Since January, I have followed every twist and turn of the the saga that became the iPhone 5S. Even back when we thought it it might be the iPhone 6. Beyond the professional interest, mine was personal as well. I hadn’t upgraded my own phone for a while and I was limping along with an iPhone 4. It was slow, the camera was not good and then the home button started to go.
I could have gone out and gotten an iPhone 5, but I thought it would be worth waiting it out for the next one, sometime over the summer. And then noises circulated that there were delays, perhaps related to a rumored fingerprint sensor. Is The iPhone 5S Fingerprint Reader Worth The Wait?, I asked at the end of April.
I had already loaded iOS 7 on my old iPhone 4, so the shock of the new was mainly about the feel of the phone, that fingerprint sensor—and how fast it is. The feel, while identical in size and weight to the iPhone 5 is strikingly sleeker than the iPhone 4. Thereach of the thumb to the upper row of icons that I wondered about back in September of 2012? You get used to it, but it is a stretch.
The fingerprint sensor is easy (and kind of fun) to set up and works well most of the time. Wet or sticky fingers? Wash and dry ‘em. I had not been in the habit of using a pass code, but iOS 7 works hard to make that feel like a default so that you are aware of how much easier just lightly tapping one of your fingers on the home button is by comparison. The feature doesn’t do all that much for you now. It lets you into your phone and saves you from typing in your password for iTunes purchases. But Apple has done two things right with the fingerprint sensor. First, they located it in the home button where people are used to tapping to get into their phone anyway. It is much easier to get people to perform second action in a place they are already in then to get them to go to a new place, however convenient. Second, by using it for something that every iPhone user will be doing many, many times every singe day, Apple is training us for a time when we can use the same gesture and sensor to authenticate everything.
iOS 7 is, in many ways, an advertisement for the iPhone 5S. Where the animated transitions sometimes stutter on the iPhone 4 (the oldest phone that can run iOS 7) they are perfectly smooth—and faster—on the 5S. The touted parallax effect on the home screen that I described based on the the initial screen shots as “subtly dimensional” renders completely flat on an iPhone 4. I must say that although the effect is noticeable on the 5S, it reads more as a gimmick than as a believable piece of illusionism.
If that last sentence made you scratch your head, that was on purpose. iOS 7 is very nice, really. Or rather much of it is. It has, as design luminaryJeffrey Zeldman puts it an “unfinished look.” Even more apt (sorry Jeffrey) is the koan-like critique from my 12-year-old daughter, “too many ideas.” I think she has it right. There are many pleasures in iOS 7, and, as Zeldman points out, “using an austere, textured background really helps remove the kiddy klown kar vibe.” But there are too many different metaphors at play to feel completely resolved.
Say what you will about the skeumorphism of iOS 6, but it was a single, coherent idea that followed though everything. The faux materials were different, but the level of detail and finish were consistent. With iOS 7 we have an idea of flatness and many ideas about motion. We also have an idea of transparency juxtaposed with the user-generated (and uncontrolled) use of any manner of background image. This gives the user an ability to make it “their own” but also the ability to add to or clash with the “kiddy klown kar vibe.”
The iPhone 5S itself is another beautiful piece of engineering from Apple, and a worthy container for your life’s content. iOS 7 is more of a mixed bag. It is surprising to me that Jony Ive, who has really championed the single-minded perfectionism of the iPhone has not done the same with iOS. Part of the problem, I think, is that “flat” is not really a metaphor. And to make up for the possible boring-ness of flat—and in fact its cognitive inexpressiveness—Apple has added a lot of motion. But these animated effects don’t really serve any functional purpose. They don’t make you more likely to tap the right button or understand anything quicker.
iOS 7 has replaced graphic cruft (all of the unnecessary green felt and faux leather, etc.) with motion cruft. Cruft is a term mobile and web designers and developers have come to use to mean that which is extraneous in a design that gets in the way either of performance or elegance of code (or clarity of design, for that matter.) It’s not that motion cannot be used to communicate meaning in a user interface, but Apple has not succeeding at doing that—yet.
If there is any problem with the way Apple tightly couples their hardware and software it is that the software has an agenda to sell the hardware, as is the case with iOS 7 and the iPhone 5S. iOS 7 is OK on an iPhone 4, but a lot of what makes the 5S look good will just bog the 4 down and chew up battery life. There is no question that the new OS feels updated and more “modern” than its predecessor, but it also feels arbitrary and “themed” in a way that iOS 6 did not.
To return to an old theme from the time of the Apple Maps debacle, if Apple cannot make its software as coherent as its hardware, why not open up all but the very core of the system to third party developers? Why not allow the best mail program or web browser to win by letting user pick their own default apps? If Apple had created a more coherent set of apps they could have blunted this criticism, but as it is, iOS 7 looks designed by many people, many teams, anyway.
Is it worth waiting until October for your new 5S to arrive? Yes, absolutely. Will you have gotten used to iOS 7 by then? Yes, but you may continue to feel a disconnect between the impressive solidity of your new phone and the flighty weightlessness of its software. Everything new is greeted by scorn, of course, but I think it is fair to say that the iPhone 5S gets higher grades than iOS 7, even though less new.
Source: Forbes Magazine