Apple Reinvents Its Wheel With iOS 7, Takes Developers Along For The Ride   Leave a comment


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Today brings the release of the most dramatic iOS update that Apple has ever made. More people will experience this change in a shorter period of time than at any point in computing history.

“Measured by the number of people that are going to see a big change within the same 24-hour period,” says Evernote CEO Phil Libin, “I think iOS 7 is the biggest day in technology ever. There’s never been another day like this in the history of the universe where hundreds of millions of people will see a big change to something that they’re used to. Nothing of this scale has ever occurred.”

To give context to that statement, remember that six years ago Windows dominated the platform landscape, with OS X owning around 5% of the market. Now, iOS and Android combined have edged Microsoft out as the biggest segment of operating systems. A recent measurement put their unified share at 45% of computing devices and Windows at only 35%. Even if those numbers are off a bit, it’s very clear that most of our computing lives are now accessed via mobile devices — and the software that runs on those devices.

Then you start to think about the way that we see updates or changes to those platforms. Windows transitions between versions can take years from the time they’re announced. Windows 8 is still chugging along on the low end of the curve. In the mobile world, the newer, better versions of Android like Jelly Bean take months, if not years, to reach meaningful market share. Yes, Jelly Bean is much better looking, more capable and very, very good compared to older versions of Google’s OS. But byGoogle’s own numbers only around 45% of Android users have even seen it on their devices, and it was released 16 months ago. The absolute latest version of Jelly Bean has yet to register on Google’s charts.

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Then we have iOS. Due to Apple’s extremely focused devices strategy and tightly controlled model that shrugs off carrier concessions and partner licensing, iOS has adoption rates that are off the charts in comparison. Recent predictions from mobile app performance management company Crittercism estimate that (if iOS 7 follows the trend of iOS 6) the new OS will hit 80% adoption rates within three months.

Recently, Apple said that they would cross the 700 million mark for iOS devices sold next month. Not all will be iOS 7 compatible, obviously, but since iPhone sales have increased exponentially for the last several years, many of them will.

What all of that adds up to is that a massive number of people will upgrade to iOS 7 over the next couple of weeks. Likely in the hundreds of millions. All of them will be exposed to a shockingly different and new version of their most personal computers.

It’s created the perfect storm of opportunity for developers making apps for Apple’s platform, and some of them are taking full advantage. This is a rare opportunity for them to — as an anonymous developer said recently — “re-compete for their spot in the universe.”

This kind of chance doesn’t come along too often, and many developers big and small are striking while the upgrade iron is hot.

TIME TO RETHINK

When Luc Vandal and the Edovia team ran into a roadblock in 2012 while trying to work on the next version of their popular remote login app Screens 3, they set it aside. It wasn’t until rumors started bubbling up about iOS 7 being a major update that the juices started flowing again. Since they didn’t know exactly what the update would bring, they did some preliminary work and rewrote the backend of the app.

Then WWDC rolled around and Apple unveiled a radical new look and feel for the OS.

“iOS 7 is like 2008 all over again,” says Vandal of the year that Apple introduced the App Store. “An opportunity to start fresh, rethink your app(s), position your company and your apps. It was a good timing if you ask me because iOS was getting long in the tooth and felt like redoing the same stuff over and over.”

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Vandal is convinced that this kind of disruption in the look and feel of iOS makes their job easier. Both in terms of justifying a major redesign and in offering those major updates as new for-pay apps. That’s a tack that many developers are taking with iOS 7, as the design efforts go beyond re-skinning and many times involve rewriting the apps from the ground up.

“As far as iOS 7 itself and the changes it brought, it took a while to get used to it and understand the subtleties,” says Vandal. So we started from the idea that content was king and tried to reduce the chrome to a minimum. We also tried to adapt to the layers philosophy, which makes sense in the end. We tried to be consistent and think in terms of layers, keeping in mind that there was still content underneath and had to keep some form of context that made sense. I think we got it right.”

Another draw of iOS, says Vandal, is that it makes it much easier to justify it as a minimum version, leaving older editions of iOS behind. This comes by way of improved frameworks and classes in iOS that replace large amounts of old code with built-in features. Vandal is still very hopeful that future versions of iOS will bring refinement, however. The current version is still not firing on all cylinders but he’s pleased with the direction Apple is headed. “I can’t wait to see what iOS 8 brings us,” he says.

Screens is an incredibly useful app, and the new iOS 7 edition is cleaner and more purposeful. The screens themselves become the interface elements, rather than encapsulating them in graphic representations of monitors, as with the iOS 6 version. It’s fast, responsive and it feels familiar and very fresh at the same time.

That opportunity to break down the structures of what you’ve created and create anew has also proved attractive to big brands like American Airlines.

By the time that news of iOS 7 broke, American Airlines had already been pondering a new version 3 of its widely used flight tracking and ticketing app. The most recent shift had seen American adopting its newly minted livery and branding in the app. But iOS 7 presented particular opportunities.

“When this came out, we realized that it was an opportunity to jump in with a fresh look that wasn’t “’09′,” says Phil Easter, American Airlines’ Director of Mobile Apps. “So at WWDC, we saw a lot of interesting stuff that we wanted to play with.”

In the end, the biggest takeaway for Easter and his team from the announcement of iOS 7 was the focus on data.

