There are quite a few clichés about change. The one in my mind most recently is the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Long time GBM readers know that I’ve been absent from these pages for quite some time. Those who took the time to ask know some about the saga I experienced with my former job at Wayside Theatre. I’m no longer employed there after being “resigned.” And, that theatre, sadly no longer exists as it closed down just a few short weeks after I spent my final day trying to keep it open. That change resulted in my moving from Virginia to Chicago, and transitioning from a life running a theatre to a free-lance career in the same art form. But that’s a saga best told on another blog. Change is also a constant when it comes to mobile tech. There is constant pressure to innovate, to create something new. If a company doesn’t meet that demand, well then the conventional wisdom deems them tired and withering. With a thirst for the latest and greatest as insatiable as any that plagued Tantalus, the world of mobile tech always seems to be in search of rehydration. This cycle eventually brings about change in and of itself. Sometimes change is abrupt and sudden. In some instances it takes time.
Since my last blog post here there have been many changes in mobile tech. Steve Ballmer finally threw in the towel (or had it thrown in for him), and Microsoft looks like it hasn’t learned any of the lessons from its first Surface launch as it prepares to bring forth round two. Nokia and Blackberry have moved closer to their inevitable ends. One day Google looks to continue its ascension and the next not. (Although the stock price keeps moving North.) All of which can be mostly attributed to how fast, or not, players work to keep up with the rapid pace of change now demanded by a mobile market place that seems inexplicably intent on turning the latest incarnation any new product into a hit or a miss on day one.
Change when you plan it is hard to accomplish. Change when forced upon you hits you hard in the face and is even tougher to pull off. In either case, judging the impact of change is never easy. Unless of course the bottom falls out and you can’t meet even the most well managed or well-intentioned expectations.
To a certain degree, Apple’s way of changing things has created is an expectation cycle of its own making. The list of exciting game changers Apple introduced beginning with the iPhone and evolving into the iPad changed an industry. It can also be argued that it changed the way we do things on a daily basis. Smartphones, and to a lesser degree, tablets, have become the weapons of choice for us to spread ourselves socially around the web (and in the databanks of the NSA), get some work done, relax and entertain ourselves, and, of late, look to these devices to discover how fit (or unfit) we are. If you pay attention beyond the headlines and rumor posts about this Apple thing or that Apple thing, you can easily see that Apple is content to keep gradually innovating and not rush things to market. But does that gradual (and profit making) pace satisfy the insatiable market thirst for another game changer? Does it matter? For some, Apple’s pace is just fine and dandy. I’m in that camp. As, apparently, are many others who have tried to purchase Apple’s latest iPhones, and brought the Internet to its knees with the release of iOS 7. So, in that context, and with Apple about to drop more big news on Tuesday, I want to share some impressions about the iPhone 5s and iOS 7.
The iPhone 5s
The iPhone has been my go to weapon of choice since the iPhone 3G. I’ve owned every release since then. Each device has served my needs well. I almost changed that record with the iPhone 5s due to my life changes, but I got lucky and fell within a window where Apple was taking “pick up at a store” orders on the first Monday night after the iPhone 5s release. I ordered that night and picked it up the next morning. Coincidentally, this was right as the news was breaking that Apple was discontinuing that option due to demand issues. In fact, when I showed up at the Apple Store, the Apple folk were a little surprised to see that indeed the pick up option was in effect for a brief time and even more surprised to hear it had ended so quickly. (Apple has since put this back in place.) Consequently, I got my hands on the 5s about the time those who ordered early overnight on release Friday did. This violated one of my prime directives: never make a major change during a big project, and came while I was directing a show at Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, Illinois. But, being a geek brimming with gadget lust, I just couldn’t help myself.
I picked up a 64GB Space Gray iPhone on AT&T. Fundamentally, there is no real form factor change from the iPhone 5 except for the color(s). So in this tick-tock cycle that Apple has created for its flagship phones, outward appearances remain largely the same. So, for this tock, Apple has labeled the iPhone 5s the “most forward-looking phone” and focused on three big three tent poles: Touch ID (fingerprint sensor), improved camera, and the M7 chip. Oh, and there’s the 64 bit thing. More on that later as I take each of those in turn. “Most forward-looking” is a big expectation setter. But is it enough for those looking to purchase today?
