How Will We Know if iOS 7 is a Success or a Failure?

Depending on whom you ask, iOS 7 is either a hero or a villain. It’s a spring-cleaning of the cobwebs from an outdated visual style, or it’s an over-correction based on an inflexible system of dubious rules. It’s Apple once again breaking free from the constraints of the past, or it’s Apple showing up unfashionably late to the newest fad.

These opinions can’t all be right, but can any opinion be right? How will we know when iOS 7 can be judged a success or a failure? What does “success” even mean for an iOS update? What role does interface design play in this success?

A good place to start is with Apple’s own attempts to draw an outline around iOS’ impact on the mobile OS landscape. In this years’ WWDC Keynote (beginning around 69:40), Tim Cook approached iOS from several angles: install base, usage, and customer satisfaction.

If success is defined by the percentage of in-use devices that are updated to the latest OS, then iOS 7 is probably going to be the most successful iOS version to date. According to Cook, ninety-three percent of iOS devices are using iOS 6 (with six percent running iOS 5). This is most likely a testament to the ease of installing over-the-air software updates, as well as Apple’s efforts to support older devices still in widespread use. These factors are not changing in iOS 7, so I would expect to see similar numbers at next year’s Keynote.1

iOS device owners use their devices more often than other mobile device owners. According to Experian, iOS devices are used 75 minutes a day, on average, compared to 45 minutes a day for Android.2 If these usage times tip in favor of Android, it could mean that the changes in iOS 7’s design are making customers less willing to spend time with their devices. This seems an unlikely scenario to me. The “offensive” changes in iOS 7 are mostly superficial. The key differences between iOS and Android devices3 — tight integration of hardware and software, the richness of third-party apps, etc. — won’t change from iOS 6 to iOS 7.4

The primary metric that Apple uses to objectively measure iOS’ success is customer satisfaction scores — or “customer sat” as Cook referred to it during the Keynote. He proudly noted that the iPhone has been ranked number one in customer satisfaction by J.D. Power nine consecutive times — a first for any product. ChangeWave found that overall satisfaction was 97 percent for iOS device owners, and that 73 percent of them characterized themselves as “very satisfied.”

Of all the metrics used to measure iOS’ success, I think that customer satisfaction is the one to watch most closely. If customers find something distasteful about iOS 7, I would expect to see a drop in both overall satisfaction and in the number of people who claim to be very satisfied. Or perhaps the opposite might happen. Either way, customer satisfaction is the best measure we have. The other metrics compare iOS to Android and other mobile operating systems. The data are influenced by too many external factors to be a good measure of the iOS 7 user experience itself.

Another measure of success will take longer to notice. Over the next two or three years, as contracts begin to expire and customers head out in search of device upgrades, what kind of devices will they choose? Will iOS sales growth taper off as customers choose alternatives?

Standing in an AT&T store recently, the only smartphone in the store that didn’t have a “flat” design aesthetic was the iPhone. Windows Phone’s app tiles swooped around in a delightful way, with no drop shadows or gradients to distract me. The Android lock screens were hard to distinguish from the iOS 7 test device I’d brought with me in my pocket. The build quality of some of the Samsung, HTC, and Nokia phones was comparable to the iPhone. Their screens were bigger and more pixel-dense. The HTC One felt more like a miniature iMac then a smartphone. It felt great to heft it around. Standing there, absorbing all of the options available to me, and with AT&T staff more than happy to sell me an Android device as easily as an iPhone, I wondered why anyone chooses an iPhone at all.

If the appeal of the iPhone, all the years it’s been on sale, is in part due to the little visual details — a notepad icon that looks like what it does, an unlock slider so easy to grasp than even babies figure it out on their own — then iOS 7 could be spoiling the key ingredient to the success of its predecessors. Time will tell.

  1. There are still a lot of iPhone 3GS devices in use, which will not be supported by iOS 7. However, with the steady growth in the smartphone market overall, and the likely introduction of lower-cost iPhone models in the fall, I expect that by June 2014 any impact on the iOS 7 install base by iPhone 3GS devices running iOS 6 will be more than compensated for by sales of newer iOS devices.
  2. That’s a time difference of only thirty minutes. Since iOS devices are generally more power-efficient than their Android counterparts, it is not implausible that the Android deficit is a side-effect of battery life. If Android devices with better power-consumption are released, then Android usage numbers could improve without implying anything negative about iOS 7.
  3. Some people argue that there are also differences between iOS and Android device *owners*. I won’t make such an assumption here. If there is any truth to this notion, it could plausibly account for usage differences, too. But if personality drives usage, then iOS 7 isn’t going change anything. A software update can’t make you a thinner, overzealous bore.
  4. Cook also presented data on mobile web usage on tablets, but these data also aren’t likely to change with iOS 7, since the underlying causes will remain the same.

|  26 Aug 2013