Apple Reinvents Its Wheel With iOS 7, Takes Developers Along For The Ride

Today brings the release of the most dramatic iOS update that Apple has ever made. More people will experience this change in a shorter period of time than at any point in computing history.

“Measured by the number of people that are going to see a big change within the same 24-hour period,” says Evernote CEO Phil Libin, “I think iOS 7 is the biggest day in technology ever. There’s never been another day like this in the history of the universe where hundreds of millions of people will see a big change to something that they’re used to. Nothing of this scale has ever occurred.”

To give context to that statement, remember that six years ago Windows dominated the platform landscape, with OS X owning around 5% of the market. Now, iOS and Android combined have edged Microsoft out as the biggest segment of operating systems. A recent measurement put their unified share at 45% of computing devices and Windows at only 35%. Even if those numbers are off a bit, it’s very clear that most of our computing lives are now accessed via mobile devices — and the software that runs on those devices. 14e226de-7f89-49b4-9b95-385584d2d695

Then you start to think about the way that we see updates or changes to those platforms. Windows transitions between versions can take years from the time they’re announced. Windows 8 is still chugging along on the low end of the curve. In the mobile world, the newer, better versions of Android like Jelly Bean take months, if not years, to reach meaningful market share. Yes, Jelly Bean is much better looking, more capable and very, very good compared to older versions of Google’s OS. But by Google’s own numbers only around 45% of Android users have even seen it on their devices, and it was released 16 months ago. The absolute latest version of Jelly Bean has yet to register on Google’s charts.

Then we have iOS. Due to Apple’s extremely focused devices strategy and tightly controlled model that shrugs off carrier concessions and partner licensing, iOS has adoption rates that are off the charts in comparison. Recent predictions from mobile app performance management company Crittercism estimate that (if iOS 7 follows the trend of iOS 6) the new OS will hit 80% adoption rates within three months.

Recently, Apple said that they would cross the 700 million mark for iOS devices sold next month. Not all will be iOS 7 compatible, obviously, but since iPhone sales have increased exponentially for the last several years, many of them will.

What all of that adds up to is that a massive number of people will upgrade to iOS 7 over the next couple of weeks. Likely in the hundreds of millions. All of them will be exposed to a shockingly different and new version of their most personal computers.

It’s created the perfect storm of opportunity for developers making apps for Apple’s platform, and some of them are taking full advantage. This is a rare opportunity for them to — as an anonymous developer said recently — “re-compete for their spot in the universe.”

This kind of chance doesn’t come along too often, and many developers big and small are striking while the upgrade iron is hot.

Time To Rethink

When Luc Vandal and the Edovia team ran into a roadblock in 2012 while trying to work on the next version of their popular remote login app Screens 3, they set it aside. It wasn’t until rumors started bubbling up about iOS 7 being a major update that the juices started flowing again. Since they didn’t know exactly what the update would bring, they did some preliminary work and rewrote the backend of the app.

Then WWDC rolled around and Apple unveiled a radical new look and feel for the OS.

“iOS 7 is like 2008 all over again,” says Vandal of the year that Apple introduced the App Store. “An opportunity to start fresh, rethink your app(s), position your company and your apps. It was a good timing if you ask me because iOS was getting long in the tooth and felt like redoing the same stuff over and over.” mzl.hzfjqxza-2

Vandal is convinced that this kind of disruption in the look and feel of iOS makes their job easier. Both in terms of justifying a major redesign and in offering those major updates as new for-pay apps. That’s a tack that many developers are taking with iOS 7, as the design efforts go beyond re-skinning and many times involve rewriting the apps from the ground up.

“As far as iOS 7 itself and the changes it brought, it took a while to get used to it and understand the subtleties,” says Vandal. So we started from the idea that content was king and tried to reduce the chrome to a minimum. We also tried to adapt to the layers philosophy, which makes sense in the end. We tried to be consistent and think in terms of layers, keeping in mind that there was still content underneath and had to keep some form of context that made sense. I think we got it right.”

Another draw of iOS, says Vandal, is that it makes it much easier to justify it as a minimum version, leaving older editions of iOS behind. This comes by way of improved frameworks and classes in iOS that replace large amounts of old code with built-in features. Vandal is still very hopeful that future versions of iOS will bring refinement, however. The current version is still not firing on all cylinders but he’s pleased with the direction Apple is headed. “I can’t wait to see what iOS 8 brings us,” he says.

