Work on the next major release of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 7, seems to be speeding up, as the company shifts engineering resources and adjusts deadlines to meet two milestones: a preview at June's annual developer conference, and a release in September.
Though details are still very sparse, reports this week from The Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD blog and Bloomberg cite sources, some of them apparently Apple employees, who agree that at the least, iOS 7's "look and feel" will be distinctively different from iOS today, under the guidance of Jony Ive, Apple's senior vice president of industrial design.
But if Apple also succeeds in bringing to fruition a battery of underlying OS and services improvements - to iCloud and data syncing, inter-app communication, Apple Maps and iTunes - iOS 7 could have a big impact on the overall user experience for Apple's mobile devices, at a time when its mobile competition is intensifying.
"It's a pretty big update," according to John Paczkowski, in a post this week at The Wall Street Journal's AllThingsD blog. He's citing "sources who declined to be named because they are forbidden to talk publicly about Apple's plans."
That's an artful way of hinting that the sources can be forbidden to talk because they're Apple employees.
"With SVP of Industrial Design Jony Ive now overseeing [user] interface design, sources say Apple has adopted a unified approach to software and hardware design," writes Paczkowski. "And evidently the spartan, elegant aesthetic that Ive has developed around Apple's hardware is now being brought to bear on its software, as well. Last week, 9to5Mac's Mark Gurman reported that iOS 7 would feature a "flat" design that favors simplicity over flash. I've heard similar descriptions from sources who say iOS 7 is iOS "de-glitzed."
In part, de-glitzing seems to mean doing away with what's known as skeuomorphic design - trying to replicate in detail the look and feel of a bookcase, for Apple iBooks, or of a notepad for Apple Notes.
Gurman's post cited "multiple people who have either seen or have been briefed on the upcoming iOS 7." They say that iOS 7 "sports a redesigned user-interface that will be attractive to new iOS users, but potentially unsettling for those who are long-accustomed to the platform."
"The [iOS 7] interface changes include an all-new icon set for Apple's native apps in addition to newly designed tool bars, tab bars, and other fundamental interface features across the system," according to Gurman. The changes are typically described as "flat" which Gurman defines as being "based on simplicity," eschewing "heavy textures and digital metaphors of real-life objects found in skeumorphic [sic] interfaces," and "could also point to a more streamlined interface across the entire system ..."
There seems to be more involved than simply eradicating glitz. Ivy's design changes are part of a "significant reimagining" of the company's mobile platform," according to Paczkowski. "With new mobile operating systems like BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone proving that there's plenty of room left for innovation in the market, Apple can ill afford even the risk of the perception that iOS might be getting dusty," he writes.
He doesn't go into details, presumably because his sources didn't share any.
The blog post correlates with recent details from other sources. In March, a post at The Wall Street Journal's Digits blog said that "in Apple's next mobile operating system, Ive is pushing a more 'flat design' that is starker and simpler, according to developers who have spoken to Apple employees but didn't have further details."
In a recent online conversation at The Branch among a group of Apple watchers, iOS 7 was a key topic. Among the scuttlebutt they shared: "apparently [iOS 7 is a] rather significant system-wide UI overhaul" (John Gruber, Daring Fireball); "Ive's work is apparently making many people really happy, but will also apparently make rich-texture-loving designers sad" (Rene Ritchie, iMore).
The same day as Paczkowski's blog post, Bloomberg's Adam Satariano posted a story carrying the headline, "Apple's Ive Seen Risking iOS 7 Delay on Software Overhaul."
Ive's "sweeping software overhaul ... leaves the company at risk of falling behind on a new version of the operating system," Satariano writes, using a phrasing that could imply that iOS 7 is or will be delayed or late.
But there's a difference between a software development project (or parts of it) that may be behind schedule and one that is "late." And Satariano actually clarifies that -- and he's one of the few writers on this topic who does -- later in his story.
"The introduction of new features, along with an emphasis on cooperation and deliberation, comes at a cost for Cupertino, California-based Apple." The "cost" is additional work. If everything else is unchanged, additional work would mean longer time to reach completion. "Engineers are racing to finish iOS 7 ... in time for a June preview at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference." That's one way to reach completion target: work faster. And have more people working on it (there have been several reports that Apple has shifted OS X software engineers to iOS, for example).
The statement also points to two different iOS schedules: One is keyed to June's WWDC conference, in order to preview the OS changes, which is something that Apple has often done with this event; the second is the intended release date of iOS 7, in a developer preview and then as a download available to current iOS users and of course to new phones or tablets.
"While the company still expects to release iOS 7 on time as soon as September, internal deadlines for submitting features for testing are being set later than past releases, people said." And this is just what one would, or should, expect.
So Satariano's sources tell him that iOS 7, even if parts of it are "behind schedule" now, is still expected by Apple to be released, apparently as planned, in September 2013. Shifting deadlines and adjusting schedules is a standard part of managing a complex software development process, or any product development. And the September date fits perfectly with Tim Cook's recent statement that Apple will begin announcing new hardware, software and services in the fall of 2013.
What isn't known publicly is whether the possible "system-wide" overhaul includes important new APIs, features or services in the core of the OS. In that same Branch conversation, Federico Viticci (@viticci), editor in chief of MacStoriesNet, laid out some areas where Apple could make big improvements.
"Aside from a UI update, Apple should use WWDC [the annual Worldwide Developers Conference this June] to introduce AND explain new functionality," Viticci wrote. "Fix iCloud and improve its syncing. Showcase examples on stage. Improve iOS inter-app communication and explain it publicly. Admit that some things sucked/sucks (Maps debacle, international Siri) and lay out new plans. More than a 5S [phone announcement], I think new iOS announcement can make a lot of people excited and curious again. Aside from that, some things just need to be fixed or improved."
Ive was given responsibility for the UI design - the visual and tactile interaction of the user with his iOS device - and for the overall "user experience" after a high-level shakeup by CEO Tim Cook last fall that ousted longtime iOS chief Scott Forstall. No reason was given though pundits focused on the poor performance of, and response to, the new Apple Maps service. Cook felt compelled to issue a rare Apple apology. As part of the change, the OS X and underlying iOS core software teams were united under Senior Vice President Craig Federighi.