icons and put them in folders, but all the information they can give you at a glance is a little red badge. For someone used to widgets and Live Tiles, it's stifling.
That makes the new notifications centre a huge breath of fresh air. If I'm going to throw myself backwards into Apple's arms like I'm doing some sort of corporate trust challenge, I want Siri to be whispering life lessons into my ear. That's the chatty little "Today" panel, not just listing calendar events but relaying them to you as a narrative, a story. An assistant. Maybe even a friend.
Other changes, similarly, extend but don't shatter Apple's existing strengths. Siri is more Siri, and she does more things. Safari is much better: faster, cleaner, with a better multi-window interface and finally a single search/navigation bar, which it should have had years ago. Improving Safari is especially critical for Apple because except for Opera Mini, the company doesn't allow true third-party browsers on iOS, and it seems to have done well here.
The visual redesigns are absolutely necessary. We're in an era of much cleaner, more abstract designs than we were a few years ago, led by two trends: people are now used to smartphone interfaces and basic smartphone concepts (so everything doesn't need to pretend to be a physical object) and higher resolution screens let designers make elements simpler and more delicate.
To my mind, that's a lot of what people complain about when they say they prefer "stock Android" to, for instance, Samsung's version. They're arguing that they want cleaner interfaces rather than visual clutter, and abstraction rather than sunsets and water drops. iOS 7 tries to balance the trend towards cleanness with Apple's traditional parade of forever-marching icons, and does it well.
I love the new design, especially the new slender fonts. iOS 7 is the first iOS really designed to take advantage of Retina screens; earlier versions had to keep some chunkier elements to maintain basic compatibility with the old 320 x 480 displays. The keyboard is much easier on the eyes here, for instance.
Why so sensitive?
iPhone users are insanely sensitive to minor changes in their interface. That might be a psychological response to the interface being so consistent, and so programmed, for so many years. There's nothing for them to be afraid of here: iOS 7 is still iOS, just clearer, bette -looking, and more convenient. They'll get used to it quickly.
If you're a relatively lazy Android user – one who doesn't customise – iOS 7 is a great looking alternative, one that spins in some of Google's better built-in features like notifications, quick settings and a touch of Google Now. If you love your widgets or Live Tiles, on the other hand, there's nothing for you here. As I said before: iOS 7 raises the game, but it doesn't change it. Of course, that may change – did I mention we're still months away from launch?