Initially, I read reams of digital print about how Touch ID worked so well out of the box. I guess it must have for most. That many folks couldn’t be lying, unless you are talking about US politicians. Touch ID didn’t work as effortlessly for me initially, and of late, I’ve seen more and more folks who have had similar experiences to mine. I dutifully touched my way through the finger print reading process and found that after my fingerprints were registered, I was getting a “try again” more times than I thought should be the case. I erased the initial fingerprints and tried again. I repeated that process three times over a few days, until I now seem to be able to use Touch ID with the degree of latitude that I think is acceptable.
That said, If the way it works now continues I can see the real value in this. Let me rephrase that. If the way it reads my fingerprint continues AND Apple actually opens this up for other App developers to use I can see the real value in this. It’s an easy way to access the phone and works reasonably well for iTunes or App Store purchases. I say reasonably because I keep having to re-verify when I make a purchase more frequently than I think is necessary. As far as security goes this too frequent two-step makes some sense, as does this entire move to a bio-metric form of ID. If hackers continue to disrupt our world to such an extent that two-factor authentication becomes the norm, then Apple is one step ahead of others on this already. (Forward thinking?) For those worried about their fingerprint data being stolen I hope you can find better things to do with your life. I say that not because Apple has created a crack proof system. Nothing created by humans can’t be undone by humans. But I say that in the same spirit that I’ve always said about locks on any enclosure, device, or automobile. If someone wants to break into it bad enough they will. Well identified security serves as a deterrent against the easy or casual theft. It won’t stop a determined thief, hacker, marketer or government. Apple has created a security scenario for those who don’t like to use passwords, and to a large degree that’s an improvement. So, I give Touch ID a grade of B in this first implementation and will be on the lookout to see if Apple can figure out a way to make this even more truly useful in the future. A forward-looking side note here: There has been much speculation about whether or not Apple will bring Touch ID to the iPad and the iPad mini. In my view, if they don’t it will be a major disappointment. Once you get past the setup and initial trial and error phase, it is tough to go back.
Apple has continued to innovate in its own way with its camera, both on the hardware side and the software side. I’ve alway been impressed by what iPhone cameras offer and this is no exception. But to my eye, the changes are nothing but evolutionary. Others certainly feel differently. Don’t get me wrong, the last several generations of the iPhone have had great cameras, and this is no exception. I’ve tried out the fancy flash thing, but I try to avoid flash when at all possible. It does improve skin tones in most situations. Lowlight quality pictures are indeed improved. Burst mode works as advertised and I can see where this will be useful for all of those cat and kid photos taken on a daily basis. The slow motion video feature will give us a whole new inventory of things to fill up our Twitter, Google+, and other feeds, and indeed is easy to use. But, don’t try transferring that video to your Mac just yet, as the metadata is lost and you won’t get the benefit of slow motion without jumping through some hoops. Presumably that will get taken care of with the next release of OSX and iPhoto. So, the camera is indeed improved. But, I’m not a fan of the new Photos App and how it works. To my way of looking at things, that is as much a part of the Camera experience as the camera itself, but I’ll have more to say on that when I talk about iOS 7 below. I give the improved camera a grade of B.
The addition of a new low power M7 chip to record all sorts of motion and sensor info is probably the most significant and perhaps immediately usable “forward-looking” change. The principle is simple. This chip receives and catalogs data from the various motion sensors in the phone. Apps can grab that data for their purposes. There’s less drain on the main processor and thus battery life. The immediate boon here is to the increasing health and fitness App and accessory market. I’ve not been one to jump into the fitness accessory market beyond owning a Withings scale and blood pressure cuff. With the addition of this chip, it looks like I can derive some benefit from other Fitness functions without having to attach a watch or a wrist gadget or some another device to my body (and another charging chord to my wall). An App that I’ve recently tried out to test the M7 chip is Argus by Azumio.
