Apple iOS 7: New icons on home screen. Is this a design masterpiece, or an abject failure? (hint: study that new Safari icon...)

Are the wheels falling off?

Invariably that question about Apple continues to be on the minds of many in the tech industry. In addition to a depressed stock of late, the company has yet to release anything significant since the iPad Mini way back in November 2012.

Unfortunately, none of that has changed even after today’s flashy–but largely substance free–keynote at the developers conference in San Francisco.

Instead, what we saw over about 90 minutes was mostly incremental in nature:

— a new version of Mac OS X (“Mavericks”) with tabbed windows but not a whole lot else

— iTunes iRadio streaming music service that does little but catch up with Pandora and Google Music All Access

— marginally improved MacBook Air (sans touch or any other innovative feature, save for better processors)

— a bizarrely designed Mac Pro (a $2,700 trash can?)

and the coup de grâce:

— iOS 7 featuring a wildly incoherent, messy UI that resembles… well, that resembles… something unrefined, unfinished, and unapologetic in it liberal borrowing of design cues from Microsoft (Windows 8, Windows Phone), and Android (especially Jelly Bean)

Out of all the non-announcements today (seems like everything aside from the new MacBook Airs will arrive this Fall) it was the new version of iOS that had my jaw on the floor. Sadly, not in a good, blown away sort of way. This is the long-awaited, much ballyhooed refresh of iOS headed up by protege Jony Ive. The sophisticated Brit accent was there. The trademark white background Apple video was there. The anticipation was there. But, in the end, the design was far from there.

With the updated notification bar and lock screen in particular, it’s evident that Apple is drafting off the design ideas of others

Some are professing their love for the look and feel of iOS 7. I’m not one of them.

The most egregious offense is the design of the new flat icons. In a word: atrocious. Instead of creating a consistent, coherent aesthetic, they instead bamboozle the senses with an assortment of colors (some bright, some subtle), various shapes (some round, some still 3D, some square). It’s as if, as some of suggested on various message boards, Microsoft Windows 8 and Google Android went on a bender, got drunk, and pro-created. The result belies the fact that a supreme designer in Ivy (we know he’s good) was overseeing the whole affair. Surely, the Steve Jobs’ Apple we know of yesteryear would absolutely not have released it as we saw it at Moscone today.

Typography, however, is one bright spot. Apple is good with fonts. From what I saw in iOS 7, text and overall layout of typography looks beautiful.

But: Apple Wins on Wheels

Despite the design miss, the real key to Apple’s differentiation almost slips under the radar.

And that’s wheels.

During the presentation, Phil Schiller announced that fourteen car manufacturers would make cars with full-screen iOS experiences in 2014.  Given that cars today are increasingly “browsers on four wheels” as we commonly hear (case in point: Tesla S with 10″ flat panel display), its smart of Apple to double down on this market. Smartphones have essentially become our car infotainment systems. Rather than merely providing baseline functionality via Bluetooth from what I saw iOS 7 will replicate the iPhone’s functionality on large display in the car. This will be great for maps, music, browsing (for the passenger!), and so much more. Plus voice recognition will provide eyes-free control for many functions.

In this regard, Apple has an edge on Google.

In a world where smartphone differentiation is harder to come by, it could be a good wedge, at least in the short term, for Apple to convince Android users to switch.

It won’t be a stretch, however, to envision an automotive future where we buy an “iOS car” or an “Android car.” Simply check off the appropriate option when you buy the car, and your smartphone life is automotively calibrated. Bliss.

All in All, the WWDC Keynote was Light on Substance

So today we didn’t get a Retina version of the iPad Mini. There was no Apple Smartwatch. No new iPad, MacBook Pro, iPhone or Touch–not that we expected any of those things. iOS 7 is coming later this year, as is the new Mac Pro and the new iTunes Radio. What we have today, available now on the Apple Store, are refreshes of the MacBook Air line.

“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass”

I’m not so sure about that. Talk is cheap. And the product flow at Apple has dried. The new iOS 7 design aesthetic would never have received the green light from Jobs. Worse still, it’s evident, with the notification bar and lock screen in particular, that Apple is drafting off the design ideas of others; that is an impossibility, as if the law of gravity took a week off.

To be fair, Google didn’t blow our socks off either earlier this year. In some ways, though, Google stayed true to the mission of a developer’s conference, playing to the audience with deep technical dives.

There’s no doubt, the golden age of mobile, say from 2007-2011, saw rampant innovation (voice), product breakthroughs (iPhone), and the emergence of PC-killing categories (tablets). It doesn’t go over well, but as I’ve been saying for the last few quarters, it appears as if the game is slowing. We’re in the midst of an incremental era. Mobile technologies are now maturing. That’s not to say breakthroughs won’t happen. Of course they will. But I suspect they won’t come at the breakthrough speeds we once enjoyed.

Silicon Valley news, Android, Apple, reviewsReport Card: Apple WWDC Keynote 2013

Products: C+

MacBook Airs get new Intel chips (Haswell), lower prices, more storage and all-day battery life. But that’s about it for new Apple products shipping today.

Presentation: B

Kudos to the Apple execs for keeping it loose, ad-hoc exchanges with audience.

Entertainment Value: B

No parachuting demo. No stunts. No Alicia Keys. But Schiller said “ass” – somewhere Steve Jobs is grinning.

Bottome line:

Incremental improvements were the order of the day. Aside from refreshed 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs (still best-in-class laptops), no new products available today. iOS 7 possibly a step in the wrong direction with unrefined look. Still no widgets. Typography looks great though. Lock screen will make Android users feel right at home. What would Steve Jobs think of all the ideas borrowed from Microsoft and Google?

Looks like I’ll upgrade my 2010 MBP with a new Air. Looking forward to upgrading my Mini (a superb tablet) to a Retina when it comes available. But my smartphone of choice is still an Android (Nexus 4).

Best tweet from WWDC comes courtesy of CNET’s Dan Ackerman: