SAN FRANCISCO – Apple is throwing out most of the real-world graphical cues from its iPhone and iPad software, such as the casino-green “felt” of its Game Center app, in what it calls the biggest update since the iPhone’s launch in 2007.
The new operating system, called iOS 7, strives for a clean, simple, translucent impression. Apple is redesigning all its applications and icons to conform to the new look, driven by longtime hardware design chief Jony Ive.
Apple demonstrated the new software at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on Monday. The new design direction was widely expected and will show up on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches this fall, the company said.
The software uses simple graphical elements in neon and pastel colors. Gone is the effort to make the icons looks like three-dimensional, embossed objects. Interface designers call the new guiding principle “flat,” but on the iPhone’s main screen, the background image will move subtly with the movement of the device, creating an illusion of depth. Other screens include plenty of white space.
The software has “a whole new structure that is coherent and is applied across the entire system,” Ive said in a recorded presentation. “The design recedes, and in doing so, elevates your content.”
While design modifications could help Apple distinguish its devices from rival phones and tablets, the company risks alienating longtime users.
Raluca Budiu, a senior researcher specializing in usability at the Nielsen Norman Group, said the so-called “flat” design can confuse users because it can offer fewer signals about where to tap or click. That’s been the case, she said, with Windows 8, which has a very “flat” design. Budiu said it’s too early to say if it will be an issue with iOS.
Budiu noted that iOS users seem quite happy with the current iOS, which is easier to use than Google Inc.’s Android, its only big competitor.
Apple made a rare, major stumble with last year’s iOS update, when it replaced Google’s Maps application with its own navigation app. The underlying data for Apple’s Maps was spottier and less accurate than Google’s, users found. The Maps fracas didn’t diminish the demand for iPhones, however.
Among other changes, Apple’s new iOS system will update apps automatically. It will store Web passwords online in Apple’s syncing service, iCloud, making them available across devices. The AirDrop feature will allow sharing of big files with Apple-equipped people in the same room.
The Cupertino, Calif., company is also launching a Pandora-like Internet radio service, iTunes Radio. It will be built into the Music app and stream music for free. There will be advertising, except for people who pay $25 a year for the iTunes Match online music storage.
Apple was a pioneer of online music sales and is still a leader in that field, but streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify have emerged as popular alternatives to buying. Pandora relies on its users being connected to the Internet at all times and plays songs at random within certain genres for free.
Apple updates its iOS operating system every year and doesn’t charge for the updates. The new operating system will be available for the iPhone 4 and later models, and on the iPad 2 and later models, including the Mini.