iOS 7's new design is its least exciting feature

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that iOS 7's changes are only skin deep

The iOS 7 preview that Apple showed off at its Worldwide Developers Conference sports a massively overhauled look. You've read all about it already--the parallax animation, the flatness, the 3D effects: iOS 7 looks sort of like a brand new phone, albeit one you already know how to use. But make no mistake: Based on what Apple's shown so far, even if iOS 7 looked pixel-for-pixel exactly like iOS 6, it would still be a very significant update.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that iOS 7's changes are only skin (or screen) deep. Though the visual changes are dramatic, they may well rank, in practice, as the least exciting update to the operating system, once it ships later this year.

The new look

The previews Apple provided during its WWDC keynote and on its website make it clear that though iOS 7 looks very different, it's still basically the same operating system we've become familiar with since the original iPhone. But the buttons look less like buttons, and there's a lot more whitespace and a lot less skeuomorphism to go around.

I'm in the camp that thinks iOS 7's new look seems cool, if in need of some polish before the fall release date rolls around.

And the visual changes include niceties like animated backgrounds, a new keyboard, new icons, and a new visual take on most of the visual elements that iOS comprises. But, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, so what?

Annoyances eliminated

Control Center will offer quick access to systemwide settings and common apps.

When I think of the most annoying limitations of iOS, several persistent ones spring to mind. Chief among them are issues like a lack of quick access to settings, mediocre multitasking, and unsatisfactory battery life. iOS 7 purports to address all three. Control Center, a panel that you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen, will offer omnipresent access to toggles for Bluetooth, AirDrop, AirPlay, Wi-Fi, Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, orientation lock; apps like Clock, Calculator, and Camera; and even a built-in flashlight.

Honestly, if Control Center were the sole new feature in iOS 7, I'd still be eager to install it on my iPhone.

The announced updates for multitasking have me similarly excited. Apps will now be able to pull down fresh data even when they're not running, giving seemingly magical powers to the apps that you rely on: You'll launch your podcasts app, or your Twitter app, or your read-it-later app, or anything else and, rather than wait for the latest content to download while you stare at a spinner or stale data, you should see the latest information already available. That's awesome.

Now, Android owners have had such multitasking features for a while, and may mock my enthusiasm for that feature's impending arrival. The key, however, is Apple's claim that iOS 7's multitasking will rely on intelligent algorithms: For example, apps that you use frequently will get more time to work in the background than apps you don't use often, and apps that you turn to first thing in the morning will pull down data before then, but perhaps not throughout the rest of the day.

While we can't know for sure until Apple releases iOS 7 later this year, all those multitasking smarts should mean that iOS battery life isn't ruined by the multitasking improvements. That's a big deal.

But wait, there's more ...

Notification Center's Today view seems reminiscent of Google Now.

What's really exciting about iOS 7 is that features like Control Center and improved multitasking sound awesome, but are really just the tip of the iOS-berg. Apple could build an entire iOS release around several other promised features, too: AirDrop will let you send files wirelessly to others nearby without requiring any special configuration--and it's likely that such hassle-free, ad-hoc connections will prove a boon to local, wireless gameplay, too.

Apple showed off a new tab in Notification Center that looks downright Google Now-ish, mixing weather conditions with your next appointment, travel times, and such. And the new Missed tab in Notification Center will offer a feature I've wanted since Notification Center's launch: a view seemingly sorted just like notifications on the lock screen, with most recent alerts first, instead of grouped unnecessarily by app.

Couple all those updates with improvements like the faster camera with filters and other options, lots of enhancements to photo sharing and organization, and new capabilities in my favorite iOS feature, Siri, and you get the sense that iOS 7 will be overwhelming. In a good way.

More than screen deep

So yes, iOS 7 will immediately and obviously look different to anyone who spots it. I appreciate the design efforts behind such a change, and I don't doubt that countless iOS app designers will work to update their own apps to fit in better.

To me, though, the fresh coat of paint and special effects just pale in comparison to the other, meatier features that Apple announced. Beauty is only screen deep; when I describe iOS 7's delightful features, I won't be referring to its looks.

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Lex Friedman
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