Tomorrow, Apple will introduce the world to two new iPhones. One will look almost exactly like the current iPhone, the other will look slightly different. Apple will sell millions of each type. And both will hardly matter at all compared to iOS 7.
There's going to be a lot written about the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C (if that's what they end up being called) tomorrow, both here and elsewhere. And when they ship, sometime later this month, there will likely be crowds of people mobbing Apple Stores around the world. But unless those people were paying close attention to Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference, they have no idea what they're buying.
An iPhone's not just an iPhone, no more than a sandbox is a bunch of lumber nailed together as a square. It's what's inside, and how you interact with it, that counts. iPhones are just an iOS delivery system. And iOS 7, which will launch either tomorrow or concurrently with the the new handsets later this month, is the most important package Apple's sent in a long, long time.
The iPhone has been in a design holding pattern for the last several years. That's not a knock; it's just savvy marketing. The iPhone 4S looked exactly like the iPhone 4. The iPhone 5 looked different from those, but not so much that you couldn't very clearly identify it as an iPhone. The iPhone 5S will look exactly like the iPhone 5. And so on.
Apple keeps its iPhone hardware consistent because to do anything else would be insane. Six years after its release, it remains one of the most popular, pervasive consumer products of all time. If your product is universally loved and insanely profitable, there's little incentive to radically alter it once a decade, much less every year. Until people stop buying iPhones, all Apple needs to do is make enough tweaks to feel current. That's what it's done.
That consistency has carried across to iOS, as well, a platform that's as much a reason for Apple's success as any number of anodized, chamfered rectangles have been. Apple's mobile operating system has gradually picked up functionality over the years, but always one very cautious step at a time. Almost every iOS iteration has looked similar enough to the one before it that you'd be forgiven for not noticing the changes. And for good reason! The hallmark of iOS is that it teaches users how to use a mobile phone. It's intuitive, it looks like its real-life analogs. Your mom can figure it out without breaking a sweat.
And then there's iOS 7.
iOS 7 is still in beta, so it's too early—and too much a matter of personal taste—to use words like good or bad to describe it. One descriptive you can use without hesitation, though, is different. It looks different. It acts different. It's not just a fresh coat of paint; it's full reno on a house you've lived in for years. Except instead of weeks of drill bits and sledgehammers, it happens with a single tap.
Look at your iPhone now. Then look at this:
You've probably already seen this video, or one like it. You read tech blogs! You're all set. But millions and millions of iPhone owners have not. And the changes aren't just aesthetic; they're functional, as well. Control Center, basic navigation, multitasking. Waking up to iOS 7 will be like waking up to find that your Keurig suddenly looks like a toaster.
So why the overhaul? Because unlike the iPhone itself, iOS has recently felt stodgy and stale next to Android and Windows Phone. It was enough of a problem point for Apple that its iOS architect, Scott Forstall, was fired. And iOS fell under the domain of Apple hardware guru Jony Ive.
Apple needed to change iOS so dramatically for all the reasons that it doesn't need to change the iPhone. It was losing. It took a risk.
Consumer technology has reached a point where hardware comes last in the decision tree. The choice of which rectangle to buy doesn't matter nearly as much as what you can do with it, whether it's iOS or Android, what kind of apps it can run, what kind of ecosystem you're joining. That's the part that Apple is changing, more dramatically than it has since the introduction of the App Store.
That's why no matter what phones Apple announces tomorrow, they're not nearly as important as they software they'll be running. It's iOS 7 that will convince people to buy iPhones for the next several years, and it's iOS 7 that will turn millions of unsuspecting current iPhone owners' devices into entirely different phones.
There may not be a one more thing on stage tomorrow, but there should be in the back of your minds. iOS is the iPhone. The iPhone is iOS. And it's about to get the biggest shakeup in years.