iOS 7: Borrowed Ideas, as Apple Plays For Time

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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iOS 7 adds nothing new, says Wayne Rash. How long can Apple get by on borrowed ideas?

Several people have said that Apple’s new iOS 7 interface is a bit like Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, with the flat, simplified icons being similar to the tiles on Windows. But they’re not.

The new iOS 7 screen looks more like the BlackBerry Z10. As with the new BlackBerry devices, the latest new version of iOS has icons that don’t have a defined edge that looks vaguely raised. Nor do the icons have the shadows that make them seem to float above the wallpaper. Instead the icons look as if they’re simply attached to the wallpaper, and they are somewhat simpler than the iOS icons of days past. Just like the Z10.

Actual multitasking

iOS 7 LandscapeBut this isn’t the only place where Apple has taken inspiration from its competition. In last week’s announcement at the Apple World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, announced that iOS 7 would have actual multitasking by allowing apps to run in the background even when they’re not open in the foreground.

Of course this is something that Android and BlackBerry have had for a while. Android lets you run apps in a split screen, as does the BlackBerry. You can even have up to eight apps running at once on the BlackBerry in minimised windows. It’s not clear from the announcement how many apps can run at once on an iOS device.

Apple is also doing away with some complexity in its apps. For example the iBooks bookcase will apparently do away with the fake wood grain look. iBooks will now let you synchronise the books you’re reading, so if you pick up another device, the book will open to the right page — something Kindle already does.

The update process will be easier, with many of them happening in the background — another Android trait.

iOS 7 will have some new features, including AirDrop, which lets you share multimedia with another user. In the case of AirDrop the phone doesn’t have to have near-field communications (NFC) because the transfer can take place over Wi-Fi. Federighi took a potshot at Samsung by noting that you won’t have to bump your phones together to use it. But of course that also means that Apple is figuring out that NFC would be a good thing to have.

So what’s going on here? Is Apple so badly off for innovation that it’s resorting to software tweaks in hopes that nobody will notice? Sort of, but not exactly.

No real innovation?

What Apple is doing is giving its users the features its users probably want, all in one place. By doing this, it helps the company retain its existing customers who might otherwise move on to another platform. But the change also helps Apple stay relevant in a period of low innovation.

Apple didn’t announce any new mobile hardware for example (except for a new MacBook Air), so users are stuck with a very long-in-the-tooth iPhone and an even older iPad. With nothing innovative in the near future for hardware, the company has to do something, and an updated look with some new features will certainly help.

ford crown victoriaBut Apple is also running the risk of emulating the big US auto manufacturers of the last decade who continued to put new features on the bloated highway yachts that were losing ground to the likes of Lexus and BMW. They satisfied some of their customers for a while, but eventually even the most loyal of the big-city police departments who bought big, beefy Ford patrol cars wanted something more modern and efficient. Those cars have died off to be replaced by far better machines that people actually want to buy.

As it stands, Apple is tempting the same fate. Despite the claims of the Apple faithful that the iPhone is the most beautiful thing ever to grace the face of the Earth, the fact is that it’s yesterday’s design, as is evidenced by the growing disparity between the sales of Apple and Samsung. While iOS 7 will give some people a reason to keep buying iPhones, eventually even the faithful will realize that their iPhone doesn’t meet current needs in the same way that the Ford Crown Victoria (pictured)  fell out of favor with buyers who wanted something that worked in today’s world.

Unfortunately, Apple has nothing, at least for now. There’s a rumour that the iPhone 5S will make an appearance later this year, and a less credible rumor that an iPhone 6, in a larger form factor, will appear later. Compare the iPhone 5S, which will be at best a slightly improved version of today’s iPhone, against the competition, and you see fewer features, a screen that’s not up to current standards and relatively little innovation compared with the leaders of the competition.

What’s worse is that Apple seems to have lost its ability to come up with the new hardware that users need, even while tweaking the software to help keep it relevant. This can only work for a limited time. If Apple is going to keep up with the rest of the market, it needs to start by doing more than playing catch-up.

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Originally published on eWeek.