iOS 7 and the continuing gamification of interface

iOS 7 is not only the most skeuomorphic and liberating version of Apple's mobile operating system to date, it's also potentially the most fun. (I say potentially because it's not finished yet, and we'll likely only know whether Apple truly achieves their vision once it launches this fall.) This idea -- the gamificaton of interface -- isn't new, of course. With iOS 7, Apple's simply, audaciously attempting to take it to the next level.

When the original iPhone launched in 2007, its blisteringly fast animations, smooth transitions, direct manipulations, and emulated behaviors such as elastic banding and inertial scrolling played a huge part in making iOS (then iPhone OS) not only immediately delightful, but persistently engaging. It's also what made it not only accessible, but enjoyable for kids and non-tech savvy people alike.

Apple gamified their operating system in the best sense of the word.

To accomplish the high frame-rate, smooth scrolling, and other elements, Apple implemented technologies that are key to gaming, like OpenGL (and implemented them so well that a year later developers basically got a lot of what they needed to launch the first set of games on the iPhone "for free".) Apple gamified their operating system in the best sense of the word, and everyone from Apple to the first wave of App Store developers, to us, all benefited.

While 6 years is a long time, many of us can probably still remember back to our first days, weeks, and months using the original iPhone. Pinching and zooming through photos and maps and watching details leap out or fall back. Spinning dials, sometimes intentionally too fast, to set numbers for timers. Flicking through lists and watching them accelerate and decelerate, and pulling down well past its limits just to watch it bounce back. (Loren Brichter did the latter so much he ended up creating pull-to-refresh.) And the list goes on.

Apple and other companies had used some of these animations and interactions before, of course, but the sheer quality of the iPhone's interface combined with the intimacy of capacitive touch made the entire experience something more viceral.

Over time Apple added other touches, like page turning in iBooks, sliding -- and in some cases bouncing -- panels in Notification Center and the Lock screen, and more. Again, nothing completely new, but a lot that felt novel when it came to the overall experience.

And now iOS 7.

I misclassified iOS 7 at the beginning of this article. It's less another level and more a sequel to the original (and comes with all the dangers inherent to making a sequel). It takes many of the same interactive elements, blows them out, and makes them the central mechanic for the entire operating system. There's a real (if not real-world) physics engine here, and particle effects, and far more that's been disclosed to developers in the non-public sessions at WWDC 2013. And instead of aping game mechanics for the iOS 7 interface, Apple hired real, renowned game developers to create it.

With iOS 7, screens aren't bouncing because they're keyframe-animated to do so. They're bouncing because the virtual world they exist in has sent them ricochetting off another object. They're not sliding because an image is being moved from one coordinate to another, but because they're rotating around the surface of cylinders. Interface hasn't just gone from traditional animation to 3D, or from element to object, it's been dropped into a full-blown virtual world.

Some of the gamification Apple's doing was shown off in the WWDC 2013 keynote, including the layers that move and shift as the device moves and shifts -- of the interface objectified, of interaction brought to life. Some hasn't been yet, and some is likely still very much a work in progress. (Spoiler: Any screen or app not shown off on Apple's iOS 7 feature pages probably isn't done yet.)

I'd like to see even more of it. I'd like to see a more playful way to unlock iOS, like Apple uses for their retail devices, or Google uses for Android. I'd like to see a Stock icon that changes color from red to black to reflect the state of the market. I'd like to tilt to scroll the multitasking cards. I'd like to flick away spam in Mail and pinch in and out of the Calendar. I'd like Reminders to be sortable and stackable. And I'd like all of it, every gesture-based direct manipulation, to be consistent across iOS so I never have to so much as think about what I'm doing. I just have to do it.

Apple might get to some of this, if not far better, sooner or later, but more importantly they've given developers the tools they need to experiment with all sorts of ideas right now.

Interface gamified leads to play which leads to discovery which leads to yet more play.

Interface gamified leads to play which leads to discovery which leads to yet more play. It's a hugely virtuous cycle. That's how iPhone OS began, and that's how iOS is beginning again. The implications are more than a little exciting, and the ramifications are something we won't even start seeing until the fall.

Apple framed iOS 7 as the most important release since the original iPhone OS, and that's absolutely true. Just like iPhone OS 1 set the stage for the first 6 years of the platform, including the amazing apps that came with iPhone OS 2 and the App Store, iOS 7 sets the now much more physical stage for what will certainly be years ahead, and the next generation of apps that feel like living objects in unreal space.

That work and delight like games.