iOS7 is not about flat

Apple’s new mobile operating system lets us develop lighter, faster apps.

Most of the buzz ahead of Apple’s big iOS7 release has focused on its new, Jony Ive-driven ‘flat graphic design’ that replaces the skeuomorphism of earlier iOS versions. Goodbye newsstand icon of a wooden newsstand (hello newsstand icon of… old skool magazine covers?).

But as the head of a dev team for a popular personal finance iPhone app, it’s clear to me that the most important changes for iPhone users under iOS7 won’t be found in surface design. While rebuilding BillGuard for iOS7, we found that Apple’s new framework allows us to enhance our app in some fundamental ways that, once they’re applied broadly across an iPhone user’s apps, should mean a step improvement in the entire smartphone experience.

In short, iOS7 isn’t really about ‘flat’ — it’s about lighter and faster. I could give a number of examples of how Apple’s new operating system lets developers build swifter, more usable apps, but I’ll focus on just one that we’re particularly happy to integrate into our iOS7 app: background fetching.

In all iOS versions until now, a user’s app could only call the app developer’s server (that is, get updated with new data) when that user actually pressed to open her app. Apple allowed for push notifications as a separate channel.

So, for example, your Facebook icon displays a little red number badge when you have new Facebook notifications, but you have to actually open up the app and wait awhile for it to call Facebook’s server before the app itself knows what those red numbers referred to and what those notifications are. That wait — those ubiquitous spinning wheels — at times seems interminable.

Background fetching in iOS7 lets an app wake up before you use it — just enough to present the data you’ll want at the moment you open it. It’s like one of those coffee makers that automatically brews your morning joe so it’s fresh and hot just when you come down to the kitchen.

For Facebook and other social media apps, background fetching means you’ll see an updated newsfeed the moment you fire it up. And for content apps like The New York Times or Instapaper, background fetching means you won’t have to wait for today’s edition or saved articles to load — the latest content should already be there when you open the app. Apple’s guidelines for iOS7 developers actually demand we avoid splash screens ‘or other startup experience.’

Apple’s guidelines for iOS7 developers actually demand we avoid splash screens or ‘other startup experience’

Our app scans your credit and debit card activity to allow you to quickly review your spending and flag questionable charges, along with others in our crowdsourced network. In the background, we run scans for unwanted grey charges. For a productivity app like ours, the lag time between opening the app and our ability to update it is crucial, since if you’re motivated to review your spending, you want to do so NOW. Even a five second delay can mean you just won’t follow through on the very activity our app is designed to help you do: stay on top of your spending and save money.

In iOS6 we had no choice but to make our users endure this wait. But in iOS7 we can run a background fetch at an optimized time and preload the app with your most up to date spending report. That means zero delay between launching the app and actively reviewing your most recent charges.

We know that load time is a critical element in the effectiveness and usability of web services. Broadband connections, together with quicker-loading page design, massively increased the utility of the PC-based web.

As our computing use shifts to mobile, load time is no less important. A recent Compuware study found a majority of users expect a mobile app to launch in 2 seconds or less, and as Strangeloop shows, mobile users expect their overall experience to be at least as fast — if not faster — than their PC browsing. But so far, smartphone have had to put up with too many frustrating, lead-footed apps.

An advance like background fetching, combined with the inherent advantages of native apps that can call upon all of a device’s functionality, means our smartphones can begin to live up to the loftier expectations. Our mobile devices are about to get a whole lot more responsive to what we want at the very moment we want it.

It’s a welcome step toward seamless integration between our technology and our lives. Nothing flat about that.