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The Burden of iOS (thew.me)
28 points by mthwl on Feb 13, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments

With no offense intended to the author, this post is 500 words of unsubstantiated generalities. Not that it's terribly written. It's just looks more like a preface to an article that contains the actual substance.

The author makes this statement: "...that focus on instruction...has become something of a burden. iOS is pinned down by its early interface decisions..." and doesn't offer one example to back up the claim.

We've heard the 'Apple design is too skeuomorphic' for years now and I just don't see how writing another generic article about it is noteworthy enough to make it the top of HN.

Yet, here I am commenting on it.

EDIT: And another thing! If Apple changed their design philosophy to a less skeuomorphic, more trendy, metro, flat style they would simply be accused of copying Google and Microsoft. Lose, lose.

You're witnessing the evolution of a group-think! It starts off innocently enough, with people stating their opinion on various things, then a couple of opinions become common and coalesce into one, until it is "reality". Then others build off of that truth and the process repeats itself until we have a complete narrative about something that is built upon nothing more than a series of speculative opinions. The internet and social networking in particular are big drivers of group-think; how can you possibly have an opposing opinion when the most retweeted bloggers have established a narrative that contradicts your own?

Here's a speculative opinion of my own that goes against well-established facts as presented in this article: Apple does skeumorphic because Steve Jobs liked it. And when given a choice between designs, he favored the more skeumorphic ones. Designers noticed this and went into that direction. The design community, being overwhelmingly Apple fans, but also liking the flat trend, needed to create a narrative for when Apple was behind the times in design, hence this article.

I truly believe there is some sort of industrial designer's cabal that decides what color schemes will be used that year. Just by looking at the devices in my home I know which year they were designed based on the bezel alone. 2002: white, 2005: gunmetal, 2006-7: piano black, 2009: flat black.

Even in computer GUI design we from the early OSX, XP Luna, candyland overdose to the extremely understated ICS and Windows 8 2D rectangles. I'm not a far of the flat trend but I'm not that hung up on skeumorphisms either. And I still don't understand how Mathias Duarte went from the truly, awesome interface in WebOS to this bland design in Holo. Put them next to each other and you wonder if he was just phoning it in when he got to Google.

It's interesting how this became the groupthink because in the beginning the general opinion was, correctly, negative towards the metro style UI.

The author has clearly never seen a PalmOS device. Outdated now, sure, but they were a massive hit, and everyone - still - knows the platform. Put in its correct perspective - i.e., computers were less ubiquitous during its heyday - the Palm Pilot and its successors were a massive hit. It's a clear case of revisionist history to say that the iPhone is the "first comprehensively successful attempt to create a mass-market, consumer-friendly, always-on, pocketable touch screen computer".

> Put in its correct perspective - i.e., computers were less ubiquitous during its heyday

Now this is some historical revisionism. Palm's "heyday" was the late 1990s through the early 2000s. Computers were already extremely ubiquitous at that time. Laptops weren't quite as common, but the dream of "a computer on every desk and in every home" had long-since been achieved in developed nations.

> the Palm Pilot and its successors were a massive hit.

Relative to what came before it, but not what came after. Palm's PDAs were very much still a niche market when smartphones came along and made them irrelevant. In 2003-2004, PDAs (across all brands) sold about 2.6 million units[1]. This was probably the peak, but I can't confirm that. Three years later the iPhone launched and Apple sold 6.1 million units of the 1st generation[2]. Just last quarter they sold 47.8 million iPhones[3].

> It's a clear case of revisionist history to say that the iPhone is the "first comprehensively successful attempt to create a mass-market, consumer-friendly, always-on, pocketable touch screen computer".

No, it's clear that the iPhone's sales absolutely dwarf those of Palm. Relatively speaking, Palm was not a "successful attempt to create a mass-market ... touch screen computer". Even current BlackBerry sales absolutely dwarf Palm's best-ever sales rates[4].

[1] http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9004592

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone_(original)

[3] http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2013/01/23Apple-Reports-Reco...

[4] http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/research-in-motion-r...

The author also forgot about the apple newton, their previous attempt at a handheld computer.


I really hope this is the year we realize that debating about skeutomorphism is a waste of time. Whatever its merits, I'd like to hear about a single case where an anti-skeutomorphic design was elemental in disrupting a market leader. I've been using a prime example, Ableton Live, for the better part of a decade, and while it's done well, it hasn't exactly left highly skeutomorphic competitors like Reason in the dust or enabled stunning usability breakthroughs. If skeutomorphism is not actually that important in the market, then let's just acknowledge that we're talking about personal taste more than anything.

It would be great if this article provided some examples of outdated UI elements so that we can have a discussion of alternatives.

The camera UI, for example, has been updated in iOS 6. Holdovers from years ago might include the UINavigationBars and the status bar but they've also been subtly updated and themselves don't seem too outdated. Any good examples?

