The world is not flat: Apple unveils 'fresh, light' iOS 7

Apple struts new iOS 7 and OS X 'Mavericks,' refreshes MacBook Air and comes through with free iTunes Radio

Apple CEO Tim Cook and several of his top executives took the stage today at the company's annual developers conference to unveil the spruced-up, new-look iOS 7, introduce the iTunes Radio service and talk up this fall's "Mavericks" upgrade for OS X.

Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote focused on software -- the event is, after all, a banquet for iOS and OS X developers -- but it also included a small portion of hardware on the side: Apple announced Haswell-powered MacBook Air notebooks and gave everyone a sneak peek at a totally reworked Mac Pro.

The most anticipated part of the keynote, which was webcast live, came over an hour in, when Cook touted iOS 7, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad, the two product lines that last quarter accounted for almost three-fourths of the firm's revenue.

Most analysts and observers had predicted that iOS 7 would be a dramatic visual revamp, with an emphasis on a "flatter" design with fewer three-dimensional cues, and a complete or partial elimination of "skeuomorphic" software embellishments, like the wooden bookshelves in iBooks and the lined paper in Notes.

"This is the biggest change of iOS since the iPhone," said Cook.

Cook didn't disappoint, but left the particulars to Jonathan Ive, head of product and now software design -- who said his piece via his customary pre-shot video -- and Craig Federighi, who leads both OS X and iOS development. Federighi stepped on stage to talk up the changes.

The icons appeared "flatter" on the webcast, in that they omitted shadows and textures that previously made them jump off the background, but their dimensions were retained by using translucent layers, which, said Ive, "gives you a sense of context."

Yet neither Ive or Federighi used the word 'flat' to describe the user interface (UI) overhaul, and Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said it was anything but.

"One thing's clear, it's not about 'flat' at all," said Milanesi. "It doesn't feel that way at all, it feels fresh and light, and actually quite 'deep.' Really, 'flat' is not the word I would use to describe it."

Contrary to some fears that Apple would go too far in its revamp, colors dominated the new UI, though in many places it also featured more white space. Additionally, iOS 7 provided something Federighi called "parallax," which subtly changed the appearance of the screen depending on how the device is held.

"iOS 7 is a comprehensive, end-to-end redesign," said Federighi, not only in look and feel, but also in features. He breezed through 10, ranging from all-new, all-app multi-tasking and a significant Safari revamp to system-wide support for AirDrop and new automatic organization, based on location and time, of iPhone-snapped shots in Photos.

Milanesi said it would be impossible to appreciate iOS 7 without using it, but claimed two things were abundantly clear after the keynote.

Computerworld's Ken Mingis chats with Keith Shaw about his impressions of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, in which the company announced iOS 7, a new desktop OS and new MacBook Air and Mac Pro models.

"First, it is very difficult to deliver innovation without disruption, but I think Apple showed a good balance in doing just that," Milanesi said. "That's hard to do.... Just look at Microsoft, which tried to innovate with Windows 8, and Nokia and BlackBerry, which have been paralyzed by change. And second, this [change] is not just about aesthetics. It's also about using the device."

Eddy Cue, chief of the company's Internet software and services, followed Federighi to highlight changes to some of the built-in iOS services, including Siri and the App Store. Siri now speaks in a new female voice, with the option to switch to a male voice, for English, French and German, while the iOS 7 App Store will automatically update apps in the background.

Cue said nothing about Maps, however, the loudly-criticized attempt by Apple to supplant Google Maps on its own platform.

As expected, Apple also introduced a free Internet radio service, dubbed "iTunes Radio" by Cue, that some believe will directly compete with streaming audio rivals like Pandora. According to reports by the Wall Street Journal and Billboard magazine, it was close: Apple supposedly finalized negotiations with music companies only at the last minute.

