We're less than 7 days away from a bigger moment for Apple than it would ever publicly acknowledge. There's no reason to believe that Apple will blow it with the September 17th release of iOS 7, but there's less confidence now in Apple than there has been in some time.
Truth be told, Apple hasn't attempted an OS overhaul of this magnitude since the beginning of iOS in 2007 and OS X in 2002. A lot has changed at Apple and in the world since both releases.
For starters, the rest of the mobile computing world has exerted a considerable effort to catch up and surpass Apple, both in terms of device functionality and in terms of UI/UX and visual design. Surprisingly, given how ubiquitous iOS is, neither Android nor Windows 8 feel that duplicative of Apple's mobile OS.
This, ultimately, is part of the problem for Apple. As Google and Microsoft have gone in their own directions with Anroid and Windows, both mobile/tablet operating systems have pushed the envelope in a way that has increasingly made iOS feel dated.
This combined with Steve Jobs' absence, combined with Android's astonishing growth on both the tablet and smartphone fronts, combined with a series of slightly disappointing product announcements has resulted in palpable anxiety on behalf of Apple loyalists.
Yes, some weird dissonance exists here, particularly given how many members of the media use iPads and iPhones, and how succesful Apple has been over the last two years.
To be fair to Apple, the constantly expressed criticism that Apple has lost its creative spark is probably as reflective of the media's obsession with brand-new anything as it is based on any hunch that Apple is doing anything wrong or right.
Here's how Apple could get it wrong
All this said, if the public reacts unfavorably to iOS 7, it will be disastrous for Apple given that consumers will have no choice to roll their iPads or iPhones back to iOS6. The end result of consumers' sudden dissatisfacton with their existing devices will almost certainly reduce the appeal of new iPhone 5s and iPads.
There's no reason to think this will go poorly for Apple. While reactions to iOS 7 haven't quite reached the ZOMG! state, they haven't been particularly negative either. Fingerprint security on the new iPhone 5s and the presence of free iWork across all new iOS 7 devices will also enhance impressions of both product lines.
From a tablet perspective, here's how things could break bad for the new OS, however.
1. Unrecoverable disorientation
Many users will quickly adapt to the new themes and motifs of iOS 7. Some users will not. How long it takes the change-resistant crowd to adapt is at least part of the key to perceived success in the operating system's first 2-3 weeks.
A big group of users are probably unaware of the pending upgrade even now. This crowd will ask "Why do I/we need a totally different-looking OS? The one I have now is fine." We can expect Apple to do some broad marketing to explain why. But if this crowd can't find the apps and interface elements they want regularly in a few weeks, this will become a leading tech story that will carry considerable anti-Apple momentum.
2. iBooks and Newsstand…on iPad
A considerable number of people read books, magazines, and newspapers on the iPad. If Apple screws up the browsing and reading experience here in any way, iPad users are going to be very upset.
Initial looks at the Newsstand seem surprisingly plain, I have to admit. This is one of the drawbacks of moving away from the real-world themes that informed the previous six iterations of iOS. A uniformity of design can create a sense of fatigue and boredom.
It's not likely that the books and magazines themselves will be changed in a way that makes them inaccessible. It is quite possible, however that the overall browsing experience of both will change in a way that puts off frequent users. People hate change, and magazine and newspaper readers hate change more than most people.
3. Tablet weirdness
It feels like most of the stories, testing, and reactions to iOS 7 have come on the iPhone. I hope this doesn't mean that there's been a dearth of iPad testing of the OS. Given Apple's thorough nature, this isn't likely.
However, if iOS 7 was primarily developed for and staged on iPhones, some oddities and inconsistencies between the two versions will almost certainly pop up that will frustrate tablet users. (See Newsstand item above.) A critical mass will lead to panic in the streets, and more importantly, on Twitter.
4. Mossberg torpedoes it
To be fair, any number of torpedoes from any number of media types would create some leading damage around people's impressions of iOS 7. The point here is that early negative critical reviews will unleash the proverbial hounds, and
Again, it's not likely, particularly given that key media outlets have already received extensive hands-on time with the new OS. However, the absence of the type of glowing praise Apple products tend to receive ahead of time concerns me.
5. Mail client becomes too complicated
One way that current iPad owners will turn on Apple is if one/some of the basic apps winds up changing in a substantial enough way that leads to mistakes or any prolonged level of frustration.
6. That one bug
There's pretty much zero chance that iOS 7 is bug free. The big question is whether or not any critical bugs will rear their heads, and if so, how soon? Apple has experience with this before, unfortunately. Mapgate dominated the conversation about iOS6 last fall, to the point where I still hear jokes about using the app.
Again, given the amount of time that developers and iOS nerds have had with the operating system, it's not likely that we'll see a demonstrably bad iOS release this coming week. And while it's easy to focus on the potential downside, there's tremendous upside here too. If Apple succeeds with iOS 7, millions of iPad and iPhone owners will feel like they just got a brand new device for free. There's no better feeling or story than that.
We'll find out for sure this coming Tuesday.
This week's winner: Flipboard
Dedicated, singularly focused digital-only magazines may face challenging times (see Engadget folding Distro), and even print-to-digital conversions aren't exactly no-brainers in terms of success.
Flipboard's recent announcement that it has some 85 million subscribers sheds some light on these struggles. It appears that in aggregate, tablet readers are much more interested in reading across multiple platforms and perspectives than singularly-focused, linear experiences.
This week's loser: ABC
How is it possible that second screen viewing via tablet or phone while watching TV could be a losing proposition? According to ABC Disney Channel executive Albert Cheng, the distraction it provides makes it an undesirable category.
When I worked at Wikia.com, one of our most common observations was that during a show, the wiki for that show would see a lift in traffic. The bigger the show, the bigger the rise. This is for browser-based visits, a large number of whom would come in through Google, which takes even longer than launching an app.
My bet is that Albert Cheng's world view on second screen is being formed by mediocre, in-house apps that lack either content, sizzle, or both. If people are typing in characters' names into Google and spending time on Wikia during shows and commercial breaks, I'm pretty sure they'll respond to a second-screen app with the right blend of programming.
And if you're ABC, and you're talking about kids and the Disney Channel? Your only real hope is that the second screen app they're using–because they are using one–is in some way related to your TV show. Given how capable of multi-tasking kids are today, the chance of this being the case is not likely.