Screens is an incredibly useful app, and the new iOS 7 edition is cleaner and more purposeful. The screens themselves become the interface elements, rather than encapsulating them in graphic representations of monitors, as with the iOS 6 version. It’s fast, responsive and it feels familiar and very fresh at the same time.

That opportunity to break down the structures of what you’ve created and create anew has also proved attractive to big brands like American Airlines.

By the time that news of iOS 7 broke, American Airlines had already been pondering a new version 3 of its widely used flight tracking and ticketing app. The most recent shift had seen American adopting its newly minted livery and branding in the app. But iOS 7 presented particular opportunities.

“When this came out, we realized that it was an opportunity to jump in with a fresh look that wasn’t “’09’,” says Phil Easter, American Airlines’ Director of Mobile Apps. “So at WWDC, we saw a lot of interesting stuff that we wanted to play with.”

In the end, the biggest takeaway for Easter and his team from the announcement of iOS 7 was the focus on data.

“Before, it was about eye candy an ‘twinkley-ness’ and sparkly objects on the screen. Over time, what we’d seen from Microsoft [Windows Phone] was that the consumer wanted data, and we’re very data driven,” says Easter.

In fact, the mobile American Airlines app drives about 10x as much traffic as the desktop app in the 24 hours leading up to travel, as people refresh and triple check flight status. So the data that the app is presenting to the user needs to be ‘crisp and fast’, says Easter. “And I think that iOS 7 is about data first, and not about making pretty icons.” image001

In order to present more data to the user, the AA app switched from a largely page-driven system to a ‘linear’ data display that has you scrolling downwards in a main view to get your at-a-glance status. The design was a result of work to leverage what American sees as a more data driven iOS 7 and some conversations with Apple regarding tweaks that needed to be made to help the app be true to iOS 7. At this point, Easter says, American feels like they have a very good ‘first app’ for iOS 7 that, most importantly, has been tested very well.

“There’s reports from…out in the ether that a lot of apps are just going to crash [on iOS 7],” says Easter. “Airline apps get hit hard, because people loathe airlines. So if you’re not solving world hunger with your app you’re gonna be in trouble.”

Easter says that, with 9 million downloads of the app, they simply couldn’t afford to have a day one disaster. “These are travelers, you know, they’re paying for a service and if their app didn’t work I’d be walked out the door.”

One thing that Easter believes could be a problem on launch day is that Apple didn’t really launch a campaign that instructed developers to check and re-test all of their apps on iOS 7 in preparation for the launch. Instead, Apple treated this like ‘any other iOS release’ instead of the major change that iOS 7 is. Easter says that American did issue a compatibility update, but says that there were still a bunch of things in the app that didn’t work on iOS 7. So it will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like after launch, and how many developers will be caught unawares by crashes.

In order to educate its customers about the new look and feel of the app on iOS 7, American is putting together an instructional video that it has posted on YouTube. I get the feeling that this will be an interesting transition, especially with big brands like American that haven’t changed the look and feel of their apps in years.

Easter also sees some interesting opportunities around Apple’s new Bluetooth iBeacons for checking in locally. “Apple basically killed NFC, this was the last chance for [it] to have any legs,” says Easter. That, coupled with TouchID could make Americans more willing to accept the fact that their ‘credit card’ is on their phone.

“Our employees, assets and employees are always moving,” says Easter, “so this idea of identity, that we can track them at a gate to serve persons with disabilities or minors…I’m very giddy about the data that we can start getting.”

iOS 7 also gave the AA team the opportunity to focus on the accessibility aspects of the app. Resulting in Apple’s Voiceover accessibility system being enabled throughout the app for the visually impaired. And there is an ongoing effort to continue to make the app better for those with other disabilities. “We’re like a tiny country with the number of people that we transport, so that’s a huge [chunk] of our demographic,” says Easter, who gives credit to Apple for being a proponent of accessibility efforts.

The new app is well done, and shockingly attractive in comparison to the older AA apps. I’ve been a user of them for some time and this version is undoubtedly a major improvement. I was blown away when I launched the app for the first time, as American has taken full advantage of the parallax and edge-to-edge nature of iOS 7 to deliver the best looking airline app that I’ve ever seen or used. I’ve only fooled around with some sample flights supplied by the airline, but if it launches well it’s going to make a lot of travelers happy.

