The biggest story for Apple right now is that it is said to be on the cusp of redesigning the look of iOS, which is the software that powers iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.
If Apple doesn’t do more than just superficially update the way iOS looks, it puts itself at risk of seriously falling behind Android.
The new iOS look will be “flatter,” supposedly abandoning the familiar design style that made the iPhone multi-billion success. Instead of glossy icons and images that mimic real life objects, Apple’s design will become simpler, more minimal.
Jony Ive, the company’s hardware design god, is leading the changes. He’s the man who helped revitalize Apple by creating gorgeous hardware like the iMac, iPod, and iPhone.
In an executive shake up last year, CEO Tim Cook put him in charge of the look and feel of iOS, booting long time iOS leader Scott Forstall.
Ive’s flavour of minimalism, which is present in each sleek gadget Apple sells, is said to be coming to Apple’s software.
A crisp new haircut, some new shoes, trimmed nails and a shower could make iOS sexier, and it is welcomed, but what Apple really needs to do is to overhaul how the operating system works.
The operating system has seen a variety of incremental updates since it was first introduced. For the most part, these updates have kept it ahead of Android. However, the gap between iOS and Android is increasingly narrow.
While it’s nice that iOS is going to get a design overhaul that goes for the “minimal” look and not a “realistic” one, it’s not essential. Apple’s real iOS problems have very little to do with look and feel. The biggest flaws with iOS involve the core functionality of the operating system and Apple’s native applications.
Making iOS look different is merely a fresh layer of paint. Making it work better requires a much greater effort. It’s unclear if Ive can or will, address these issues.
The iPhone’s software, while excellent, struggles in a number of areas.
Every single one of Apple’s built-in applications has been outdone by a third-party developer:
- Google Maps is better than Apple Maps. It’s better for search, it has transit directions, and it’s generally more precise.
- Evernote is better than Notes. Evernote syncs brilliantly across the web. It does photos, audio, and third parties can build into it.
- Camera+ is better than Camera. There are more shooting modes, editing of photos is better.
- Fantastical beats Calendar. The layout is better, and it’s easier to add events.
- Weather Channel beats Weather app. It’s more robust, more up to date.
There’s more, but you get the idea. The reason these applications are better than what Apple offers has little to do with looks. It’s all about function.
There are other creaks in Apple’s operating system.
- The Weather app’s icon is stuck with 73 degrees and sunshine. It should be able to update in real-time, reflecting the actual weather.
- When new notifications pop up on the screen, they cover your content. Josh Topolsky at The Verge pointed out how annoying these notifications can be. An example of this: In the morning, I check my email and I get dozens of notifications rolling at the top of my phone. I can’t operate the top of the iPhone while those notifications take over my phone.
- The settings menu needs work. It takes way too many steps to turn on and off blue tooth, or WiFi. Adjusting what appears in the notification centre takes too much effort.
- The notification centre is great, but still needs work. To clear items you have to hit a tiny space twice. And there is no “clear all” option, like there is in Android.
And then, there’s the big stuff, like search.
Searching through email is still horrendous on the iPhone. It can’t search your message, making it weak compared to Google’s Gmail app.
Searching in Apple Maps needs a major upgrade. Apple’s Maps struggle with context.
Search is not something a person who just understands design can fix. It’s about algorithms and data. It takes years, and millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to understand and fix the problem.
Siri is another area of Apple’s operating system that needs more than a design tweak. It needs a complete re-thinking. It’s just not useful as presently constructed.
Google Now is a better version of Siri. It’s a true personal assistant. In Siri, you have to ask for directions home. With Google Now, Google does its best to just have directions home already prepared. Google Now also gives you sports scores without asking. It gives you weather without asking. It basically has the information ready to go.
The good news is that Apple appears to know it has big problems to solve with iOS.
On Twitter, Apple reporter Mark Gurman tweeted cryptically, “there’s more stuff that hasn’t come out yet,” when I tweeted, “I think iOS needs functionality update, not just a looks update.”
Microsoft’s former Windows boss Steven Sinofsky also chimed in on Twitter. There was a report saying that Ive taking over iOS could lead to some delays. Sinofsky seemed to hint that if there are delays, it means Apple is tweaking usability of iOS, not just design.
Pixels, it seems, are easily rearranged. Core functions are not.