The Argus App is one of the first to take advantage of the M7 chip. It records my steps, takes data from the Withings scale, and if I want to, well let me enter data about calorie, caffeine, and fluid intake. (These kind of Apps need a beer intake selection.) They way it works is that up to a week’s worth of data is stored on the chip and you can access it when you open the App. Of course you can configure the App to give you notifications if you are into that. If you want to try this out, download the App and set it up. Notice that it will immediately populate with data on steps you have been taking you might not know your phone was compiling. This might put a dent in the fitness gadget market because it is possible to use only your phone to record much of the data you get from the addition of a monitoring gadget. I will be interested to see how Apple and others use the recordable data in the future for other applications as well. As the M7 can distinguish between walking, running, or driving it offers some interesting possibilities. Some have already said this might lead to some sort of locking down the phone to prevent texting while driving. Who knows? The M7 chip, like the fingerprint sensor, certainly point forward. How much we look forward will depend on how willingly Apple will let developers play with these innovations. At the moment, the M7 looks like it will be more accessible than the Touch ID. I give the M7 a grade of A- in this first iteration.
64 Bit Architecture
At least for the moment, this is about promise and not much else. This is another “forward-looking” move by Apple. So much so that the jury hasn’t even been convened yet to debate the benefits it might bring. Until App developers start taking advantage of the new architecture and instruction set, we won’t know if this is a big deal or not. I can’t grade this (and neither can anyone else) until we see what this brings in the future. Will more addressable memory make a difference down the road? Will this make photography and video easier to edit? Will gaming benefit? Again, we’ll see in the future if the promise is worth the push.
I don’t see any material change one way or the other on my device in several week’s worth of usage as compared to the iPhone 5. There is a bigger battery in the iPhone 5s, but I’m guessing there is a trade off that keeps things on par with the previous iteration. In my typical usage that is more than enough to get through most days, so that’s a plus. (Note: I set up my iPhone 5s as a new iPhone and rebuilt it from scratch as opposed to bringing things over from a backup.) To give this a grade feels like cheating. Apple may have upped the batter size, but the tradeoffs leave my experience the same. Call it a wash.
Speed and Performance
Again, like with Battery Life, I notice very little substantial change between the 5 and the 5s. Some of Apple’s Apps (Safari, Contacts, etc…) seem to run snappier and scroll faster, but then they have been compiled for the 64 bit architecture. But in day to day usage, I’m not seeing any significant speed or performance bump. Time and newer Apps may change this, but for now, all is about the same. I was happy before with speed and performance on the iPhone 5. I’m still happy. Grade this an A.
There’s really no change in the screen of the iPhone 5s. It’s the same retina screen as the iPhone 5. That said, to my eye, the screen on the iPhone 5 is noticeably easier to read in bright sunlight than that of the iPhone 5s. Curious. Grade this a B.
Multi-path TCP and Siri
I consider this a potential real win in the “forward-looking” category. In iOS 7 Apple has included a new technology called Multi-path TCP. Essentially this allows your device to transmit and receive data over multiple radios simultaneously, as in this case over LTE and WiFi. I had read about this and was eager to test it out. Fortunately, this free lance gig I was in the middle of when I picked up the iPhone 5s allowed opportunities for that to happen. Using the iPhone 5 with iOS 6 when I would be outside my living quarters I would be on the fringe of the WiFi network I was using. If you’ve ever attempted to use Siri when you are in that situation you know what happens. Nothing. Siri doesn’t like this. In order to get any sort of data flow I had to turn off WiFi and rely on LTE in these types of locations as the WiFi network wanted priority and kept LTE from kicking in. Of course I could have just walked a few more steps away. But that’s beside the point. Once I updated to the iPhone 5 to iOS 7, the multi-path TCP kicked in and the connection was much better. Siri didn’t flop once while in that same area. I won’t say it was flawless and that I saw no interruption or occasional slow down, but Siri did its thing more frequently without interruption. Fortunately for iOS users this is a function of IOS 7 and not just the new iPhone 5s or 5c. Apparently Apple is only using this for Siri at the moment, and while that makes sense given the transfer of data back and forth over servers that needs to occur for Siri to work, here’s hoping we see this open up a bit more some day. Grade this a B given this early inclusion.
