Apple bills iOS 7 as biggest change since original iPhone

The rumors were right. Apple unveiled iOS 7 at the Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco today, and the new mobile operating system indeed boasts a "flat" user interface. In fact, iOS 7 is such a departure from prior versions of iOS that Apple CEO Tim Cook billed it as the "biggest change to iOS since the introduction of iPhone." I don't think he was exaggerating, either:

Faux-leather and green felt have been swept away, as have the glossy overlays and drop-shadows of past releases. In their stead, iOS 7 introduces plain colors, subtle gradients, and elegant translucency. Animations have been updated, and there's a cool, motion-sensitive parallax effect that makes home-screen icons appear to hover over the background. Even the typography has been changed; I saw a lot of Helvetica Light in Apple's demos. Coupled with iOS 7's plain-white backdrops and flat colors, the clean typefaces are, at times, eerily reminiscent of Windows Phone.

Apple's keynote was rife with jabs at the skeumorphic predilections of former iOS chief Scott Forstall, but there's much more about iOS 7 than a UI revamp. Apple's Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue demonstrated countless other refinements and a fair number of novel features, too.

There's the Control Center, which is summoned by a swipe from the bottom edge of the screen and regroups media controls, connection settings, a brightness slider, a flashlight toggle, and shortcuts to the compass, calculator, and camera. Apple also showed reworked multitasking, which takes a page out of the Palm playbook and shows full previews of running apps. The camera now has a pseudo-Instagram mode built in, as well, and the Camera Roll app organizes pictures into "Moments," bringing some order to the chaos of smartphone photography. And, thanks to AirDrop, users will be able to share photos and other media over Wi-Fi. Apple stressed that no bumping will be required for that feature.

Other additions include FaceTime Audio, which is exactly what it sounds like; iTunes Radio, which is debuting exclusively in the U.S.; and automotive integration goodness that will bear fruit next year, when cars from major manufacturers will interface with iOS through their built-in displays. Even Siri has gotten a makeover. It hasĀ a different female voice and an optional male voice, and it's gained the ability to manage device controls and to look up information on Twitter, Wikipedia, and Bing.

Oh, and iOS 7 allows apps to update automatically. That means we'll be free of the lure of the nagging red badge on the App Store icon. Finally!

iOS 7 is due out this fall for the iPhone 4, iPad 2, fifth-gen iPod touch, and all newer iDevices. You can watch a video of it here.

I wasn't sure what to expect from today's keynote, but there's a distinct buzz of excitement in my belly right now. I like that Apple wasn't afraid to break with the past; I think iOS 7 looks all the better for it. My only concern is that the white backdrops, low-contrast buttons, and thin lines might not be as easy on the eyes as iOS 6's murkier widgets. There's something to be said for high-contrast design when you're staring at the same interface all day. Then again, I had similar reservations about the latest Gmail redesign, and I got used to that just fine.

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