iOS 18 Should Copy the Best Parts of Apple Vision Pro’s visionOS

The floating, see-through windows of visionOS are just a small sliver of the ways Apple’s new software direction could and should influence the iPhone.

An iPhone 15 Pro running Apple's latest iOS 17 mobile sofftware
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Raymond Wong

iOS, Apple’s operating system for the iPhone, needs a shakeup badly. The mobile software has fundamentally worked more or less the same way since Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 (when it was called iPhone OS) and looked the same since iOS 7 because when you’ve sold billions of devices with an easy-to-use touchscreen interface, the last thing you want to do is blow it all up and force everyone to relearn how to use their beloved pocket slabs.

The problem with such caution is that it’s boring, and opens up opportunities for devices that do away with the software interfaces we know and love entirely. Our sense of style and taste change over time, so why shouldn’t the software we stare at for hours a day also freshen up? The role of smartphones has changed greatly since the iPhone was introduced, but the operating system it runs hasn’t nearly kept pace.

There are hints of more significant design changes brewing at Apple Park if you read the tea leaves of iOS 17 and more recently visionOS, which opens up the possibility for something more interesting, if at the very least, similar to Android. We’ve speculated that the Vision Pro could already be influencing the hardware of the iPhone 16, but if Apple really wants to make waves, an AI-powered iOS 18 should take design cues from the headset software, too, in my opinion.

An iOS 7-Scale Change

iOS 7 was a major departure from what the iPhone looked like before.

picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

The last time Apple radically redesigned iOS was iOS 7 in 2013, a new version of the iPhone’s operating system that was completely overseen by Jony Ive after Tim Cook fired former senior vice president Scott Forstall for botching the launch of Apple Maps. iOS 7 was notable, not only because it introduced concepts like Control Center and a new card-based multitasking system, but because it introduced a flat, transparent layered look with an emphasis on typography throughout the interface and Apple’s first-party apps. iOS 7 was a much-needed fresh coat of paint that modernized the iPhone’s texture-heavy software to match the more high-end hardware designs Ive’s team was cranking out, but several of its ideas have stuck around over a decade later.

The change was polarizing, to say the least, primarily because the shift away from skeuomorphic buttons and selection dials to lots of negative white space and the thin Helvetica Neue Ultra Light font made apps harder to understand and read than previous versions. iOS 7’s overreliance on animations and graphical pizzazz also seemed to slow just about everything down, especially if you were using one of Apple’s older iPhones.

Even with those criticisms, iOS 7 was striking and, according to Apple and analysts, quickly adopted. Apple would use the yearly updates that followed to reign in some of the more dramatic elements of iOS 7, but the sense of flatness, and the idea of layers of screens and interface elements with different levels of opacity have stuck around to this day. Arguably, iOS 7’s love of “frosted glass” has extended to the floating windows of visionOS, which very deliberately try to keep you aware of your surroundings. There’s limited evidence that Apple will bring some of that visionOS influence to iOS as of yet, but it certainly feels like the operating system is due for an iOS 7-level rethink.

Design Outliers

The Action Button’s menu is really unusual, but also really fun.

Screen recording by Raymond Wong

There are elements of Apple’s current operating systems that suggest that the company is starting to move in a different direction. Look at tvOS 17 and iOS 17 and you can see hints of a visual style that’s totally distinct from what Apple currently has, but is still familiar and engaging. They have software elements that, in some cases, line up with what Apple is incorporating into visionOS and, in other ways, seem totally alien.

The best example is probably the menu on the iPhone 15 Pro that lets you change what the Action Button does. You access it from the Settings app, but unlike the usual plain pages of text, toggles, and wireframe outlines, it’s a full-screen interface with a physical representation of your phone that lets you scroll through functionality for the button. It’s new, playful, and totally out of place, but maybe it suggests the direction that Apple designers might want to take iOS in the future. It certainly would help with making iOS settings easier to understand as the software gets more complicated every year. Another example is less dramatic, but pressing the plus icon in the Messages app brings up a similarly unusual menu of iMessage apps and other buried functionality. The round icons float on an opaque screen and can be scrolled to reveal more traditional pill-shaped iMessage apps and sticker packs, but they stand out all the same.

The most obvious example of how visionOS could trickle its way into iOS is the updated Apple TV app included with tvOS 17.2. Apple’s new version of the app still features auto-playing videos and large floating posters for shows and movies that can be scrolled, but also has a new floating side menu for navigating through sections and channels of the app. The menu is rounded and slightly see-through, and can grow or shrink depending on where you select, not unlike the menus in visionOS. Maybe this is a sign that Apple views the Vision Pro and Apple TV as similar, or maybe it’s just where the company plans on taking all of its software over time, but it’s noticeably different.

Fresh Blood

VisionOS’ floating, fluid menus would look pretty good on a phone screen.


Opacity and dynamic menus and interface elements would be the most obvious ways iOS could converge on the new ideas the Vision Pro is introducing, but there are subtler aspects of visionOS that might make even more of an impact. Apple littered its headset operating system with dynamic animations, primarily to make navigating with your eyes easier to understand. If you see something wiggle or get highlighted, you start to intuitively learn that you’re looking at it and that you can interact with it.

The bar at the bottom of an app window subtly enlarges when your eyes are on it to indicate that you can pinch it to move the window. If you look at the left or right corner of an app window, a resize window indicator appears. Even sections of the left-sided menu in many apps pop to the front when you’re on them. When visionOS is firing on all cylinders, this creates the illusion that the Vision Pro is almost anticipating what you want to do before you do it. It makes the software feel adaptable, and maybe even artificially intelligent in a way iOS, iPadOS, and macOS aren’t (yet). That feeling, translated to the world of touch, would be very interesting.

Ultimately, with a company as big as Apple, it’s hard to know when changes are signs of a broader strategy or just the taste and opinions of one team of designers and engineers winning out over another. But one thing we can say for certain is that Apple’s design will change. Since Jony Ive left the company in 2019, several of his former design colleagues, like Evans Hankey, and most recently Bart Andre, have also left or retired. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge just walking out the door, but it’s also an opportunity for the creative people working under them to put their influence into Apple’s future products.

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