“Before, it was about eye candy an ‘twinkley-ness’ and sparkly objects on the screen. Over time, what we’d seen from Microsoft [Windows Phone] was that the consumer wanted data, and we’re very data driven,” says Easter.

In fact, the mobile American Airlines app drives about 10x as much traffic as the desktop app in the 24 hours leading up to travel, as people refresh and triple check flight status. So the data that the app is presenting to the user needs to be ‘crisp and fast’, says Easter. “And I think that iOS 7 is about data first, and not about making pretty icons.”

In order to present more data to the user, the AA app switched from a largely page-driven system to a ‘linear’ data display that has you scrolling downwards in a main view to get your at-a-glance status. The design was a result of work to leverage what American sees as a more data driven iOS 7 and some conversations with Apple regarding tweaks that needed to be made to help the app be true to iOS 7. At this point, Easter says, American feels like they have a very good ‘first app’ for iOS 7 that, most importantly, has been tested very well.

“There’s reports from…out in the ether that a lot of apps are just going to crash [on iOS 7],” says Easter. “Airline apps get hit hard, because people loathe airlines. So if you’re not solving world hunger with your app you’re gonna be in trouble.”

Easter says that, with 9 million downloads of the app, they simply couldn’t afford to have a day one disaster. “These are travelers, you know, they’re paying for a service and if their app didn’t work I’d be walked out the door.”

One thing that Easter believes could be a problem on launch day is that Apple didn’t really launch a campaign that instructed developers to check and re-test all of their apps on iOS 7 in preparation for the launch. Instead, Apple treated this like ‘any other iOS release’ instead of the major change that iOS 7 is. Easter says that American did issue a compatibility update, but says that there were still a bunch of things in the app that didn’t work on iOS 7. So it will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like after launch, and how many developers will be caught unawares by crashes.

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In order to educate its customers about the new look and feel of the app on iOS 7, American is putting together an instructional video that it has posted on YouTube. I get the feeling that this will be an interesting transition, especially with big brands like American that haven’t changed the look and feel of their apps in years.

Easter also sees some interesting opportunities around Apple’s new Bluetooth iBeacons for checking in locally. “Apple basically killed NFC, this was the last chance for [it] to have any legs,” says Easter. That, coupled with TouchID could make Americans more willing to accept the fact that their ‘credit card’ is on their phone.

“Our employees, assets and employees are always moving,” says Easter, “so this idea of identity, that we can track them at a gate to serve persons with disabilities or minors…I’m very giddy about the data that we can start getting.”

iOS 7 also gave the AA team the opportunity to focus on the accessibility aspects of the app. Resulting in Apple’s Voiceover accessibility system being enabled throughout the app for the visually impaired. And there is an ongoing effort to continue to make the app better for those with other disabilities. “We’re like a tiny country with the number of people that we transport, so that’s a huge [chunk] of our demographic,” says Easter, who gives credit to Apple for being a proponent of accessibility efforts.

The new app is well done, and shockingly attractive in comparison to the older AA apps. I’ve been a user of them for some time and this version is undoubtedly a major improvement. I was blown away when I launched the app for the first time, as American has taken full advantage of the parallax and edge-to-edge nature of iOS 7 to deliver the best looking airline app that I’ve ever seen or used. I’ve only fooled around with some sample flights supplied by the airline, but if it launches well it’s going to make a lot of travelers happy.

Easter also has a piece of advice that’s interesting in the context of our cross-platform world. “A lot of enterprises use tools other than native, and I think [iOS 7] is the demarcation for that theory,” he says. “If you’re not doing native [development] then you’re going to have a hard time adapting to the platform.”

“Tools that abstracted and ported to mobile platforms…you could get away with that. But when you look at our app…there’s no way you could abstract that. It just brings on the point that if you have the money to invest…your developers need to be native. Some of the other shops that aren’t native may have a tougher time and they may have to go all native just to adapt to the [iOS 7].”

The effect of this could be to build on platform lock-in, especially for smaller shops without the resources of AA. If a small company only has a couple of developers, then iOS 7 is a likely starting point, and once that’s begun, it’s going to be much harder to port those apps over to other platforms.

A large component of that is the way that iOS 7 is forcing development teams to re-think and re-evaluate their apps. Some of the larger publications are seeing so much benefit that they’re putting all of the chips on iOS 7.

CUTTING TIES

In a major statement about the confidence companies have in Apple’s ability to ship, the next version of the New York Times app for iOS will be iOS 7 only. NYT Senior Software Engineer Chris Ladd says that this enabled the Times to take advantage of not only the new design but also the new APIs in iOS 7.

“At the time that we went out to WWDC, we were in the middle of a redesign project of both apps,” says Ladd. “Sitting back and rethinking, we’ve got these apps, they’re good apps…but let’s sit back and rethink ‘what do we look like on iOS’?”

The original plan was to redesign the apps in an effort that would span six months and see new apps across the Times brand in Q1 of 2014. But when the team saw iOS 7 at WWDC, they did some testing and prototyping. The response was so positive that the Times decided to accelerate a redesign that was supposed to take just six weeks.

What resulted is a rethinking of the app, not a re-skinning, as we’ve seen with many of the pre-iOS 7 app updates. And there is no way we’d be seeing this new version this soon if not for iOS 7.

“So, did iOS 7 change the way that we develop? Absolutely,” says Ladd.

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Posted September 19, 2013 by avinash2060 in Apple

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