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Opinion: An Apple iOS UI redesign? Nice, but not essential

updated 04:47 am EST, Wed February 6, 2013

Is iOS really in need of a complete revamp?

One of the issues that some people seem to have with Apple's five-year old iOS mobile operating system is that it has not fundamentally changed since it was introduced in 2007. As a regular iOS user over that period of time, I have to confess that I am one of those that have become bored with its sameness. However, that does not make it fundamentally less effective or efficient than it was when it was first unveiled.

I maintain the view that Apple's iOS offers the most utility of any mobile operating system, and this remains its greatest strength. It is extremely easy to use and is rock solid from a stability and security standpoint. When it first arrived on the scene in 2007, it blew away the competition with both its beauty and what it offered as a smartphone experience. RIM, for one, couldn't believe it was real. Those rows of shiny high-resolution icons have, ironically, taken on an iconic status; the iPhone homescreen is instantly recognizable the world over. It is no wonder Apple has been reticient to mess with this winning formula.

To this outstanding, OS X-based foundation, Apple has gradually introduced additional features favoring stability and usability over the pace of change. The addition of iCloud in late 2011 helped to build out the iOS/iTunes/App Store ecosystem with all the advantages of cloud services. Users are no longer tied to their Mac or PC and have the option to access their content and previously purchased apps through the cloud. All of this has been very much a part of what makes the iOS experience. It has been a substantial change and evolution of the platform, but it has largely taken place behind the scenes.

Google's Android arrived on the scene around a year after the iPhone, after its original BlackBerry-like UI metamorphosed into a multi-touch OS. Since its debut, Google has touted its 'openess' as a selling point, as well as its customizability. We have been able to enjoy its development over time in full public view, watching it develop and become better with each iteration. However, there is no question that its early versions were buggy, which led to some people unkindly referring to it as a 'perpetual beta.' Getting Android into the market early helped to ensure that it became a player, especially while Microsoft fumbled the ball with late arrival of Windows Phone 7.

It is safe to say that from Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' onwards, Android began to mature into a first-class mobile operating system. It is easily the most customizable mobile OS, which has been both a strength and a weakness. This makes it somewhat less easy to use for the average user, while it also resulted in the fragmentation of the platform with many different versions of the OS on the market. Unless you buy a Google Nexus device, you cannot be guaranteed that you will receive a timely update to the latest version of Android.

Part of the reason that iOS has not changed as much as Android is that most of its UI development took place behind closed doors, well away from the public gaze. We already know that iOS as it first appeared on the iPhone in 2007 was originally developed for the iPad. Being the perfectionist the late Steve Jobs was, it should not be surprising that when iOS released it was already highly evolved from a fundamental UI perspective. The way it works may seem obvious now, but there is nothing obvious about great design. It takes hard work, trial and error, and constant refinement to get there.

It is said that 'familiarity breeds contempt', and I believe that iOS is suffering from this. Yet, as an operating system and UI, it still delivers just about everything one could want from a mobile OS on an everyday basis for the vast majority of users. Hundreds of thousands of apps helps to ensure this. Furthermore, the vast majority of users don't really care what their OS looks like - the unexpected longevity of Windows XP is indicative of this - it gets the job done. iOS remains slick, and functional, while the failure of Windows Phone 7 and 8 to gain market traction highlights that flashy design and cool animations do not necessarily equate to success.

Despite this, Apple has set the stage for an iOS UI overhaul. The surprise dumping of iOS boss Scott Forstall late last year following the Maps debacle and the appointment Senior VP of Industrial Design Jony Ive to oversee UI design for iOS and Mac OS X is testimony to this. Like many iOS users, I am really looking forward to what Jony Ive and his team at Apple come up with. A new design and look for iOS will be nice (as will the banishment of skeumorphism), but in many ways it is not essential from the perspective of pure functionality.

By Sanjiv Sathiah

The views are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of MacNN/Electronista.




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Comments

  1. Steve Wilkinson

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-19-01

    Strength not weakness...