Easter also has a piece of advice that’s interesting in the context of our cross-platform world. “A lot of enterprises use tools other than native, and I think [iOS 7] is the demarcation for that theory,” he says. “If you’re not doing native [development] then you’re going to have a hard time adapting to the platform.”

“Tools that abstracted and ported to mobile platforms…you could get away with that. But when you look at our app…there’s no way you could abstract that. It just brings on the point that if you have the money to invest…your developers need to be native. Some of the other shops that aren’t native may have a tougher time and they may have to go all native just to adapt to the [iOS 7].”

The effect of this could be to build on platform lock-in, especially for smaller shops without the resources of AA. If a small company only has a couple of developers, then iOS 7 is a likely starting point, and once that’s begun, it’s going to be much harder to port those apps over to other platforms.

A large component of that is the way that iOS 7 is forcing development teams to re-think and re-evaluate their apps. Some of the larger publications are seeing so much benefit that they’re putting all of the chips on iOS 7.

Cutting Ties

In a major statement about the confidence companies have in Apple’s ability to ship, the next version of the New York Times app for iOS will be iOS 7 only. NYT Senior Software Engineer Chris Ladd says that this enabled the Times to take advantage of not only the new design but also the new APIs in iOS 7.

“At the time that we went out to WWDC, we were in the middle of a redesign project of both apps,” says Ladd. “Sitting back and rethinking, we’ve got these apps, they’re good apps…but let’s sit back and rethink ‘what do we look like on iOS’?”

The original plan was to redesign the apps in an effort that would span six months and see new apps across the Times brand in Q1 of 2014. But when the team saw iOS 7 at WWDC, they did some testing and prototyping. The response was so positive that the Times decided to accelerate a redesign that was supposed to take just six weeks.

What resulted is a rethinking of the app, not a re-skinning, as we’ve seen with many of the pre-iOS 7 app updates. And there is no way we’d be seeing this new version this soon if not for iOS 7.

“So, did iOS 7 change the way that we develop? Absolutely,” says Ladd.


Previously, the NYT had supported both iOS 5 and iOS 6. Moving to iOS 7 exclusively allowed them to utilize the new features of iOS 7 and to do away with a lot of the cruft of the old. Ladd gives several reasons that moving to support iOS 7 only benefits the Times apps.

First, there’s promotion opportunities from Apple. The company is well known to feature apps that go whole-hog in supporting the latest versions of the OS exclusively, and that leverage new APIs and features right away. There’s no guarantee that the Times will be featured by Apple, but this increases the possibility.

“It’s cheaper to support one version, one major version of software,” notes Ladd. “And you end up tying yourself in knots dev-wise to write around all of the old APIs, with all of the cool stuff you’re doing.”

When the team made the choice to go iOS 7-only, it was also able to throw away “thousands of lines of code”, which lightened the app’s structure and made it a leaner offering, and less unwieldy to work on for the team. The New York Times was one of the first apps on the iPad. Back when it was still a secret project the app team was shipped in to work on building it in a secure windowless room with access to the hardware, says Ladd. And some of that code was still in the app, so iOS 7 was an opportunity to sweep out the corners.

Apple’s recently introduced ‘app resurrection’ feature is also one that Ladd and the team have been testing in the office. It should allow holdouts to download the last compatible version of their app for their devices if they haven’t updated iOS.

And, of course, the huge adoption curve of iOS doesn’t hurt either. With over 85% of users on the latest version within weeks of release, the app will still address the majority of readers.

“One of the most exciting things about iOS 7…is the concept of automatic updates,” says Ladd. Even though the Times app has an aggressive update rate, automatic updates should make it even faster. “Just knowing that we’ll be able to polish and update this app and that it will get out to users fast is a huge win for us,” he adds.

“I’ve actually found it pretty magical, myself,” says Ladd. “When I’m at work I’ll be building and running a fresh copy of the app…but when I’m just at home on the weekend…I’ll pick up my iPad and open it up and the news is right there. And I know it didn’t update since I opened it. I don’t know exactly how they do it. I think it must be the motion of when you pick the device up couple with time..because it’s not regular. As a user, that’s one of the most magical things about iOS 7.”

With iOS 7, Apple is bundling background updates together to minimize CPU and radio activity, conserving battery life and making for a more efficient way to have apps ‘at the ready’ when you open them. How those updates are triggered, however, isn’t yet defined completely. From what we understand, it’s a combination of factors that includes a prediction of the next time you’ll launch each app based on when you’ve launched it before. It will then background-update shortly before then to give you fresh data when you launch it. There is also the ability for developers to trigger a background update via push notification, but iOS does not act on it immediately, it waits to bundle it with other updates.

