Dare Apple move the cheese with iOS 7?

Summary:Innovation is hard, especially with an established product and a satisfied customer base. Can Apple do anything radical with iOS 7? Do they even need to?

iPhones and Cheese
Mmmm. We're all used to the delicious taste of iOS 6 cheese. Will we learn to love the new flavour of iOS 7?

People don't like change. It's not something we're psychologically wired to deal with. Most of us find some comfort in the fact that the sun comes up every morning and sets every evening.

If the sun did something radical like turned into a heliotrope dodecahedron, each face emblazoned with a smiling unicorn — well, it would attract comment.

Ive-y

I installed iOS 7 this afternoon on my iPhone 4S. Do I like it? No.

In fact, it's quite difficult to find people on Twitter who are desperately in love with the thing.

There's an argument that Apple didn't actually need to do anything at all. I'd rather they spent the R&D on making Siri work really well, or coming up with new ways to help people connect with the people and things they love on the device. I don't really need a new Mail app icon.

But, thinking about it, I did need a better way of viewing tabs in Safari. And I've now got that. Although it's a bit like how Chrome on my Nexus 4 has always done tabs. But we'll get to that...

What's happened here is that the market has brought huge pressure on Apple to "reimagine" iOS in the same way that the market brought huge pressure on Microsoft to reimagine Windows. However, it's probably fair the market did that to Microsoft and unfair that the market is doing that to Apple.

Microsoft faces a slow death of the PC — at least as it was prior to Windows 8 — as the primary way that people consume time from a compute device changes from being focused work on a PC over to ad hoc, relationship-centric work on smartphones and tablets. As such, it had to twist and bend Windows by a huge amount just so that it would remain sellable over the next 10-20 years.

Microsoft has delivered on that. We now just need to decide if they delivered the right thing, but that's an ongoing, separate story.

What Apple has been asked to do is to react to a general feeling within the market that iOS is "looking a bit tired" compared to Android, Windows Phone, and even BlackBerry 10.

So Sir Jonny cracks out a crate of Red Bull and goes to work. And what we end up with is something that looks like "Android Plus." It unquestionably leapfrogs Android in terms of the pure aesthetics, but an argument the Ive and Co are now following Android is — I think — valid.

This in itself is a huge shift. Android thus far has largely based its development on incremental improvements on the work that iOS started. And now it looks like Cupertino has been stuffing jelly beans into their Xerox machines.

I suspect that by the time you read this, the Internet will be so chock-full of articles about things that Apple borrowed/stole from Android, it's not worth me commenting. But the point is this: whereas Apple once had a multi-year lead on everyone to the extent everyone else was essentially lapped on the track, the runners are now so close that slomo video is required to see who's leading the pack (innovation-wise) with any accuracy.

Ch... ch... changes

The problem for Apple is that they can't do anything radical at this point. Even if they wanted to, they daren't. People do not like having their cheese moved .

When I was watching the keynote yesterday, the gestures really stood out. For one thing, these are very similar to the gesture-heavy approach in BlackBerry 10. (There's the "following innovation" again.  I'm sure The Astonishing Tribe people are pleased .)

I wondered for a moment if they might remove the physical home button from iOS devices.

Can you imagine the reaction to that? I bet most of Microsoft's management can to. They've lived through it.

If you look at things they have changed, they're all very small items if you ignore the new design language. Task switching and killing has changed, but that was likely a rarely used feature in iOS anyway. I've now got a button that I can get at easily that turns my phone into a flashlight. (Whoop-dee-doo.)

The radical changes in Windows 8 have almost certainly harmed adoption of that operating system. But when you're playing a really long game, like all the players here are, the actual sales are just one part of the story. These companies need to get people on message, and that means having the right version of the OS, the apps, the services, and the lot.

Apple has done an astounding job of not letting people drift too far away from their current versions. In the WWDC 2013 keynote yesterday, Cook made this point twice — firstly by highlighting fragmentation of Android, where he said that the majority of Android users are on an OS built in 2010, and secondly by swiping at Microsoft's comparatively paltry adoption of Windows 8. 93 percent of iOS devices out there run iOS 6.

This is really where they're winning. They've lost a little bit of their mystique by now appearing to be following the market, but they are winning grandly in having a massively consistent, addressable user base. The "win" that developers get through that lack of fragmentation is ancillary — the most important thing is that Apple doesn't have to fight fragmentation.

Google in its core web offerings doesn't have this problem either. (It does on Android, though.) That's what Chrome is all about — drive everyone onto the same platform where you can sell them stuff. Note that neither Apple nor Google have any form of "financial gate" that people have to negotiate to get the new stuff. It's open to everyone, whereas upgrades to Microsoft's operating system costs money.

The most powerful feature in iOS is likely the one that automatically updates the OS in small chunks. What Apple has done is swapped radical innovation for a slow, careful maturation of the platform so that the iOS user base can be effectively targeted for ecosystem content.

With iOS 7, and the relentless push for everyone to bump up from iOS 6, everyone gets to keep eating the same cheese. 

Let's just hope we continue to like the flavor.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Apple, Wikimedia

Topics: Smartphones

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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