The iPhone 5s in Summary
Apple has proudly called this its “most forward-looking” phone to date. That may indeed be the case. But just like every new production of every new play begins rehearsals with great promise of success, the proof of that success lies not in the promise but in the execution. Anyone can stage a fancy roll out and offer great press releases about the promise of great success. (Well, there was that Samsung roll out in New York.) If the iPhone 5s is all about looking forward, then we’ll have to wait and see what the future might yield. Right about the time that iPhone 6 rumors heat up, we should start to glimpse how far forward Apple and iOS developers are looking. Is it a solid new iPhone? Yes. But if you’re moving from a iPhone 5 I’d think twice this holiday season and into next year.
Back to the change thing here for a moment. There is no doubt that iOS 7 is a significant change on many levels. There’s the new design, improved multi-tasking, and Apple is starting to take better advantage of touch in good ways in the UI. There are under the hood and user experience changes that make a lot of sense, but the surface design changes leave me scratching my head. When something changes this much, it is often difficult to discern whether one is responding to the change as something different, or responding to change as something that is honestly a change that may or may not make sense. After installing iOS 7 on the iPhone 5, an iPad mini and an iPad 4, in addition to working with it on the iPhone 5s, I can honestly say that my responses are to what I perceive as faults in the design changes and not just because things are different.
When I first saw iOS 7 introduced I was appalled at the design changes. What I saw in renderings reminded me of that era when the fashion world collectively decided to make everything in mustard, puke green, and cow patty brown. My initial impressions of iOS 7 were that this change was not going to be for me. To a certain degree I’m still there, but after using the new OS I understand where Mr. Ive is going. I just don’t think I like it as much as most. Caveat here: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, you may see things differently and if cow patty brown is your favorite color, I apologize. Let’s talk about some specifics why I think the design changes aren’t that great.
On the one hand it looks like Apple discovered a color wheel for the first time and went crazy. On the other, it looks like they just got bored and decided white is cooler than anything else they could come up with. Even with more white space than any editor could demand, iOS 7 is certainly colorful. To my eye, to a fault. I get that this ties in with the colorful, “unapologetically plastic” iPhone 5c design, but boy howdy, Apple went a little overboard with this quasi-neon, quasi-pastel approach. I understand what that means for certain markets where this kind of color choice and saturation is attractive. I just think it looks immature and in some combinations borders on the childish. The hideous iPhone 5c cases and color combinations bears this out. Seeing those in stores and in renderings makes me think of my daughter’s long ago affection with My Little Pony and other garish toy choices. When color isn’t leaping out of the screen at you, there’s white. Lots of it. Too much of it. So much so that in my view, the use of so much white makes things look incomplete, or just badly designed.
Take the Photos App as an example. Instead of floating in a dark background, photos now float in a white background. This not only looks like Apple hired some long-unemployed designer from Flickr, but to my eye, it makes it harder to discern detail in the pictures taken with the fancy-schmancy new camera. Flickr’s previous design was derided for years as it languished under Yahoo’s umbrella, and now it looks like someone at Apple yearns to bring it back again. There’s a disconnect here in the design process for the Photos App that just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe if you’re an early Flickr fan it does.
The next place that Apple’s approach to color in iOS 7 sent my eyeballs spinning had to do with folders. As I said I did an in place install on the iPhone 5, the iPad mini, and the iPad 4. This meant that all of my folders were left intact. The background of folders is now a color derived to coincide with the colors of your wallpaper. All well and good in theory. But in practice, you now have to work much harder to find a pleasing wallpaper/folder icon color combination. Using the wallpapers I already had on those devices the folder backgrounds looked like pimples on the face of your worst teen age nightmare. They were garish and distracting. Experimentation yielded better color combinations but, boy that was an ugly experience.
Even some of the color combinations that come with the included wallpapers from Apple don’t look that swift. That said, App icons as opposed to folder icons do look better in most cases, with the exception of those with white backgrounds. But I’m a folder guy by preference. If you have a folder with only a few icons in it, the background color takes over your screen when you open the folder, offering you not much more than a big block of color below an unnecessary title of the folder. This color combination factor can be quite unsettling if you have the wrong combo. Given all of the attention Apple obviously paid to color and fonts I’m also surprised at the the top bar information. In iOS 7 I find this information too tiny and at times (depending on color combo) unreadable. Sloppy.