    That is a strength, not weakness. Like you noted, a lot of hard work went into it. Unless something it wrong with it, or you have to change it to add new functionality, it is best to keep it the same. The MacOS is a great example. It has stayed largely unchanged for decades (or at least, when at it's best, as little as possible). Criticism of it, as of late, IS BECAUSE it has been changed in odd ways that don't seem necessary. (A great example is some of the skeumorphism.... notebook, um, OK... tape deck, seriously? etc.)

    Where iOS DOES need work is more behind the scenes. For example, the whole app-centric, 'no file system' (available to the user) needs a serious re-think! It is iOS's biggest flaw. Apple always prided itself on the OS being accessible to new users, while not hampering experienced users. iOS, too often, is accessible to new users, but DOES hamper experienced users. 'No file system' works great for a dozen documents, not hundreds or thousands. Users organize by project, not application (and I don't think that's just an old habit I've not broken yet).

    I think most people screaming for change and customization are either tech-geeks, who just see this as a 'feature' missing from Apple's list, but haven't really thought it through. Or, they are bored kids who just have nothing better to do or complain about. As you say, it gets the job done. That's why I have a mobile device... not as a fashion statement I feel I need to tweak to my heart's delight.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by Steve WilkinsonView Post

    The MacOS is a great example. It has stayed largely unchanged for decades (or at least, when at it's best, as little as possible).



    Oh boy, somebody missed the OS X transition. :P

    (The thalo wars of MacFixit in the early 2000s were legendary and brought a number of us over to this forum and others. Keywords "lickable" and "happy horseshit".)

  1. Grendelmon

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 12-26-07

    Here's an idea

    -Drop the asinine "me too" features such as Facebook/Twitter action buttons
    -From an iPad's perspective, iOS desperately needs a file manager
    -Multiple user support

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    I'm Fine with the Facebook, I agree on the other two.

    Though a file manager of the kind we're used to (Finder, Explorer) is too complex and needs to be re-thought for iPad. From the looks of it, they're working on that (recent acquisition of technology for file management/sharing seem to point that way).

  1. abnyc

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-28-00

    file manager and multiple user support

    correct

  1. Inkling

    Dedicated MacNNer

    Joined: 07-25-06

    A Disturbing Trend

    The comments about iOS needing file management capabilities is right on. I opted to get an iPad rather than a MacBook Air in part because, with Scrivener preparing an iOS version, I could use for on-the-go writing at half the price of a MBA and twice the battery life. But I wonder if I'll get frustrated with some of the iOS limitations. Already, I do Dropbox management on my desktop rather than on my iPad. If I'm on a trip, I can't do that.

    Personally, I'm far more worried about indications that Apple moving in directions that effectively conceal the file system from OS X users. Hiding the user's library folder is one example. Another is that the App Store and Apple are dumping every single app--and I have many dozens--into the root Application folder. When I forget the name of a little used application, finding it becomes almost impossible.

    Apple should be encouraging apps to have a subfolder as their home. Give developers a dozen or so categories for apps, and insist that they specify which theirs is to be placed in. Dragged into the Application folder, those apps would automatically go into their proper subfolder.

    Apple already does something like that, although without the automation, with its Utilities folder. If a separate subfolder is good enough for some Apple apps, it should be good enough for other apps.

    My work-around has been to create categories of folders with aliases to the apps I use most. But that's trouble to set up and only includes apps I use often. That's not good. With more and more apps becoming available for OS X, we need better ways to manage them. Searching with Spotlight doesn't work if you don't know the name.

    Having Spotlight search and display those categories would also be a plus. Apple already does that on a limited basis. Searching for iCal gives me Calendar. Searching for Productivity gives me both Apple apps like Preview and Calendar, it surprisingly it also gives me PDFPen Pro and 1Password. But it's not consistent. Searching for Photo only gives me apps with Photo in their name.

  1. pairof9s

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 01-03-08

    agree on suggestions

    - file mgr (but simplified compared to OS X)
    - multi-user
    - more customization of UI (simply having control on icon/text sizing would be nice)

    But agree that the iOS was such a great design that it need not require the changes seen in Android and Windows Phone...the fact that they copied large parts of its UI and functionality for their OS should signify the excellence with which Apple brought to market in iOS.

