iOS 11 is the iPhone's mid-life crisis

Remember back to the Windows 8 and 8.1 day when Microsoft kept fiddling with the operating system's user interface trying to solve problems it had created for itself? This is where Apple is with iOS 11.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Pretty much a year ago today I wrote a piece about the then iOS 10 public beta where I called it a mess. Then, a week away from release I published another assessment where I once again called it mess, but at least now it was a snappy, stable mess.

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So, where does iOS 11 fit into the grand scheme of things?

What's interesting about iOS 11 is that while there are a few nuggets of "cool new stuff" baked into the platform - ARKit is probably going to be the biggest, but even small features such as Do Not Disturb I'm Driving feature are cool, and I get the feeling that that particular feature will help save lives - what iOS 11 seems to be mostly about is fixing the mistakes that Apple made in iOS 11 while at the same time making new mistakes that Apple will no doubt try to fix in iOS 12.

Most of these problems, as you might expect, are to do with the user interface. After all, this is the thin layer of light that separates the user from the code, and while it's easy to bolt new features into the operating system, making those features accessible and easy to use can be a real challenge. Doubly so if you have to shoehorn them into an existing user interface without any major revamping.

The Messages app is more cluttered than ever

The Messages app is more cluttered than ever

With iOS 10 Apple made some big changes. A year ago I highlighted three aspects of the user interface that I found particularly frustrating. These were the Messages app, the lock screen notifications, and the Control Center panel. Well, I can tell you right now that in iOS 11 Apple has made the Messages app even more cluttered, tried to fix notifications by essentially making them less prominent, and thrown more clutter into the Control Center without giving how to add it much thought.

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You know what it all reminds me of? Those Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 days when Microsoft decided it would be a good idea to transform Windows from a keyboard/mouse interface to a touch-first interface, and made huge arbitrary changes to longstanding aspects of the interface, which then kicked off a cascade of fiddling and tweaking to try to solve problems it had created for itself.

This is an operating system's midlife crisis. A point where legacy and bloat hit critical mass and there's a push to try to fix things. Unfortunately, that push to fix things usually just makes things worse.

What Apple is trying to do with iOS 11 isn't the same - the problem facing iOS is essentially down to the fact that iOS started out as a simple platform, and over a decade Apple's cluttered it up with bloat and notifications and features to the point where it created notifications overload and made the Settings app unusable - but it's resulted in the same knee-jerk user interface "fixes."

​The Control Center in the iOS 11 beta is what we should have got in iOS 10

The Control Center in the iOS 11 beta is what we should have got in iOS 10

And it's odd how some of the solutions are the same.

Just as Microsoft's solution to the messy bloated Control Panel was to create a Settings app to be the new home for basic operating system tasks that people want quick access to, when the Settings app became cluttered, Apple put features that users need most often into the Control Center panel.

And you can tell when companies have given up on solving user interface problems when the solution offered to a messy user interface is to create more user interface rather than fix the underlying issues.

Don't get me wrong, the changes that Apple has made to the Control Center are all welcomed, but the Settings app is still a mess, and there's still a lot more that could have been done to make the Control Center better. Quite honestly, the Control Center I'm seeing in the iOS 11 beta is what we should have got in iOS 10, but for some reason it took Apple over a year to refine this feature.

iOS 11is still awfully buggy, and with a couple of months to go until it's released, I expect a fair bit of refinement to happen, so I'm going to reserve final judgment for now. However, past experience suggests that with the September launch date coming up fast, Apple is mostly focused on bug fixing and performance optimizations at this point, and what we see now is likely close to what we will all be getting later this year.

Oh well.

Bottom line though, if you're an Apple fan that's been guffawing at all the blunders and missteps that Microsoft has been making over the years, it's time to choke down a big slice of humble pie because iOS 11 is now having a midlife crisis.

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