On a recent episode of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, Brandon Miniman gave us a first-person account of what it’s like to use Apple’s new platform for the iPhone and the iPad, iOS 7. This was exciting not just because of the dearth of Apple news in the weeks leading up to the episode, but because it was our first glimpse (outside of the announcement Hangout, anyway) at the refreshed user-interface paradigms Apple is bringing to the table with its revised platform. Specifically, the new suite of iOS 7 gestures.
Well, maybe “suite” is being a little generous. We’re not talking about a whole array of possible swipes and flicks here; in fact there’s only one gesture taking center-stage in the version of iOS 7 we’re running: the back gesture. If you’re not familiar with it, take a gander at Brandon’s hands-on video showing the new platform running on his iPhone 5. The relevant portion is at the 02:30 mark:
Too cool to watch the video? That’s okay; I’ll explain. Going backward in iOS 7 (as in reverting to a previous screen) no longer requires you to press the omnipresent back button located in the upper left corner of the screen. Instead, you can simply swipe from left to right anywhere on the display, and the UI will obediently slide along with your thumb, gently and smoothly depositing you on the previous screen. It’s fairly effortless, and looks wonderfully slick.
On last week’s episode of the Weekly (yes, this is a podcast-pimping post, so just deal), Brandon used one of his patented “thought threads” to make the point that this thumb-slide is a vital improvement to iOS’s usability. Because the iPhone has never featured the persistent back-arrow commonly placed below the display on Android and Windows Phone 8 devices, iPhone owners have been forced to use the aforementioned iOS back button located in the upper left of most apps. Brandon’s argument is that Apple introduced the new swipe functionality not just to modernize the user experience, and not just to make iPads easier to use – but to pave the way for a new generation of larger iPhones.
Now, I don’t disagree. Apple might pride itself on competing in more crucial areas than hardware size, and that’s admirable – but the world has changed, and the average size of Android phones has skyrocketed almost as quickly as that platform’s popularity. The iPhone needs to grow, and the new back gesture will help make that larger incarnation more usable.
But that’s not what gets me excited – and make no mistake, I’m excited. (I’m jazzed enough, in fact, to be cooking up some weird story pitches so I can stand in line at the Apple store on iPhone launch day, for the first time in five years.) I’m excited because with version 7, iOS finally looks and feels somewhat modern. And that’s due in large part to this tiny UI element.
Above, I singled out Android and Windows Phone as counter-examples to the iPhone, but only because they’re the dominant competition. An important platform was left out: BlackBerry 10. We were in Toronto for its launch, and saw firsthand the heavy influence gesture-based inputs had on its software design. Some were ported from other sources, and others brought over from the recently-nixed PlayBook tablet, but all came together to form an OS that we called “stable, smooth, and fun to use” in our Z10 review.
BlackBerry 10 isn’t the only example of a gesture-heavy interface, of course: we’ve talked at length about the ups and downs of Windows 8’s button-free inputs, and our time spent with nascent platforms like Jolla’s Sailfish OS only reaffirmed the notion that buttons are yesterday’s news – except on waterproof phones, of course. But we’ve still got a BlackBerry Q10 here in the office that we’re using on a more-or-less daily basis, and its gesture-based interface is infectious. Indeed, the touch elements of its software are futuristic and addictive enough to completely overcome the primitive feeling that comes along with its physical keyboard. Gestures are the future, and it’s awesome that iOS is finally coming aboard – even if it’s just in the form of a back-swipe, for now.
The excitement doesn’t end there, though. Regardless of how you feel about Apple’s products, it’s tough to deny that they have a huge impact on the mobile industry as a whole. When Apple does something well (as it often does), it’s not just competitors that change their behavior, but consumers as well. The iPhone is so popular that it can take a new interface method and popularize it almost single-handedly. After all, while multi-touch predates the iPhone, almost no one outside the geek squad knew about it until WWDC 2007. Today, everyone instinctively pinches-to-zoom – to the point that we’ll still be using it well into the future, if you believe Minority Report.
Apple’s embrace of the back gesture means the entire industry will benefit – because consumers will finally feel compelled to learn a new interface action. For all their utility and coolness, gestures aren’t always immediately intuitive – a factor that turns consumers off at the retail store. If a product’s interface isn’t learnable very quickly, buyers turn elsewhere. Smaller platforms that rely heavily on gestures can suffer accordingly – but customer patience and willingness to learn seem much more abundant when an Apple logo is emblazoned on the product. Again, the brand is powerful enough to single-handedly change the course of the industry.
Is all that anecdotal? Yeah. Am I making too big a deal about a simple left-to-right swipe in a piece of software that’s still months from leaving beta? Probably. But that won’t stop me from geeking out about our glorious gesture-driven future. A future where I can finally witness the demise of my sworn enemy, the physical home button. A world in which the device in my pocket feels magical all over again.