    /

  1. Geoduck

    Junior Member

    Joined: 01-14-10

    Tweeking

    Overall I like thew way iOS is now. I would like them to let us customize it a bit more:
    The ability to hide the search screen. I never use it, the only time I end up there is when I go one screen too far to the left. I know others use it but I don't and would rather they let me hide it.
    The ability to custom arrange my icons. I'd like to leave a blank row between my Twitter, Tumblr, and weather apps and my CBC/MPR?Radio Australia apps. Right now I can't. Maybe I want to have my apps arranged along the edges of the screen with the middle clear so I can see my special someone's face or Domino's phone number on my wallpaper. Right now I can't do that.
    Lastly, the ability to, if not delete, at least hide Apple's standard apps. I have a folder of Apps I simply don't want and can't remove because they came stock. My company BlackBerry (yuck) three years ago let my hide apps I didn't want to see, why can't I do that in iOS?
    Overall though I like iOS. Just a few tweaks would make it better though.

  1. Lifeisabeach

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 05-25-10

    @ Inkling: App subfolders in OS X

    It's still perfectly possible to move your apps in OS X to subfolders, but it does require modifying the permissions on those apps. Obviously that's not a good option for everyone, but Apple rolled out the Launchpad feature that mimics the iOS screen specifically so people could categorize their apps without moving them in Finder. I don't use Launchpad myself since I find Spotlight much faster at finding and launching my apps anyway, but Apple does provide it as an option.

  1. bdmarsh

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 02-17-06

    Tweaks not major changes

    It is also my opinion that most of the iOS interface is pretty good, but I wouldn't mind seeing a few tweaks here and there:
    - I do think the iPad needs a multi-user ability since it tends to be shared within a family like a computer is.
    - A limited "Live Tile" option... no flashing icons, but to allow something like the weather apps to show the current temp would be nice (either through timed update, or push) The extra processing power of the newer chips should allow this to happen - I'm glad they didn't try to do it earlier.
    - I do like GeoDucks suggestion of having a grid where you can leave some spots blank (or entire rows in the middle of the screen)
    - Some way of through gestures to change apps on the phones instead of having to use the home button.
    - More options for selective wipes for businesses so they could securely wipe your email and work provided apps without affecting your personal ones. (Although I personally just make sure I backup every day or two just in case I lose my phone... and most important data is cloud synced to other things like my computer)

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by bdmarshView Post

    - Some way of through gestures to change apps on the phones instead of having to use the home button.



    Too fiddly on such a small screen. Not going to happen.

  1. panjandrum

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-01-04

    I know!

    I just had a "eureka" moment! What Apple should do is take many of the great features of the Mac OS, like it's mouse-centric interface, and bring those "back to iOS!" Just think how amazingly magically cool it will be to have all those Mac-like functions wedged right on top of the touch-based UI. WOW. That'll be great. Really.

  1. wrenchy

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 11-03-09

    re: Tweeking

    I agree with Geoduck with regards to greater customization. The iOS UI is getting a bit dated and boring, especially for those young ones that want to customize things their way. They want to see something new and refreshing. Apple's one size fit's all approach does not sit well with the power user/customizer types. Apple should allow greater customization options for those that want it.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by panjandrumView Post

    I just had a "eureka" moment! What Apple should do is take many of the great features of the Mac OS, like it's mouse-centric interface, and bring those "back to iOS!" Just think how amazingly magically cool it will be to have all those Mac-like functions wedged right on top of the touch-based UI. WOW. That'll be great. Really.



    Yeah! Awesome! It'll be a concept just like the Surface! Instant success, none of the drawbacks of either platform, and 100% pure benefits!

    Just like the Surface...!

  1. JEB

    Junior Member

    Joined: 05-06-01

    I have no problem with it...

    ...works fine for me.