Author here. Thanks for the feedback.

I didn't intend this to be a comprehensive argument, just wanted to draw some connection between the environment that iOS launched into and (what feels like) a lot of recent criticism of its design and behavior. Not specifically skuemorphism (which I realize isn't really worth debating in a vacuum, maybe I shouldn't even have used that word), but just instructive design in general (single-screen apps, limits on configurability, etc). Anything that can be seen as prioritizing teaching the user through interface decisions.

And, I completely agree that the market for new smartphone users is still huge. Point being that iOS now has to manage that market alongside the market for existing smartphones users (which it help create/grow).

That said, probably should have included some specific examples of what I was talking about.

Thanks again.

My dad is a baby boomer, and hasn't touched a computer for over fifteen years. I just sent my parents my old iPhone and he hasn't put it down. Within an hour of unboxing it, he was facetiming, looking stuff up online, listening to podcasts... There are still a _lot_ of new users out there.

It's an interesting claim to say that iOS has aged poorly. I tend to agree that the use of skeumorphic design does make the standard apps look a bit out-of-date, but is that really a problem? How many powerusers are really bothered by this? If you don't like the Podcast app, just get Downcast. If you don't like Calendar, just get Fantastical. And using your claim that skeumorphism helps smartphone newcomers adopt the platform more easily, isn't the current situation a sort of a win-win for the iOS ecosystem? Newcomers get an easy entry and more versatile users can enjoy the great results of third-party developers.

It would be much less of a problem if iOS allowed one to actually replace stock apps with new ones. There's no way to make GMail my default mail app, Chrome my default browser, etc.

Lack of intents is also a serious problem, apps have to specifically support sharing to each source.

A related issue is the lack of system accounts. One has to log in to each app separately, even if many of them use the same account.

Oh, there are a lot of serious problems with iOS. After 3 years on the platform, you start to see that restriction-based badness all over the place. But one shouldn't forget that Apple has built an incredible product with one of the most secure OSs in the world and offers one of the best UI SDKs available. Those facts alone make me want to cut Apple some slack from being such assholes when allowing users to make more low-level decisions.

On the other hand Android allows nonsensical sharing options - there's no way to launch the email app, you have launch a ACTION_SEND_MULTIPLE which will launch Skype, or GMail or Mail or various IM apps.

And why should the developer have to care if I want to send something via Gmail, Skype, or carrier pigeon? As long as Android abstracts the data properly within the Intent, the target app should be irrelevant.

That's true, but the Android approach for accomplishing it is kind of horrible. For one, far too many apps respond to message types that don't really make sense to me. I don't know that this problem is avoidable with freedom, but the lists of available apps for any particular action are often long and very confusing.

I have witnessed this confusion with users, and it really hurts the platform in a lot of cases, IMO.

I can select one to be the default "always", but this doesn't work well either. If there are five applications that can receive a particular intent, my selection of "always" will be lost every single time that ANY of those five applications are updated. So, in practice, my "Always" selection typically only lasts a couple of weeks.

There HAS to be a better way.

I'm not sure you're correct here. A developer can specify a particular package to launch Gmail or the stock mail app, something like:

Intent intent = new Intent(Intent.ACTION_VIEW); intent.setPackage("com.adobe.reader");

Would open the adobe pdf reader for instance.

That said this is hardly desirable from a users perspective.

There are two arguments in this article: 1) skeumorphic design, 2) does teach the user how to use the hardware

Both 1) and 2) are pretty OK in my opinion.

This blog post should be titled "Skeumorphism is Holding Back iOS UI". At least that way readers could see the clear lack of evidence.

There may be a growing anti-skeumorphic trend on the Internet, but I could reasonably imagine most iPhone users either being okay with skeumorphism, or frankly, not caring at all.

Agree. Most iPhone users don't care at all. This non-issue sounds to me like a designer who has gotten tired of the look of iOS. Which is fine, but don't make it sound like a technical issue with the platform.

The author's big miss, IMO, is discarding the number of design choices that may appear to be aimed at helping new users, but also simplify mobile use-cases (big tap targets, one clear way to get from A to B) and prevent the accumulation of detritus and the effects user self-sabotage, that tend to accumulate on PCs and Android devices.

iOS remaining large problems (no 'services', no way to change defaults, awkward inter-app workflows) are unrelated to 'teachability' of the core interface, as they're almost all concerns that only crop up for power-users or normal users who are months or years into their new device.

And they're solvable even if Apple clings to the big candy-like buttons, no widgets, skeumorphic app design, etc. So that bit is neither here nor there.

There's nothing wrong with skeuomorphism when it informs the user, the problem is when the skeuomorphism imposes limitations and lack of clarity.

For example, on iOS the dialer is fine, the podcast app sucks.

How is iOS less modern than it's competitors? This article lacked examples.

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