Indoor sat-nav, physical gamepads and killer new apps: iOS 7's secret brilliance

iOS 7's most disruptive new features have slipped under the radar – here's proof that Apple's not done innovating yet
Apple iOS 7

Stop staring at iOS 7's icons and tear yourself away from the painfully funny (and occasionally astute) Jony Ive Redesigns Things: it's the underlying changes to the OS that matter, not the aesthetic tweaks. And tucked away in the depths of Apple's WWDC keynote are the improvements that prove Cupertino's setting the agenda once again.

From indoor navigation to physical controller APIs, iOS 7 is packed with hidden gems. Stuff has gathered together some of the iPhone's most successful developers to find out what's going on under the hood, and what it means for us.

iBeacons: indoor navigation will make Apple Maps matter

Apple Maps

The mysterious new iBeacons developer feature appears to herald Apple's foray into indoor navigation, a move rumoured for some time – particularly since it picked up indoor nav firm WifiSLAM earlier this year. 

According to Mio Nilsson, senior developer at ustwo (makers of Rando and Whale Trail), "As far as I understand it [iBeacons are] Bluetooth devices you can put indoors to enable more granular (accurate) geofencing and give the opportunity to have micro location tracking. This means you could track a device with much smaller margins than GPS provides, and also where GPS is not available. 

"This could for example be used for providing services that are only available at a specific location – for example within a shop – and could enhance the experience in the shop by, say, providing extra information about the product you're standing in front of."

Although not quite as mind-blowing as inertia-based indoor-nav systems such as Navisens, Apple has the scale to make iBeacons happen – and if venues begin to install the technology, we could see an explosion of venue-specific apps from shops, galleries and other public places. The data on particularly popular destinations could even be built into Apple Maps. It's certainly a technology to watch.

Game Controller API: iOS 7 + Apple TV = your new console

Aztec Antics

All it got in the keynote was the briefest of slide mentions, but the new Game Controller API makes iOS devices more compelling games machines than ever (and makes it even dafter that WWDC always clashes with E3). 

Gary Riches of Bouncing Ball (responsible for excellent retro platformer Aztec Antics) explains: "The Game Controller API means that all controllers that are "made for iPhone" accredited will be of a certain specification and always work with games that use the new API." So, around 'fall' this year, we can expect a proliferation of 'made for iPhone' joypads to complement the hacky ones that already exist, and possibly an official design from Apple itself.

Even more interesting is how the Game Controller API could affect the living room. Gary says, "Coupled with AirPlay on Apple TV, it means Apple will potentially have 13 million [the number of Apple TVs sold so far] games machines in the home. All you need is an iOS Device and controller." 

Bad news for Ouya and GameStick – and it should even give Sony and Microsoft pause for thought. What makes it especially compelling is that it's now theoretically easier to develop quality games for iOS: 7's 'UI Dynamics' framework means all those fancy transitions and gravity effects you saw in the WWDC keynote video – the bits that make iOS feel 'fluid and organic', according to Nik Fletcher of Realmac Software – can be added to apps by developers who don't have a degree in physics. 

Mio Nilsson says, "If Apple is serious about this, it will considerably lower the learning-curve for getting into making games. They've opened our eyes to what can be achieved with minimum effort." Gary Riches concurs: "I think with UI Dynamics and Sprite Kit you're going to see much better quality games on iOS from smaller teams."

Multitasking: the end of default apps?

Zach Gage

iOS 7's multitasking is more game-leveller than game-changer. For one thing, it's not 'real' multitasking (in which apps keep on doing their thing in the background, as they do on Android); instead it uses invisible push notifications to tell apps they have fresh data to download. But iOS 7's implementation will make new genres of app possible, and could even melt Apple's iron grip on default apps.

For Zach Gage, creator of smash-hit word game SpellTower, it's a huge deal. "There are so many possibilities! There are some great third-party email apps that never could be used because they didn't have background updating, but the fact that it can happen now in the background is a whole new territory for everyone. 

"You could even have games that use dynamic-updating GPS: real-world travel when you're not playing the game could count towards in-game progress."

And according to Alex Fish os Ustwo, there should be obvious performance improvements besides. "The whole experience of using your iPhone is going to be so much snappier. You won't have to wait ages watching the spinner while the app gets data: it'll already be there." Gary Riches adds "iOS 7 will learn that I open Twitter every morning and start giving the app background access just before I wake. Twitter will then download all the latest tweets ready for when I get up."

So even if iOS 7's new look leaves you feeling flat, it's given developers a whole new box of toys to play with. As Phil Schiller succinctly put it, "Can't innovate anymore, my ass."