Apple demonstrated that it will keep its iron grip on iOS 7, despite Tim Cook saying it’s time for Apple to start opening up. Rather than debut new opportunities for developers, Apple squelched them at WWDC by building its own substitutes for widgets, phone modifications, and whole categories of existing apps.
Long ago, Apple declared war on inconsistency. When critics say ‘closed’, Apple hears dependable. Buy an iPhone or MacBook Pro and Apple wants your experience to be reliably great. It will do what it takes to protect that reputation. That means keeping its software largely unaltered by third-party developers. Apple’s homemade apps and operating system infrastructure might not be the best, especially compared to Google’s, but they’re easy and simple and usually get the job done.
Hardcore users and third-party developers are the casualties of this war. And WWDC was a battle lost for them. Considering it’s supposed to be a developers conference, Monday’s event was all about Apple. So much so it may have left a sinking feeling in the stomachs of those hopeful to build helpful experiences for users…as well as those who already had.
Native Features Box Out Developers
At WWDC, Apple debuted iOS 7, calling it the biggest change to its mobile operating system since its launch in 2007. But what stayed the same was Apple’s disregard for customizability.
In iOS 7, you still won’t be able to modify your lock or home screen with widgets, shortcuts, or launchers. Those tools allow Android holders to make their devices uniquely their own. Real-time feeds of information surface data from within apps so you don’t have to open them. Shortcuts let users jump straight to important parts of the OS or quickly toggle settings. Launchers let you choose from custom themes and employ different gesture controls for navigation.
None of those things are coming to iOS. It’s still a one-size-fits-all operating system. Developers hoping to port their customization apps to iOS are likely out of luck for at least another year.
Instead, Apple built several of the most important shortcuts into a single panel called Control Center. A swipe up reveals a number of crucial switches and sliders you used to have to dig out of different tabs of the Settings menu. There’s airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, rotation lock, Airdrop, and Airplay. Maybe most beneficial will be the brightness slider, which is critical to adjust as you move between direct sunlight and dark night so you don’t drain your battery. There’s also instant access to the music controls, which could combine nicely with the new iTunes Radio.
But there was one little icon in Control Center that surely struck fear in the hearts of quite a few developers. A flashlight. In a pinch, your mobile phone can help you find things in the dark by turning and leaving the camera’s flash on.
Until now, Apple left it up to scrappy developers to offer apps that do this. There are over 1,000 flashlight apps in the App Store, 50 in our own CrunchBase, and even one that’s venture funded. They’re all in trouble now. Why download or waste home screen space on an app when you can use Apple’s native version with just a swipe up and a tap? Sure, these apps probably didn’t take long to develop, and maybe their makers should have predicted Apple might launch its own flashlight, but still, they deserve a little sympathy.
Finally, the most direct example of Apple’s quest to stay closed is what it did with call and text blocking. Everyone uses the phone and SMS apps in their iPhone, but you can’t do much to customize them. Compare that with Android, which lets downloaded apps like Mr Number drastically modify the phone to allow for blocking of whole area codes of numbers, options to send specific numbers to voicemail, and even crowdsourced address books so nearly every incoming call comes with a name attached.
Apple could have opened up developer hooks so iOS apps could have similar abilities to modify the phone app. But Apple isn’t built on “open.” So instead, it announced at WWDC that iOS 7 will support basic blocking for calls, texts and FaceTime from specific numbers.
That takes the wind out of any Android phone modification app hoping to port to iOS. And with the expectation that Apple will keep improving these phone privacy features, it will be hard for any new developers to eke out enough value in the space to gain traction.
Skeuomorphism Off, Training Wheels On
iOS is falling behind. While many say the iPhone/iPad software is less advanced than the newest builds of Android, it’s how it treats users that isn’t aging well. We’ve become more tech literate, and especially more mobile literate in the six years since iOS launched. Yet the operating system still acts like we have no idea what we want.
That hand-holding is starting to drag us down. Apple saw that in its mobile design scheme. iOS 7 shed its predecessor’s skeuomorphism, dropping antiquated metaphors that made its calendar app resemble a physical paper planner many young users would hardly recognize.
Now it’s time to let the functionality of iOS grow up, too. There must be a way for Apple to offer the same reliability that’s made it a household name, but still offer flexibility to developers and power users. For example, a series of stern prompts could warn people that they are going to change their operating system by installing and activating certain apps. Apple could even prompt people at regular intervals to confirm their modifications, allowing them a quick way to uninstall these customization apps to make sure no one gets stuck with an unwanted foreign experience.
iOS was a marvelous introduction to smartphones for millions of people, and it will continue to be. But if Apple wants to satisfy us all and compete with the ever-evolving Android, it needs to let iOS mature. We certainly have.