updated 07:54 am EDT, Mon June 17, 2013
Apple makes the iPhone more like a computer than ever before
If you've read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, you will know that iOS is built off the same UNIX kernel as Mac OS X. This means that, like Mac OS X, Apple could have given the iPhone more fully featured multitasking than we have previously seen. In Mac OS X, multitasking and fast app switching in the form of Expose and Mission Control have been very popular. This has been emulated in the Android mobile OS and applied successfully. However, for reasons of battery conservation and perhaps even simplicity, Apple has avoided implementing full multitasking and fast app switching on the iPhone -- until now and the advent of iOS 7.
Full-featured multitasking is something that many iPhone fans have been craving for some time and Apple's implementation of it here is excellent, even in its current beta form. It is immediately apparent, however, that Apple has opted to take a design approach that seems to combine its multitasking implementation from iOS 6, with a very similar approach taken by Microsoft with Windows Phone 8 and even the defunct Palm/HP WebOS. As usual, though, when others inspire Apple, it repackages their approach giving its implementation a unique flavor of its own. For example, multitasking in iOS 7 also intelligently schedules updates during power-efficient opportunities such as when your phone is connected to a power source, or a Wi-Fi network. It conserves power, while also pre-fetching data from frequently used apps so they are ready when you typically launch them.
As in iOS 6, multitasking in iOS 7 is invoked with a double tap of the Home button. Where that previously revealed a multitasking app tray with simple icons, it now switches into a new and much more sophisticated multitasking view layered over the iPhone's wallpaper. A screen grab from each app appears in a left to right scrolling view, exactly as it does in Windows Phone 8. The key differences are that Windows Phone 8 shows a black or white background only, while iOS 7 also (very usefully) shows the app's icon below each screen grab. Further, like Cards in WebOS, users can also close any of these apps with an upward swipe, dismissing it if so desired. Tapping on it naturally takes you directly into that app. Frustratingly for Windows Phone 8 users, they cannot currently dismiss an open app, but can scroll through and select the app that they want to switch to.
Does it matter that Apple's implementation of multitasking in iOS 7 is derivative? In the end, that is up to you. It could have taken any number of other approaches to the way it presents the screen grabs, but I find that the layout that Apple has chosen is clean and highly functional -- even if it bears more than a passing resemblance to the way multitasking has been implemented on other devices. Count me as a fan of the way it works. It is certainly much better than the way multitasking worked in iOS 6, where dismissing an app required you to hold down an app in the multitasking tray, wait for it to start jiggling and then fiddle around trying to make sure your finger correctly hits the minus symbol. However, I would still like to see Apple also give users the option quickly kill all apps running in the background without having to dismiss each individually.
Another significant improvement that Apple has made in iOS 7 is the way users can share files with others. Apple is taking its Bluetooth implementation to new levels in iOS 7 with AirDrop, which uses both Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi to share files. (You can read more about Apple's iOS 7 Bluetooth integration in this blogpost by Suke Jawanda, Bluetooth SIG CMO.) This is different to the way that Apple implements AirDrop on the Mac, which works over a Wi-Fi connection-only. For the time being, Apple's iOS 7 version of AirDrop is incompatible with OS X Mountain Lion, even though they share the same name. The use of Bluetooth 4.0 adds a layer of security to the file sharing process users can select whether their device is visible to their contacts, anyone, or no one. Additionally, files sent over AirDrop are encrypted.
While AirDrop is an iPhone to iPhone proposition, Apple has also enhanced the layout and functionality of its general Share widget. This is most apparent when sharing photos in the Photos app. In the past, iOS users have been limited to sharing one photo at a time directly from the Share widget. You could share photos directly through e-mail, as a message, to Photo Stream, Twitter and Facebook in batches from the gallery edit mode, but it was not as easy as it is now. You could also send images to print wirelessly, copy it to the clipboard or set it as wallpaper. In iOS 7, users can now share multiple photos at once by selecting each image from the camera roll that they want to share much more simply. This is currently limited to five at a time over e-mail, however users can now also share multiple photos directly to iCloud and Flickr with options dwindling as you add additional photos. The option to set a photo as wallpaper has been replaced by the ability to select certain photos and instantly create a slideshow that can be played locally or streamed over AirPlay.
The more closely we have delved into iOS 7, the more we appreciate the fact that Apple has gone well beyond window dressing with its next-generation release. An updated look was important for the 6-year-old operating system, but it has become the central talking point. It might take some time for the masses to realize, however, that Apple also has done a whole lot to make iOS much more functional (and more computer-like in the process) than it has ever been. You'll get more done using iOS 7, more quickly than before and that is a very good thing.
By Sanjiv Sathiah