Text Instead of Graphics and Outlined iCons.
A part of Apple’s new flat approach is to use text instead of graphics as targets to initiate actions. The word “Trash” instead of a trash can is an example. When content is text centric it makes it harder to find the clues for controls if they are text based also. Thin may also be in, but the thin outlined icons that do appear for some actions are tough for me to differentiate at a glance. They make more sense to me on an iPad than on the iPhone because of being rendered larger. These approaches to giving us clues on what to touch just don’t satisfactorily tell the same story as what came before, and I find this to be a large failure in the design of iOS 7.
Layers, Translucency, and Animations
To hear Jonny Ive talk about layers in iOS 7, what was there before is subtly there underneath through a semi-transparent layer. This is done with a combination of translucency and blurs. You can see this in the new Notification Center pull down and the Control Center pull up as well as the keypad to enter your passcode on the lock screen. You can also see it in the address bar in Safari. This is more distinct on an iPad or iPad mini, than the iPhone 5s. On the iPhone, Apple has placed the control bar at the bottom of the screen the address bar shrinks as you scroll down the page and reappears when you scroll up. (I find this animation behavior inconsistent at best.) But on the iPad the controls are at the top of the page and thus the address bar does not disappear. So, the effect is that it seems like the page is scrolling under the bars at the top of the page. The translucency effect is there on both, just not as noticeable on the iPhone 5s. To my eye, they got the blurry part right and not so much on the translucency. I just don’t think that Apple got the mix correct here. If you find a wallpaper that has a distinctly different color at the top than it does at the bottom, I think you can see what they were going for. Otherwise it is all a blur and more of a distraction than an enhancement.
The supposedly “wow” inducing parallax effect is a neat novelty that quickly wears off in much the same way that many of Samsung’s wiz bang features quickly become non-entities on its phones. There is also a distracting bug that belies Apple’s usually attentiveness to fit and finish that I think is due to this parallax effect. When you return to the home screen from an App there is a disconcerting and noticeable jump as it seems the home screen is snapping back into place. Perhaps this is due to the larger sized wallpapers needed for the parallax effect to work. Perhaps not. My suspicion is that it is, and in either case I find it annoying and decidedly un-Apple. I predict at some point in the future that many will be talking about Apple’s use of animations in the same way they did about the use of skeuomorphism. Things fly in and fly out. Eventually this design approach will fly out the way it flew in. If you open a folder or App in the upper right corner of the screen, you are treated to an animation that descends diagonally from that direction. When you close it it collapses back along the same path to that same start point. Do the same with an App or icon in the lower left and you get the same directional sense of animated opening and closing. There’s been talk of all of this motion making some have motion sickness. I can’t speak to that other than to say, these folks are sure going in and out of Apps a lot more than I do. This animation metaphor makes more sense on the larger screen of an iPad than it does on the iPhone in my view. So, why no grades on these design changes? Simple. What I like about design you may not and vice-versa. I’m hot thrilled with the new visual look of iOS 7. You might be. These are just my opinions.
So, I’m obviously not that thrilled with the visual elements of the design. Beyond that the user experience of iOS 7 has some very nice improvements that make navigating around easier and offer promise for the future of Apps. Many of these have required a substantial bit of re-training on my part.
Among these are the fact that you can slide back and forth (left and right) between web pages in Safari as well as the 3 dimensional display of pages you have visited. You can also do this slide back and forth in Mail, Contacts, and I assume in other of Apple’s Apps that I haven’t visited yet. This kind of navigation isn’t all that new. Some Apps have done this for awhile now. I’m hoping that we see more consistency evolve around this. By the way, If you’re using an older model iPhone than Swipe to Unlock is easier than it was when you had to hit a more specific target. I do notice that this new OS level touch gestures require some adjustment for the user and possibly developers. Case in point is the App, Mailbox. This email App when introduced used gestures to swipe emails to archive, trash, or to be dealt with later, depending on your desire. Those gestures still work, but I find that I have to be more precise about where I place my finger to initiate those gestures in iOS 7. That requires some re-training. I will grade this as a B but it could really be an Incomplete until we see how App developers respond.
