With the announcement of its Worldwide Developer Conference for June, Apple has set the wheels in motion for the reveal of iOS 7, a monumental event if Apple is to keep up with the ingrained social-media-friendly, music-streaming and up-front services that users now expect.
iOS Doesn't Need Fireworks and Dancing Girls
At Apple's upcoming June, already sold-out, WWDC event, it should be showing off iOS 7 to the assembled developers and watchers. But instead of a world going "wow!", Apple has let iOS fall behind, compared to how other mobile operating systems present live information, so may end up playing catch-up in some key areas of UI and design.
Against the backdrop of a slow-but-steady approach to iOS, Apple has updated its core apps and screen resolution, but it looks practically identical on an iPhone 5 as it did on the first model. That's great from a user consistency perspective, but poor from a world view where our use of apps, web-apps, and consumption of content and information are all evolving far more rapidly.
On the back of still strong device sales, Apple still has huge amounts of brand loyalty, with no sign of users fleeing to other ecosystems. However, for every user who is happy to keep on the iPhone or iPad upgrade treadmill, there are those who see rival devices offering greater flexibility, personalized features and a more modern way of working with a smartphone, tempting isn't it?
iOS Forever, and Ever
How will iOS 7 respond to these challenges? That's up to the human interface design team led by Greg Christie, and now being nudged along by hardware design guru Jony Ive to a flatter, simpler direction, presumably with some nuanced changes to the look of the overall interface. Is that a good thing? Well only if it doesn't diminish the iPhone premium experience, but at the end of day its about our data and how it is used that really matters.
So, where Apple can make big changes is in app access to the lock screen, data available in Notification pull-down menu. For a start, it would be awesome for users to have our own lock screen, with the information we want to put there. A bar for your best friend's posts or sports scores, shouldn't be a problem. Showing any outstanding social media interactions, how hard can it be? A prioritized list of emails (with circulars or other cruft kept off the front page) is surely essential.
When you slide to unlock, especially on an iPad, it is also about time that Apple introduced family user settings, guest accounts or another method of letting someone use the device without wiping your emails, or deleting your Angry Birds progress. A smarter keyboard also should be high on the agenda. BlackBerry and Android are now miles ahead on this front and Apple's quaint little suggestion pop-ups don't really seem to be helping much.
Icons and Buttons
Then there's the basic grid of app icons, unsullied bar the odd number alert. I'm not asking for singing, dancing animated icons, but they can at least perform some basic function. We can see why many users want more information, like the Calendar icon provides. That's it though, just one interactive icon across the whole of iOS, not even the clock app can tell the right time.
A number of different bubbles could provide some useful details without crowding out other icons. And if you are going to move in this direction, why not allow some widget-like features for specific apps. Armies of widgets would be a bad thing, Microsoft put them on Windows, then took them off again, for good reason. But at least give developers and users some choice in the matter, even if they appear over the top of a greyed-out app selection screen, like a half-way house between a full app launch.
Apple could also go a little further with app integration. We have the ability to see world clocks and weather, but in two separate apps, how complex is it to combine that data in one place (as in the iPad Clock app)? And since people have likely added these places for a reason, what's wrong with a link to local news. That's not a massive ambition but one that seems to have slipped Apple by.
Going Big on Games
At most recent events Apple has dug up some game and presented it as the next big thing and a demonstration of the latest iDevice's power. Apart from Infinity Blade, they've looked pretty sparse. With Sony letting you control Xperia phones with a PlayStation DualShock controller, and Samsung showing its own pad at the Galaxy S4 launch, now is surely the time for Apple to do gaming properly.
That's a games-class controller so you can sit in front of your iPad (or iPhone connected to a HDTV) and an updated Game Center allowing you to challenge friends and family to bouts of epic, family friendly or core gaming. Phones aren't going to get much more powerful now, so there won't be a better time for a push to use that power for serious home entertainment.
Apple in the Wars
Why has Apple seemingly lagged so far behind its rivals when it comes to the humble front-end? It spent much time and effort fighting Google after the launch of Android. So, Apple rushed out an unready, unpolished Maps app to replace Google's product to huge derision. Its attempts to outflank the social media giants (Ping, anyone?) have all back-fired, leaving it to let Facebook and Twitter integrate as cheesy pop-ups in iOS.
On the hardware front, it is now fighting Samsung to reduce its dependence on the South Korean chip and screen giant, since its Galaxy Phones are the main challenger to Apple in most markets. It is also scrapping with the music and movie industries, trying to change the rules of content, but either through over-aggressiveness or intransigence, can't launch products to compete with the likes of Spotify, Netflix and others. How much chance will iRadio have when it eventually arrives?
All of this effort must at some level have deflected focus from the company's core job of providing the best possible user experience. Some six years on from the original launch, if Apple hasn't managed to make the leap yet, there's the risk that, despite all the talent, it might not be able to get it right.