Why iOS 7 Looks Unfinished (Spoiler: It’s Because It’s Unfinished)

We aren't used to seeing Apple products that are still evolving. But the next version of its mobile software may be one.

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Kim White / Getty Images

Developers congregate underneath a giant iOS 7 banner at Apple's WWDC at San Francisco's Moscone Center on June 10, 2013

Among the many things that everybody knows about Apple which aren’t actually true is the notion that it only tells the world about products once they’re fully baked. In the case of operating systems–for Macs, iPhones and iPads–it always shows off new versions months before consumers can get their hands on them, when they’re still works in progress.

That’s more by necessity than choice: The company needs to give third-party developers early access to upcoming upgrades so they can begin to get their apps ready. Usually, however, what Apple shows involves incremental change that’s easy to get your head around. It’s more of the same, only better, which is rarely a controversial proposition.

Then there’s iOS 7, which Apple announced at last week’s WWDC keynote in San Francisco and plans to ship this fall. The seventh version of its mobile operating system is the first to depart–radically–from the general look and feel established by the first iPhone in 2007. It’s the most dramatic change to a piece of an Apple platform since OS X showed up to replace the Mac’s original operating system in 2000.

With a stripped-down, layered interface spearheaded by Apple design god Jonathan Ive, iOS 7 practically demands that people form gut reactions about it, often before getting hands-on time. (The only people Apple is providing with a preview version are those who have signed up as iOS developers; they must sign a non-disclosure agreement that forbids them from publicly sharing their experiences with it.)

And form gut reactions people have been doing–remarkably diverse ones. Here are a few sound bites from blog posts published within hours of the keynote’s end:

John Gruber of Daring Fireball says iOS 7 is more impressive, in certain respects, than Steve Jobs-era iOS:

This is the first product of the post-Jobs Apple. The result shows that in some ways Apple’s software design has gotten better, because it was Jobs (and Forstall) who had a penchant for exuberant textures and gimmickry.

Frank Chimero thinks it looks like a rush job:

Part of being a good designer is having a hatred for inconsistencies, so I take the interface’s unevenness to mean a hurried timeline, rather than an unawareness of the inconsistencies.

The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky finds it confusing and inconsistent:

The icons are striking to see, and they’re the first sign that there are points of confusion and even missteps in Apple’s new approach. For starters, the icon styles vary wildly from app to app.

Pete Pachal of Mashable says that iOS 7 borrows from everywhere, but it all sticks together:

When iOS 7 arrives in the fall, I predict the world’s 600 million iOS users will forgive Apple for being late to the game with many features. No matter what those other phones offer, to them, the iPhone is still the only phone that will make them happy.

CNN Money’s Adrian Covert thinks “Apple has its mojo back“:

With iOS 7, Apple has positioned itself a half-step ahead of the pack in the design arena. That’s a major achievement given how archaic iOS was starting to look.

(If you don’t have iOS 7 opinions of your own yet, you can form them by watching Apple’s keynote video and checking out its gallery of images.)

The thing is, as eclectic as initial reactions to iOS 7 have been, the vast majority, whether giddy or stinging, are reconcilable. It’s possible for iOS 7, in its current beta state, to be a design breakthrough and to feel rushed and inconsistent. In fact, from what I’ve seen of it, that’s what it seems to be: exciting, but scruffy in certain areas.

Which isn’t that startling. We knew that Jony Ive is an exceptional designer. But Apple only announced the promotion that put him in charge of the iOS user experience a little over seven months before iOS 7 debuted at WWDC. Given that the redesign is so sweeping, that’s just not enough time to make every major decision and nail down every little detail. That’s why this peek at the next version of iOS feels more raw than previous ones that focused on new features and left the interface alone.

Like Josh Topolsky and numerous others, I was confounded, at least initially, by elements that haven’t been polished to a fare-thee-well, such as some of the new icons, in the way that new Apple stuff usually is before we see it. But if what we’ve seen of the new look is a new kind of Apple preview–one of a product that Apple knows still needs additional refinement–there’s no reason to panic.

As far as I can tell, iOS 7 has multiple major things right, like the addition of the Control Center and the improved multitasking. Apple still has time to futz with icons, exact layouts and other details before it freezes its code and ships its operating system.

I’m not officially predicting that the company will address every issue that gives anyone pause about iOS 7. Even an additional two or three months of development time feels tight to finish something as ambitious as this, and we know from iOS 6’s Maps that it’s capable of shipping products before they’re anywhere near ready. Still, I’m guardedly optimistic that when iOS 7 is done, it’ll turn out that this first preview looked unfinished because it was…well, unfinished.