Sep 23, 2013 ยท 4 minutes

Phones used to be clunky devices with low-resolution displays and plasticky buttons that allowed people to make calls; now they're svelte products with high-definition displays and touchscreens that allow us to track our fitness, share our photos, and manage our daily lives.

Apple is largely -- and rightly -- credited with this shift. Smartphones can be roughly organized as pre-iPhone and post-iPhone. Does it have a touchscreen? Does it feature a dedicated apps marketplace? Does it have a high-definition display? If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions the device is probably post-iPhone. Apple popularized each of these features and the rest of the industry copied or built upon them.

Now it's Apple's turn to do the copying. The company released the latest update to its mobile operating system, iOS 7, earlier this month. It features a new design, some new features, and is available for free directly from Apple. And it's very much the product of a post-Windows Phone, post-Android market.

Embracing the flat

Last December, I argued that the future of iOS should look like Windows Phone. Apps were beginning to abandon the kitschiness of Apple's software design in favor of Windows Phone's "flat" design. The stitched leather and brushed aluminum featured in many apps were on their way out; clean typography and whitespace punctuated by bursts of color were on their way in.

Apple seems to have noticed this shift, too. iOS 7 features a new, lighter design that adopts many of the principles popularized by Windows Phone. Apps no longer rely on software buttons or emulating real-world objects to convey meaning. Instead, they rely on text, color, and a familiarity with the software that (obviously) wasn't present in 2007.

Despite these visual changes, using an iPhone still feels like using an iPhone. Some animations, like those that appear when you launch an app or open a folder, sacrifice performance for visual flair. I regularly felt like my iPhone 4S or third-generation iPad weren't able to run iOS 7 as well as I (or Apple) would have liked until I realized that this "lag" was added by design, not by accident.

Other nitpicks, like the text being too small, can be fixed by fussing around in the newly-capable Settings app. This marks the first time Apple has allowed users to change the way the operating system looks (with the exception of a high-contrast view available in the Accessibility menu) and is a welcome addition to the OS. We've finally been handed a paintbrush and told that even though we can't touch the walls, we're free to re-do the trim.

A changed structure

Those are the telltale signs of a post-Windows Phone smartphone. Spotting a post-Android smartphone relies less on examining the way things look and more on examining the way they work.

Android popularized the idea of a "notification center," where all of the little alerts that permeate our days are collected and easily browsed. It also showed that having some hardware and software controls -- whether WiFi is on or off, display brightness, sound levels -- should be easily accessible instead of being buried within a Settings app.

Apple co-opted Android's notification center in iOS 5. It didn't provide easy access to these system controls (as well as a flashlight, music playback controls, and the like) until iOS 7. Windows Phone had a noticeable effect on the way iOS looks; Android has made a lasting impact on the way it works.

Hardware dependence

Perhaps the biggest problem with iOS 7 is the iPhone 5s. The two were clearly made for each other, and the iPhone 5s features a number of hardware improvements that should serve as a blueprint for what Apple plans for the future. It's got a fingerprint scanner, which allows the software to facilitate easy unlocking and shopping; it's got a slow-motion camera that just might take over the Web; and it's got a new processor and coprocessor that will make iOS even more powerful in the future.

That's fine if you've got an iPhone 5s. Otherwise iOS 7 is merely a new coat of paint on an operating system that has behaved the same way for the last six years.

Sure, some of the furniture has been moved -- the new Control Center brings many system controls out of the Settings app and into iOS proper -- and some blemishes, like the typically-awful Siri voice assistant, have been fixed. But those are small changes compared to those demonstrated by the iPhone 5s.

It's like walking up to your childhood home and seeing that the shutters have been redone and the siding re-finished before you realize that your parents have changed the locks. Eventually they'll get you a new one, but until then you're forced to peer through the windows and imagine how things have changed from afar.

[Image via Apple]