iOS 7 Squandered a Year of Third-Party Development on Superficial Changes

I feel compelled to lard the beginning of any critique of Apple with clarifications about how much I admire them and their work. Too often these kinds of discussions decay into apple fanbois are sheep lolz. So if you’re looking for some sick burns on Apple and iOS, you’re going to be disappointed.

With that out of the way, allow me to say that I’m frustrated with the current state of affairs on iOS. It’s been almost a year since version 7.0 was announced, yet as a developer I feel like a year’s worth of work has brought about only superficial changes to the apps I work on and the apps I use.

All the big problems facing iOS in the summer of 2013 are still with us. Some have gotten even worse. It’s still impossible for customers to easily discover new apps. It’s still impractical for apps to interact with the same data and documents. It’s still unclear what the role of the iPad is supposed to be in a lifestyle filled with digital devices. Paid app sales are still sagging as scummy IAP business models are enjoying the lion’s share of App Store promotion and profit. Productivity apps are still unsustainable.

Please note what I am not saying. I am not saying that iOS 7 was a bad update. While I think some of its visual choices are mind-boggling, there’s also a lot to like. New APIs like UIView snapshots, UIDynamics, and background app refreshing are welcome improvements. But I don’t judge iOS 7 in isolation from other concerns. Set against the context of all the challenges facing iOS last year, it’s hard to regard iOS 7 as anything but a superficial update. The bulk of the changes were visual in nature. None of them addressed the elephants in the room.

Fast-forwarding a year, the effect that iOS 7 has had on third party development is disheartening — which sounds like a fatuous thing to say, since there have been so many well-liked redesigns over the past year. But that’s the rub: the vast majority of third-party developers’ time has been spent redesigning and reimplementing apps to dress the part for iOS 7. Many shops, such as Tapbots and Cultured Code, were forced to delay new products indefinitely while they scrapped ongoing work in favor of reboots. I suspect that many other developers had to make similar decisions.

Some folks argue that the iOS 7 “flattening” was an urgent need. iOS 6, they claim, was looking long-in-the-tooth compared to Android and Windows Phone. They might be right from an informed designer’s perspective, but they’re wrong if they think that this was an urgent problem. Apple’s most important indicators for the success of iOS software, install base and customer satisfaction, were extremely high with iOS 6. It was a popular OS that showed no signs of waning in popularity. A total redesign of the OS — especially one that abandoned key visual brand elements in favor of an aesthetic that looks like every other popular OS — was an unnecessary risk.

The visual overhaul obligated third-party devs to follow suit. It reset all of their product pipelines, setting them back months or years. Developers, being the hard-working and clever folks that they are, made the best of the crisis. Lots of fresh ideas were shipped since last fall. But the bulk of the apps released over the last year are only superficially different from the apps they replaced. In many ways, the App Store is still stuck where it was on June 1st, 2013.

|  29 Apr 2014