The Burden Of Apple iOS

When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, it released iPhone OS (later known as iOS) with it. The device and the operating system necessitated each other. The two were birthed into the world together on the same stage.

The industrial design of Apple's new phone was a drastic departure from other mobile devices at that time. The input method was entirely touch based, eschewing the then-accepted truth that physical buttons were the only productive and reliable interface. The operating system was, for many of its users, and introduction to direct manipulation in interface design.

The hardware decisions they chose to make were both forward thinking and full of risk. In that way, the physical design of the phone was a concerted bet on their own ability to produce software that could excel at driving it.

By 2007 (really, much earlier), mobile phones were already ubiquitously successful. But, smartphones weren't really selling in large numbers. With the release of the original iPhone, Apple displayed the first comprehensively successful attempt to create a mass-market, consumer-friendly, always-on, pocketable touch screen computer.

And in doing so Apple had created for itself the difficult charge of teaching the consumer how to a use such a device. Its design of the system software, in its early days, was informed by the assumption that most users would be arriving at their device limited knowledge of how to use it. The iPhone's software was designed to introduce its hardware.

iOS will celebrate its sixth birthday this year. It has evolved impressively from its beginnings. But since those beginnings it has carried the weight of having to teach its users. It needed to both function and to instruct.

Today, that focus on instruction, which was at one time a marked advantage for iOS, has become something of a burden. iOS is pinned down by its early interface decisions. Decisions that were made to help users relate older, physical ideas to this new, touch-driven software platform.

Many of the skeuomorphic tendencies in iOS that bring derision from critics today, were the same instructive design decisions that helped bridge the industry from physical buttons to touch screens. And Apple's loyalty to those decisions has left them with a mobile operating system which feels decidedly less modern than its peers.

Apple's hardware execution, its iterations on the iPhone, has been focused and tremendously successful. But, the perception that its mobile OS has aged poorly is a growing one. With many consumers now shopping for their second (or third) smartphone, iOS's instructive conventions can appear restrictive and simplistic.

Six years after creating a product category and teaching the world how to use it, Apple's mobile operating system now exists in a world full of people who understand how to use it (and devices like it). Moving forward, iOS has the difficult task of adapting to this new world from a position of strength in the old one.

To be more clear, I'm not broadly arguing against instructive interface design here. Just trying to note that a lot of the criticism aimed at iOS's current design trends seems to be oddly disconnected from the praise that was heaped onto those same design trends just a few years back.


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Comments

    "iOS will celebrate its sixth birthday this year. It has evolved impressively from its beginnings."

    Hahahah... no. iOS was great in 2007 because it was the only good-looking and largely hiccup-free mobile OS. iOS's improvements since then have been made despite Apple, not because of them via 3rd party devs and their great apps. The base OS has evolved at a snail's pace with basic 'table stakes' features like notification centre and voice control needing full version updates instead of inclusion in point upgrades. iOS 6 is almost the same beast as 2.

      Hahaha.

    And the examples of those 'burdens' are?

      Lack of integration throughout applications, generally everything needs a separate app and that slows usage down.
      Very little information on the home screen.

    Today, that focus on instruction, which was at one time a marked advantage for iOS, has become something of a burden. iOS is pinned down by its early interface decisions.

    For an article about how iOS is a burden, the article doesn't really say how its legacy it is holding it back.

    I'm struggling to think of things Android for instance has that iOS couldn't incorporate if Apple wanted to. Widgets is the big one that jumps out, but that could certainly be worked into the existing interface if they wanted to, either on the lock screen or another screen of some sort. Other major differences such as NFC and the like don't seem to be features that iOS would create issues implementing. Big differences in the past such as the notification center were previously implemented in iOS, so whats missing?

    I realise WP8 has some design decisions that perhaps would be harder to bring across...but I'm not sure the market has been jumping in that direction either; nor do I think Apple or Google really need to go the MS route.

      It does have a notiication centre make no mistake, and it did add weather, facebook and stocks which could be handy. But not only is Android's notification centre is better integrated, and emphasised more in the OS, it's extras are more relevant like quick settings, changing brightness, turning off wifi etc.
      iOS couldn't incoroprate everything Android has. Stuff like a variety of phones, with a variety of sizes, specs, features and skins. It would never let you download apps outside the App Store or be able to torrent, run emulators etc. In other words, iOS won't incorporate the variety and freedom Android has.

        None of what you listed isn't technically feasible, they are all decisions Apple has made and likely would continue to make. If they completely overhauled iOS, it is likely those restrictions would still be in place. They aren't issues brought about by iOS's legacy, but rather Apples legacy and general perspective on computing where they believe a walled off approach is best. Maybe some will say that is the burden, I'm sure many will completely disagree.

        The OS does also support devices of multiple specs and sizes. They have multiple sized iphones across three different display resolutions, as well as the two different iPad resolution options.

          So in short... Bobs right?

            No. If you want to go that route, then it's Apple holding iOS back, not iOS holding Apple back.

          That is what the article is saying. iOS should stop being so instructional for new users and should be moved forward.

    The ever-growing rally against skeumorphic user interfaces is, in my opinion, missing the point somewhat. Here's why.

    Before touch screens, pretty much the only way of interacting with consumer computers was through a keyboard and a mouse. The mouse is most often represented onscreen by something very pointy, which suits the components found in the user interfaces on PCs. Take for example, the radio button you find in HTML web pages and even thick client programs: it feels natural to click this with a mouse because the pointer size is precise enough to hit it accurately (if not easily). On a touch screen, however, a standard HTML radio button feels very unnatural for the user, because we're trying to touch this tiny thing with our big fat fingers.

    The thing is, on a touch screen we're removing the barrier between the input device and the user interface. There IS NO mouse pointer mainly because it's not needed and the user just touches the interface directly. So things like radio buttons are more natural as a semi-real-world object like a button, or a segmented button control as seen in some mobile operating systems.

    And that's the key point, because the user is directly interacting with the user interface, then having the interface take on the appearance and behaviour of a real world counterpart means that the OS is taking better advantage of the touch screen capabilities. Why wouldn't you want an ebook app to have the effect of the paper page turning when you drag the page with your finger? It makes perfect sense, because the user is so much closer to the interface. There's certainly a point at which you can use this sort of thing too much, or for the wrong reasons (e.g. a rotary dial phone interface makes no sense beyond an initial gimmick), but I don't think iOS is anywhere near going overboard with skeumorphism.

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