At some point in the coming weeks, users of Apple iPhones and iPads will wake up to an alert that there is a new version of the company's mobile operating system, known as iOS, for them to install.
If users follow historical patterns, within a few days of the launch of iOS 7, almost all of them will install the updated software and, just like that, more than 500 million phones and tablets will be made new. Never before has a technology industry launch come close to matching the scale and speed of this switch.
Of course, it's not the first time that Apple has updated its phone software. IOS 7 is, logically, the seventh version of the software, but previous revisions to Apple's mobile operating system nibbled around the edges of a design that they first unveiled in 2007 along with the original iPhone. IOS 7, by contrast, is a complete, post-Steve Jobs overhaul spearheaded by the company's head of design, Jony Ive.
To be clear: If you're an iPhone user, everything — your email, your calendar, your texts, your phone dialer, your photos, your notes — will look and work differently.
In reinventing its key software, the real big change — the visionary change — is that the idea of the operating system is radically new.
Let me explain.
Most computer operating systems have employed explicit visual and conceptual metaphors with real-world objects to signal to users what they're supposed to do. So the tabs at the top of Web browsers resemble the tabs of actual folders, the kind you keep in cabinets. Or, take the entire concept of a digital folder: That's another metaphor and it tells you this is a folder — it's where you keep stuff. All these callbacks to the physical world are called skeuomorphs, and 30 years into the personal computing era, they've proven stubbornly persistent.
The metaphor of the old iPhone operating system was that the phone combined all kinds of physical objects into one handy gadget in your pocket. Open up Notes and there was a pad of yellow, lined paper; the voice recorder featured an old-timey analog microphone; when the camera app opened, an animated mechanical shutter did as well; the Game Center even had green felt texturing.
The usefulness of these metaphors is obvious; they tell the user what to do — a yellow notepad is for taking notes.
But the physical metaphors went deeper, all the way to the lowest level of the phone's functioning. For example, something you may not have noticed: If you look at the buttons on the keyboard you'll see that they are very subtly three-dimensional. They even cast a shadow that you can see, if you look closely. And they're rendered with a fictional light source that hangs above the gadget itself.
In the forthcoming operating system, almost all of these metaphors are gone. The calendar app, for example, is all white and gray, with simple red dots to mark appointments. And instead of paging through days — as you would in a calendar book — the app feels like sliding around within an infinite calendar. The organization feels spatial, as if you had an enormous, zoomable wall calendar, but there is no real physical analog to how the calendar app works. It's native to the digital environment.
People still need some clues about how they're supposed to use these new interfaces. Those directions are delivered with simple animations that show how things can slide and move.
The most telling, if small, update is that unlike iOS 6, which used the conceit that there was a light shining down on the gadget, iOS 7's light source is in the phone. It glows like an orb. Playing with the new iOS at Evernote, a Silicon Valley company that makes apps for the iPhone, a developer told me he thought the new master metaphor running throughout the software is that the phone is a little magic box, not the all-in-one personal assistant of the past.
What it all means is that Apple has decided we're all finally natives in the world of the screen. And whether or not we like the idea, we can do things on our phones that are impossible in the physical world. The gadget is now the official center of the world Apple has created, and it needs no outside help.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.