This, says Ladd, is a testament to the way that Apple approaches these kinds of problems. It balances the desires of developers with usability concerns. This was evident in the way that developers approached the desire for updating apps continuously in the background, and the way that Apple answered it with a (theoretically) more efficient system.

“When somebody is asking you for something,” says Ladd, “they might not be asking for what they really want…really they want you to solve a problem for them. Apple is really good at stepping back and asking what is the actual problem here and what is the easiest and cheapest way to solve it.”

Of course, as we’ve seen with the ‘old app’ feature, that balance isn’t always struck correctly, erring too far on the side of the user and leaving developers in the lurch. But, in this case, the backgrounding APIs seem to be working as advertised.

“We want the New York Times on iOS to absolutely feel at home on iOS…but at the end of the day we want it to look like us,” says Ladd. “A big part of our design thinking includes a lot more of the nuanced typography that you see in the paper, the full bleed cover of the magazine and the magazine’s fonts.”

This tension between stripping down the design of apps completely and still retaining the focus of your app is a recurring theme that we’ve seen with developers.

Design challenges

Many of the developers we’ve spoken to have said that re-interpreting their apps while retaining the heart of what they are has been the most difficult with iOS 7. The change in feel is so radical, and so minimal, that the instinct is simply to winnow the app down to its bare elements.

“While a lot of the interactions are similar to iOS 6, iOS 7 looks and feels new and fresh. It’s likely many users will perceive apps that don’t take advantage of iOS 7’s design queues as old and stale,” says Bjango’s Marc Edwards. “Using completely stock UI widgets for everything isn’t the answer though — I think it’s important to maintain your app’s own personality. So, it’s a balancing act, and quite a tough one.”

Edwards cites the status bar, which now merges with each app to create a unified feel, as a particular challenge.

“In iOS 6, the status bar was treated as its own entity, often blending into the hardware. iOS 7 merges the status bar and nav bar into a single unit, making it the app developer’s problem — we now have to include and design around a busy line of icons and text, and we have very little control over the way it looks,” says Edwards. “If there’s one thing I want in iOS 8, it’s for the status bar to revert to how it was in iOS 6, or for a better solution to be found.”

David Barnard timed the launch of his new brand Contrast and new app Perfect Weather with the release of iOS 7.

“Thankfully, Perfect Weather was one of those rare cases where just tweaking the visuals made it feel right at home on iOS 7. We had already settled on a gesture based UI that uses depth and physics in a way similar to iOS 7, so we didn’t actually have to rethink the app for iOS 7,” Barnard says. “A lot of developers will probably say the same thing and be wrong, but I think time will prove that Perfect Weather stands up well with the new UI paradigms of iOS 7.”

Barnard also notes that getting to a stable release was made more challenging this year because some ‘obvious’ bugs weren’t worked out in Apple’s recent iOS 7 Gold Master release. “We’ve been scrambling to fix some things were so obvious we assumed they’d be fixed in the GM,” he says.

A comparison of how ‘minimal’ Barnard and his team thought iOS might go with how the design ended up on iOs 7 demonstrates just how surprising the changes Apple introduced at WWDC were:


But pushing those changes hard undoubtedly made it difficult for some developers to get all of the changes in place before launch. Some high-profile developers like Tapbots’ Paul Haddad have stated that they will continue to work on their software until they feel comfortable with the quality before releasing an ‘iOS 7’ version.

“I’m strongly against taking a saw to an app and removing every single tiny shadow and gradient,” says Apple Design Award winner Ryan Orbuch. Orbuch and Michael Hansen worked to give to-do app Finish a new look, while not stripping out all personality.Main Screen

“Nobody wants every app on iOS 7 to look the same, in fact, not even Apple–this is something that I think has often been misinterpreted,” says Orbuch. “We moved pretty far away from the stock iOS 6 UIKit elements in past versions of Finish to provide our own distinctive feel and functionality, and it wouldn’t make sense at all to switch back to stock elements just because those elements changed. I rebuilt our interface with lots of subtle and major changes and improvements that add up to a much cleaner and lighter feel, and I’m really excited about it.”

