Is iOS7 really taking us back to the future?
As is the case with most things Apple, last week’s iOS7 launch led to polarizing reactions from the tech world at large – and whether you loved the new operating system to bits or hated its guts, you will likely find it hard to ignore all the ado. Apart from the fact that it was launched by Apple in their widely-followed annual Worldwide Developer Conference week; the key reason behind all the negative / positive hullabaloo is that this is not just any visual revamp – this is an intentional, and paradigm shift in design philosophy made by a company that is synonymous with great design and one that can rightfully be referred to as a pioneer that introduced aesthetics to the world of technology.
I do believe that Apple introduced the concept of design to everybody from the top to the bottom of the value chain in technology. Apple made consumers realize that Hey, a gadget can actually not be clunky and cumbersome and can actually look good – something that had never occurred to us as an option earlier. And most importantly, like the famous Steve Jobs quote goes – Apple taught us that Design wasn’t merely the way a product looked, but it was the way a product worked.
Having said that, I must confess – I am not an iAddict, nor am I anti-Apple. I’m fairly Apple-agnostic and choose to rely on the trio of innovation, user experience and actual value as my yardsticks for assessing new technologies and tech products. As a technophile marketer, I may look at the brand name to marvel / frown at how far the brand has come (or not) in terms of Innovation, and as a consumer, I may look at the brand name as a mark of reliability before actually investing in the product. But I do try to not let the brand name stop me from calling a spade a spade.
Which brings me to my thoughts on iOS7, and Apple’s determined step away from the design philosophy they swore by up until now – Digital Skeuomorphism. Apple’s design strategy was developed with an astute awareness of the nascence of the touch-screen smartphone industry. Apple in its strategic brilliance was aware that with the iPhone, they also had to take upon themselves the task of ensuring audiences got comfortable with all the new icons on the display screen in their hands, and could easily find their way around on their devices without the technology getting in the way (Another quote from Jobs). While a very valid albeit challenging goal to meet at the time – it was what birthed Apple’s strategy to go with digital skeuomorphism; which essentially involved designing icons that were easy to decipher and looked exactly like the real-world, physical objects they were meant to replace. (For instance, the ‘Notes’ App icon looked exactly like a Notepad, and so on.) The skeuomorphed icons added a dash of familiarity to an otherwise alien interface.
And this proved to be a uber-successful choice for Apple then, one that not only made adoption of the iPhone easier for technophiles and technophobes alike, but also introduced a new dimension (and color!) to what had been accepted as a two-dimensional visual landscape. iOS creator Scott Forstall as well as the late Steve Jobs himself were known to be passionate proponents of Skeuomorphism.
But is there a chance Jobs and Forstall went too far in their pet project of visual renderings of real-life objects? Probably yes. After all, there were some designs in the Apple skeuomorphic suite that did stick out like sore thumbs in the Apple scheme of simplicity and elegance; on account of being a little too elaborate and rich (and borderline cheesy!). I mean, just look at the icon for the Game Center – green felt and lacquered wood? Really?!
As a contrast, iOS7 aims to get back to the basics with flat designs and revamped icons. Between iOS6 and 7, the design differences are easily noticeable and the texture differences are definitely stark. The figure below features a great comparison tool, from the desk of Belgium-based design student Niel (Twitter: @pawsupforu), via Time Magazine’s Techland.
Is iOS7 an earth-shattering development? I’m not sure it is. While I don’t hate the new iOS7 look, the Fisher-Pricey scheme of things stops me from liking it too much. There, I said it. Heck, my two-year old nephew has a toy phone that could pass off as the inspiration behind iOS7 – not kidding. The bright, fuschiously vibrant color scheme has sparked off many an internet meme, the most entertaining one being this one. That said, I’m not a designer, so I don’t want to sound like I’m biting off more than I can chew – but here’s a professional opinion specifically on the design elements of iOS7. Yes, design is a subjective thing and everyone is entitled to their own opinions; but if you go strictly by Steve Job’s own definition of it (see Para 2 above) – iOS7 leaves a lot to be desired.
Sure, it has cool interface improvements like a parallax view of the home screen (which lets a background image move around slightly while icons remain in place above it), swooshing transition animations, intuitive lock screens and transparent overlays. But unfortunately (for Apple) – there are other phones that have been doing that stuff (and more) for a while now. So does that mean that WWDCs are henceforth going to be only about tactics to level the playing field disrupted by some other player? Since when did Apple stop being the disrupter themselves?
Before I come across as a certified iRanter, let me state the key thing I want from the next iOS, in advance: All I want from the next iOS is more control. Maybe I’d like a search widget on my phone home screen. Maybe, a real-time RSS feed from Twitter. Maybe I’d like to change the static dock to feature the apps I actually access more often. Maybe I’d like the ability to choose my own default browser. Or maybe, I’d really like using a Swype keyboard on my phone (allowing me to swype through the keyboard as opposed to punching one key at a time). I’d like to at least have the option to make those tweaks, whether I exercise it or not. It is MY phone after all. I want it to “think different”, and be more of me, than of Apple. Too tall an order? Shouldn’t be so, right?
I’ve loved my iDevices for the sleek hardware and reliable software – I still sorta do. But from a competitive strategy perspective, both those competencies are now the stuff that is anyway expected of any smart device worth its salt. They’re necessary for succeeding in the market, but not sufficient anymore. Agreed, it was very much an Apple core competency to get the magical hardware + software combination right, but other players have started getting it right too.
Proponents of iOS7 and hardcore iFans have welcomed the end of skeuomorphism by saying it was redundant as it was the solution to a problem that Apple no longer has. While that may be true (and while I’m aware iOS7 is not just about skeuomorphism and also aims at providing a new user experience), I do tend to believe that the irony of iOS7 in turn is dual: A. It fails to address the problem(/s?) Apple actually has; and B. The bottle may have changed and become prettier (debatable adjective, perhaps!) – but the wine is sadly more or less the same.