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Wednesday, Feb 06, 2013 4:47am
Opinion: An Apple iOS UI redesign? Nice, but not essential
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.