In iOS 7, iTunes Radio is built into the Music App, offers several hundred featured pre-created stations, and lets users create their own station-to-taste by selecting an artist or track. It keeps a history of the tracks heard, displays that list, and lets customers purchase any track there, or while playing.

The free, advertisement-based service will debut on iOS on the iPhone and iPad, and in iTunes on OS X and Windows; Cue did not mention a launch timetable, but the implication was that it would be ready when iOS 7 ships. For an ad-free experience, customers can pay $25 annually for iTunes Match, the service that launched in 2011 that stores tracks purchased via iTunes or ripped from CDs in iCloud, then makes the library available on all of a user's iOS, OS X and Windows devices.

"What I thought interesting was the emphasis on discovery in iRadio," said Milanesi, using the nickname pundits had previously given the service. "It's not about competing with Pandora, but about getting people to spend more money on iTunes."

A beta of iOS 7 for iPhone will be available today for developers only, Apple said, while a final will release this fall.

Earlier in the 90-minute keynote, Federighi, who has worn two hats since iOS development executive Scott Forstall was ousted last October, took the audience on a quick spin through "Mavericks," aka OS X 10.9.

"We do not want to be the first operating system to be delayed due to a dwindling supply of cats," Federighi joked as he noted the feline motif of previous versions, and the short supply of additional species. Instead, he said, Apple had shifted to a naming convention honoring California, "where [OS X] is designed and built."

OS X 10.9 will be called "Mavericks" after a famous big-wave surfing location on the northern California coast near Half Moon Bay.

As is typical at WWDC, Federighi highlighted only a few new features of Mavericks, including tabs in the Finder file manager, file tagging and support for full-screen applications on multiple monitors. Also baked into Mavericks, said Federighi, were a host of under-the-hood technologies, including app, memory and disk management features that he promised would result in longer battery life and better performance.

Safari will also get a refresh -- again, usual for a new version of OS X -- and Mavericks will include OS X versions of the iOS Maps and iBooks apps, as well as a new password maker and manager, iCloud Keychain. As the latter's name suggests, it's stored in iCloud, Apple's free online storage and synchronization service, and from first glance, could threaten the livelihood of top-tier third-party programs like 1Password.

Unlike iOS 7, OS X Mavericks showed little evidence of major visual changes, although the new Calendar and iBooks had had their skeuomorphic elements -- like the faux-leather of the former and the shelves of the latter -- removed.

Apple went against grain, however, by declining to set even a release month, as it has at past WWDC keynotes, or talking price. Developers will receive a beta of Mavericks today, but Federighi would only say it would ship this fall, tacitly confirming reports that Apple had pushed back the delivery of OS X 10.9 because it shanghaied engineers to work on iOS 7.

On the hardware front -- Apple has made a habit of introducing at least some hardware at the most recent WWDCs -- the firm today refreshed its MacBook Air line. As anticipated, Apple went with Intel's next-generation Core processor, code named "Haswell," which Philip Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, promised would result in "all day battery life."

With Haswell's help, the new 11-in. MacBook Airs will run up to 9 hours between charges (up from 5 hours), while the more expensive 13-in. models would last 12 hours (up from 7 hours), Schiller claimed.

Apple dropped prices of the two 13-in. configurations, the most popular size, by $100 each, with new list prices of $1,099 and $1,299. The least-expensive 11-in. Air stayed flat at $999, but the pricier 11-in. was bumped up $100 to $1,199. All four models will go on sale today.

Schiller also previewed a new Mac Pro -- the company's highest-priced desktop computer -- and confirmed reports that the machine is the one to be manufactured in the U.S. It will reach retail later this year.

"There were no major surprises," Milanesi acknowledged. "But what we saw today, especially iOS 7, showed that Apple is not one to go after the latest fashion, the latest thing, but creates for those who appreciate the experience that Apple provides. And those customers are the best customers for Apple.

"Familiar, but fresh and modern, that's how I saw Apple today," said Milanesi.

A replay of today's WWDC keynote can be viewed on Apple's website.

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