The general consensus is that iOS 7 is actually harder to design for than iOS 6, even though its interface elements are simpler in nature. The simplicity of the thing makes every choice extremely important, and tempts designers to settle for ‘minimal’ when the answer is not nearly so, well, simple. The first wave of apps for iOS 7 will likely be a mixed bag of ‘resins’ and truly ‘re-built’ apps.

But there are some companies using iOS 7 as a catalyst to kick off a completely new brand image. One of those is CNN.

iOS 7 Influence

CNN is smack in the middle of a ‘re-platforming’ effort across desktop, mobile and mobile web. And iOS 7’s design cues will inform all of those other platforms as it changes the way that it presents content to its customers.

The redesign of the iOS apps were going to happen regardless of iOS 7, but now they’re able to take advantage of the aesthetic break by creating a new palette of color, using translucency and dynamism in the app and taking advantage of the backgrounding APIs to deliver news faster.

If a breaking news alert occurs, CNN sends a refresh to the content on the app so when a user taps on the breaking news alert they have immediate access to the latest content on the top stories page. Previously, unless the app had been run in the last 10 minutes, this required a refresh of the app. CNN_App_Top_Stories_1

The new design of the app is also more in keeping with the responsive designs rolling out on the web and mobile web for the rest of the CNN Next update. CNN says that the layout of iOS 7 is much more friendly to this kind of modular thinking and should make the app much more cohesive when used alongside the responsive web editions of CNN’s offerings.

The fact that iOS 7 is influencing other components of a brand’s mechanisms was also a common thread in speaking with developers.

Evernote CEO Phil Libin says that the re-write of the iOS 7 app is “the most dramatic development project that we’ve done,” and notes that it will influence the other versions of the apps on other platforms.

Virtually no code is shared between this version of Evernote and the previous iOS editions. Libin calls it a ‘once every 5 years cleanup’.

“We wanted to do it because it’s such an opportunity,” says Libin. “The central thing about iOS 7 is that it feels a lot faster. Doing things in iOS 7 feels a lot more immediate…minimizing the amount of motion and gestures and visual noise. So our primary goal was to make it feel much faster, be much faster in reality, but also feel much faster.”

To that end, Evernote got rid of all of the physical metaphors it was using before in order to embrace the new dynamic UI. Those added ‘weight’ to the app, says Libin, and they had to go. Over the next year or so these choices will influence the versions of Evernote’s apps that roll out over the next year.

But it wasn’t all easy going, Libin says that they struggled with it for the first couple of weeks. He used iOS 7 on his primary devices and they tried to get a feel for “what the platform wanted to be, what it wanted us to do,” he says. The main challenge, says Libin, was time, because it was such a massive change. “It was probably the hardest project we’ve done.”


And the project, says Libin, will be seen by more people in a shorter period of time than any release before it. Windows and Android take a year or more to change that many people’s personal platforms. “It’s unheard of in 24 hours,” he says.

Libin also cites the 64-bit architecture as very important for Evernote’s future apps, as it will allow them to do more stuff on the client side, rather than server side. Evernote is also using Airdrop and has more plans for it and iBeacon to add features for users

“I haven’t been this excited for a new platform in a while, in terms of how quickly it’s going to make our app better over the next few months,” says Libin.

Shock and Awe

The sentiment that iOS 7 will inspire ‘shock and awe’ in users is one that I’ve heard repeated in one fashion or another by many developers over the course of these past few months. And I don’t think that term was meant as a completely complimentary one. Simply put: iOS 7 is such a big change that most developers have no idea how users will react to it, or to the apps that they create which fit in with its aesthetic.

Everything is unsettled, and the mobile landscape on iOS has been fractured into a bunch of tiny pieces. This is the time for developers on the platform to strike, to make a statement. This is when new winners will rise and old leaders will fall. The opportunity with iOS 7 now has never been larger, and even Libin’s rather dramatic statement rings true — at least inside the iOS community.

And, in the end, it’s also a test for Apple. Will its users update to the new iOS as fast as they have previous versions? The framework is set for easy upgrade, but will people take advantage of it even though it’s going to completely change the way that their devices and apps look? Do they even know it will?

Even if users choose to upgrade, there’s still the question of how they will react. Will the opportunities created here for developers to re-imagine their apps also cause them to alienate people comfortable with the overall feel of an iOS that hadn’t changed in six years?

So far there are just questions, and a lot of big bets from developers large and small. The next few weeks should give us some answers.