iOS 7: replacing the elegant with the tolerable

If I had to describe the totality of Apple's hardware design during the final years of Steve Jobs' tenure, I would use one word to do it:


My iPhone 4 was elegant. When I got it, I would often take it out of my pocket just to tinker with the software and to admire the hardware. It was sleek, sexy, modern, and fast. It was like Scarlett Johansson in a red dress or George Clooney in a tuxedo. It wasn't just effortlessly desirable; there was something special about it, a magnetism that made you want to keep looking, and staring, and admiring.

The same goes for many Apple products I've used over the years—my old aluminum MacBook, my new iPhone 5, the wired aluminum keyboard on which I'm typing this blog post. Even the lowliest of Apple cables and connectors have an elegance about them. Sometimes, when I have to charge my phone, I'll take an extra moment just to look at the Lightning connector—and then I'll plug it in, and I'll get a small whiff of satisfaction from the way it clicks into place. This doesn't happen consciously. Something about Apple's hardware design just seems to trigger that kind of reaction.

Apple owes this all to one man: Jony Ive. Sir Ive has been in charge of the company's industrial design for close to two decades. Recently, he was put in charge of human interface design, as well. iOS 7, the first release to bear his mark, came out yesterday, and millions of Apple users rushed to download it.

I was one of them.

I was excited about iOS 7. As an admirer of Ive's hardware creations, I was excited to see what he'd contribute to the software side of things. Plus, iOS was starting to look a little dated. Some of the UI widgets had been around since the release of the original iPhone in 2007. Seven years is a long time. In seven years, even the prettiest thing can start to get tiresome. It was high time for a new injection of elegance.

Well, I've been using iOS 7 for about a day now. I've used it on my iPhone and on my girlfriend's iPad. I've poked around the UI, agonized over a new wallpaper selection, and rearranged my home screen icons.

My verdict? It's okay. It's a little bit cleaner, a little bit brighter, and a little bit more colorful than the previous release. Apple has added some nice features, like Control Center, and it's made much-needed improvements to old ones, like multitasking. The animations look neat, although they do make the phone seem a little slower. Using iOS 7 kinda makes you feel like a disembodied spectator sometimes—unlike iOS 6, which was very fast and responsive.

For the most part, though, iOS 7 is okay. It's new enough not to look old, and it's pretty enough not to look ugly. It's fine.

And that's exactly what's wrong with it.

There's no elegance anymore. No magnetism. Nothing about the way iOS 7 looks makes me feel happy to be an iPhone user. Nothing about it makes me want to poke around the interface just to admire it. There's some mild curiosity, perhaps, but no admiration. Nothing like what I get from looking at Apple hardware and holding it in my hand.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Apple went overboard with simplifying the UI. Simple design is good, but make something too simple, and there's real a danger of it losing its identity. Some of the new iOS 7 apps, like the Calendar app, remind me an awful lot of Google apps. The Apple version is usually a little nicer, a little cleaner, but the difference is subtle enough not to matter much.

Some of the icon and button designs also feel a little half-baked. The Safari icon looks sort of sad. The Music icon has an angry red-orange gradient. The Reminders icon is kinda nondescript, and the Calculator icon is bland and not pleasing to the eye. In Safari, three of the five buttons in the bottom bar have pale blue outlines and a roughly rectangular shape, so they're instantly forgettable (and a little tricky to tell apart at first).

Then there are the new, over-saturated backdrops that clash with the icons and obscure the text labels on the home screen. See the image of the iPhone 5C variants above. Where's the elegance? Where's the charm?

iOS 7 will no doubt be improved, refined, buffed out. Jony Ive will hopefully get better at the whole UI design thing. But until then, iOS 7 will dilute the elegance of Apple's hardware with a look and feel that's merely tolerable. At a time when Apple's dominance is being challenged more than ever, being merely tolerable is very dangerous.

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