  1. qazwart

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-10-01

    Big difference between iOS and Android

    The big thing about iOS is the apps and not the OS. In Android, there are millions of customizations. There are various vendor frontends and all sorts of tweaks for your "Home Screen". However, iOS has always been about the apps and not the desktop, and I like it that way.

    There are some needed changes:

    * There should be a limited mode -- a kiddy corner that will allow kids to play select games without being able to change any settings or apps.
    * There needs a better sharing mechanism in order to share documents between applications and between users -- even non-iCloud users. I don't know if you want a full file browser. But, there should be a way for me to go into Pages and say "Allow Bob to read this document" or "Allow Carol to edit this document".
    * A way to set the brightness without going into settings? Com'on, we can do that with the volume.
    * Some sort of dual application mode. I don't mind running one app at a time. But, moving information between documents is a bit tedious with the select, copy, paste, go back and select, copy, paste.
    * A way to select text and move the cursor from the keyboard. Several developers have had some neat ideas about this.

  1. graxspoo

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 11-22-08

    Dated

    The iPhone UI is definitely looking a bit dated. Here are my top wishes:
    *Different sized icons. Some apps are used more frequently, so you should be able to make the icons larger.
    *Widgets. This could be done in a way that doesn't kill battery life.
    *Widgets on the lock screen. Users should have a lot more control over what they see just by turning the phone on.
    *Ability to hide or delete build-in apps. While we're at it, why not allow 'hiding' any app, then have an 'all apps' list (like Android) where you could launch, or un-hide from?
    *Better app switching. I've never liked the "double press the home button" for switching. There should be an alternate gesture, like swiping up from the very bottom (edge swipes are becoming standard on other platforms). It would be neat to display the running apps like mini-screens with the ability to pinch-zoom to take a peak at the last running state without actually going full-screen with it.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Gestures on the iPhone are fiddly and probably not going to happen. They already work fine on the iPad.

  1. Steve Wilkinson

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-19-01

    Who me?

    @ Spheric Harlot - No, I didn't miss anything. I was a Mac consultant for nearly a decade before OSX came along. While much changed, the UI really didn't all that much. It hasn't been until recently that Apple seems to be abandoning some of the things they learned through painstaking research... much of which brought and kept folks like me on the platform. If I'm understanding your comments, what you're referring to is LOOK, not OPERATION.

  1. jscotta

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-30-02

    File system

    Meh. If you want a file system, you have it on iOS via Box.net or DropBox. They work great.

    The people with their "boring", "long in the tooth" comments needs to a PSP or something that they can play with. Or, more seriously, just move to Android and spend your time modding your phone. I prefer to use mine for what it is intended for – not some artistic endeavors on the Home screen.

    Are there improvements that can be made to iOS? Absolutely! However, most of the stuff cited by the posters in the blog comments on various sites are childish "I'm bored, Mom" comments. Useless.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by Steve WilkinsonView Post

    If I'm understanding your comments, what you're referring to is LOOK, not OPERATION.



    No.
    A couple of examples:

    1.) the switch to a non-spatial Finder is a fundamental interface change. Simply being able to have a single folder open in two windows simultaneously breaks one of the basic tenets of the Mac Finder interface.
    It used to be that when you had a folder open in a window, and you had the parent folder shown in list view, simply clicking on the disclosure triangle for the sub-folder to show its contents in the list would close that folder's window in the background.
    The shift has been to more effective hierarchy management (see column view), while the original Finder was never designed with a deep hierarchy in mind (again, Finder 0.9 allowed for a single layer of folders — just like iOS).

    2.) Full-screen mode breaks so many basic principles of Macintosh that I really don't feel like going over them again here, unless they're really not clear.

    3.) The Dock.

    4.) The restructuring of menus to a real, sensible hierarchy ("System/user-related" - "Application-related" - "Document/Window-related" - "Relating to the selection within the current document/window", a.k.a. Apple menu - application menu - File menu - Edit menu.)

    Those four alone are absolutely central to the Mac experience.

    I'm not knocking these developments, mind you (especially 2. and 4. are tremendous improvements), but they are quite fundamental, and go FAR deeper than "looks".

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