Notification and Control Centers
As I mentioned previously there is a new Notification Center that slides down from the top of the screen. There is some configurability as to what notifications you receive but not enough. You still can’t delete all notifications in one fell swoop, but what exists now is better than what was before. The Control Center slides up from the bottom of the screen and like Android gives you the ability to control some functions from either the lock screen or wherever you are. I like this approach to common controls better than the previous version in iOS 6. It’s much easier to pause a song or podcast than it was before. Again, being able to configure what is on the Control Center panel would be nice. Grade this a B.
Multi-tasking is improved and the webOS card like metaphor makes as much sense on an Apple product as it did on a webOS device. Again, I find it easier to use on the larger screen of an iPad than I do on a phone, because of available screen real estate. Apple claims that eventually your iOS device will learn what Apps you use the most and will take advantage of this when it comes to multi-tasking and keeping things running in the background. Makes sense. Can’t say I’ve seen any real significant result of this so far. Grade this a B.
I’ve already stated that I’m not impressed visually with the Folder metaphor. I’m also not impressed with the fact that we now have a reduced number of Apps on each page. Hitting the home button now also brings you back to the folder instead of to the home screen, which was the previous behavior. I’m not a fan of this, but understand the design logic behind it given that you can apparently create an unlimited number of folder pages. Grade this a D.
Accessing Spotlight is now different. Instead of a swipe to the left-most page you swipe down from any home screen to bring Spotlight into view. I didn’t like this at first but it has grown on me and I now consider it a plus. Grade this a B+
Background App Updates
Apple finally decided to build in a way for Apps to update automatically. For some this will be a blessing. But in some instances this will be problem. I’ve been bitten in the past by updating an App to find that the update is buggy and breaks the App. I’ve turned this feature off for that reason. Grade this a C.
Background App Refresh
I’ve read that this is one of those features some are turning off to save battery life, but I still have it on. If you have Apps that collect data and are tired of waiting for them to refresh when you open them for the first time this is a feature for you. Take Pocket as an example. It’s a read later app where I collect articles I want to read at another time. With the iOS version, I always had to wait for the App to update the content I had saved before I could enjoy reading that content. (Note that wasn’t and isn’t the case with the Android version.) Now that content is pushed to the iPhone automatically. The same is true with Evernote. I use both of these Apps quite a bit, so not having to wait for that refresh is a positive tradeoff with battery life, but I haven’ seen this really affect battery life to any great extent. You can configure which Apps take advantage of this in settings, so you have some control over how much Background App Refreshing is happening. Grade this an A-.
One improvement that isn’t working so well for me is the keyboard. Maybe it is just me, but I find it harder to hit keys on the newer keyboard than on the old. Setting up the iPhone 5s as a new phone meant I had to re-enter a lot of passwords and/or setup keyboard shortcuts. This is harder than it was before to be accurate. I’ll join others who say that the Shift arrow color designation isn’t a good design choice as it makes it unclear to know when you’ve locked things into shift mode or not. I give the changes here a C-.
Forward-Looking or Just Changes
So, there you have it. Some thoughts on the changes that Apple has brought to the table with the iPhone 5s and iOS 7. Some are good. Some are not so, in my opinion. Change brings about all sorts of things that are new, different, unexpected, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Like moving to a different city you have to begin anew in finding the ordinary patterns of life. That doesn’t come quickly in the real world, and in my view, Apple has made some forward-looking changes in its flagship mobile product and OS that will also take time to adjust too. I will be very interested to see how the changes in both hardware and software manifest themselves in new or redesigned Apps down the road. I think we’ll have a better picture of that come December or January. So, maybe this is all “forward-looking.” But then, sooner or later, we need to arrive at what we’re looking forward to and the way the mobile marketplace insistently demands change I’m not sure how much patience there is these days.
We might see some inklings that point us forward with Apple’s announcements tomorrow. Much focus will be on the iPad line and deservedly so. The real keys to watch there, in my opinion, is how much of these “forward-looking” changes Apple brings to the party. Will the new chipset be the same as the iPhone 5s? 64bit? Will there be Touch ID? Equally as important, with the latest version of OSX is scheduled to roll out, is how Apple ties this all together with iCloud, still very much a work in progress.