Thoughts on iOS 7 on the Eve of WWDC

I just finished listening to the pre-WWDC episodes of The Talk Show and ATP and wanted to share a few of my own thoughts on what I think Apple will and should announce in iOS 71 on Monday morning.

First, I think the hardware will be related to the little bit that has leaked. That means new, Haswell-based Retina MacBook Pros, probably a bump to the non-retina side of the lineup, and a MacBook Air refresh. A while ago I thought we’d get a new Mac Pro too, but there haven’t been any leaks along those lines, and hardware almost always leaks. So now I don’t think Mac Pros will be part of the presentation.2 There will be no iOS hardware at all.

With respect to iOS 7, it’s much harder to guess. The rumors have been swirling for months that some kind of visual overhaul is in the offing, and it’s rare that there’s that much smoke but no fire. However, I don’t think a visual overhaul should be the most important component of iOS 7 (I said should be, not will be). It’s mainly journalists and other techies who live and breathe mobile operating systems that are “bored” with the look and feel of iOS. I don’t think regular users of iOS are bored. My mom or my sister aren’t looking at, say, Mail in iOS and thinking “Wow, I wish they’d just tone down these gradients.” Of course regular people do enjoy and can appreciate visual refreshes, and do subconsciously register visual elegance even if they can’t articulate it. I’m not saying that a visual refresh has no value. I just think it has less value than addressing some of the other deficiencies in iOS.

iOS is a very young platform. The Mac has had, cumulatively, 29 years of iterative refinement to arrive at where it is. iOS has been around for 6 years, and on the iPad it’s been around for only 3. There is a lot that can be done in terms of refining and improving workflows.

Here’s an example from my daily life. I used to host this blog on Tumblr. Tumblr has a nice bookmarklet that will let you post the page you’re viewing to your blog. It tries to be smart about guessing content types, meaning that if you have text highlighted, it pre-populates the form fields for a quote post. If you’re viewing a page on Flickr or YouTube, it pre-populates the post fields for a photo or video post, respectively. I’ve used this bookmarklet on my Mac almost daily since I joined Tumblr in 2008. It’s simple and fast and works great.

What if you want to do the same on iOS? I’m often reading on my iPad at night and would like to post the page I’m reading. I have the bookmarklet installed on Safari, and I have iCloud bookmark sync on, so I can make it work almost as easily as it does on my Mac.

What if I didn’t have the bookmarketl? Let’s consider creating a quote post using the iPad Tumblr app. First I copy the URL to the clipboard, then I switch to the Tumblr app and create a draft quote post and paste the URL. I switch back to Safari and copy the text I want to quote, then switch back to the Tumblr app to paste the text. I then switch back to Safari again so I can copy the page title, because I want the attribution to be correct. I switch back to Tumblr and paste it into my post. Now I can actually add my own text from the Tumblr app’s post editor. I’ve switched back and forth between Safari and Tumblr 5 or 6 times by the time this is all done. It’s incredibly tedious, so tedious that if I didn’t have the bookmarkelt in Safari I doubt I’d ever bother to make a post on iOS. I’d just email myself the link and do it later from my Mac.

Consider another scenario, using only Apple’s built-in apps. I’m reading a website on Safari, and I get an iMessage. I see the notification at the top of the page, tap it, and I’m dropped into the conversation. Great. I type my reply and hit send. Now what? I have to switch back to Safari, which can be done in one of three ways. One option is to hit the home button, then tap Safari, potentially needing to swipe between home screens in the process. This is what 99.5% of iOS users do. The second option is to double-tap the home button and use the application switcher. This is what 0.44% of iOS users do. Or, if I have multitasking gestures turned on, I can use a four-finger swipe to swtich. This is what .01% of iOS users do.3 Regardless of method used, the process is slow. If you’re having a conversation, and iMessages are coming in with any frequency, you’re doing this over and over and it quickly becomes frustrating.

Consider a third scenario: you want to use Photo Stream, but you have no idea what Photo Stream is4. Or you have some photos synced onto your iPhone or iPad, and you’d like to use iPhoto on iOS to edit them. You do so, but then those photos are synced off your device. Why can’t you see them in iPhoto? What happened to your edits? Who knows? Or maybe you made a project in iMovie for iOS, and you want to get the video off. You can… email it to yourself.

To me, all of these rough corners are the result of having a brand new operating system with completely new modes of working that simply hasn’t yet had an opportunity to address every single use case that Macs and PCs, with their 30 years of development behind them, support today. If I’m Tim Cook and I have engineers who can spend time fixing one of these workflows or can focus on visual changes, but not both, I would pick the former every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I think an iOS 7 whose main tentpole feature is a new coat of paint but that addresses neither some of the longstanding workflow issues nor some of the broken mental model issues with sync and iCloud is getting the priorities wrong.

  1. I don’t have the first clue of what’s going to be in OS X 10.9, so I’m not even going to venture a guess. 

  2. However, whenever Mac Pros are announced, I don’t think they’re going to feature any of the wild speculation that’s been floating around. I think more likely is just a bump of all the internal components to the latest and greatest, probably with a new case design. 

  3. I personally like the gestures, but have them turned off because I have kids and they use my iPad and they frequently accidentally invoke the four-finger gestures. 

  4. Almost my entire family now use iPhones, and most also use Macs and iPads, and none of them know what Photo Stream is.