What Apple needs to do now
Update, 10 June 2013: Vindicated!
I’ve been in San Francisco for a day or so, on my way up to O’Reilly’s Foo Camp. This in itself is already happy-making, but when I found myself jetlagged and wide-awake in yesterday’s dawny gloaming and realized where I was (three blocks from the flagship Apple Store) and what day it was (!!), my schedule for the day was foreordained.
I performed quick ablutions, picked up a tall coffee to go, and met free-at-last Tom Coates a little after six in the morning, on what was already a nontrivial line. Lots of free energy drinks, doughnuts, and burritos and eight hours later, I was ushered into The Presence; after the usual provisioning and activation hassles, I left the store with a gorgeous, brand-spankin’-new iPhone 4.
And it truly is gorgeous, y’know? In its formal qualities, this Mk IV represents a significant advance over the last iteration — which I never cared for, as it looked and felt cheap — and a return to Jony Ive’s long-term effort to reinscribe a Ramsian design ethic in the market for 21st century consumer products. As an object, it just about cannot be faulted. Mmmmm.
Oh, but that interface. Or more particularly, the design of applications and utilities. The worrisome signs that first cropped up in the iPhone 3G Compass app, and clouded the otherwise lovely iPad interaction experience, are here in spades. What’s going on here is an unusual, unusually false and timid choice that, in the aggregate, amounts to nothing less than a renunciation of what these devices are for, how we think of them, and the ways in which they might be used.
I’m talking about the persistent skeuomorphic design cues that spoor applications like Calendar, Compass, iBooks and the truly awful Notes. The iPhone and iPad, as I argued on the launch of the original in 2007, are history’s first full-fledged everyware devices — post-PC interface devices of enormous power and grace — and here somebody in Apple’s UX shop has saddled them with the most awful and mawkish and flat-out tacky visual cues. You can credibly accuse Cupertino of any number of sins over the course of the last thirty years, but tackiness has not ordinarily numbered among them.
Dig, however, the page-curl animation (beautifully rendered, but stick-in-the-craw wrong) in iBooks. Feast your eyes on the leatherette Executive Desk Blotter nonsense going on in Notes. Open up Calendar, with its twee spiral-bound conceit, and gaze into the face of Fear. What are these but misguided coddles, patronizing crutches, interactively horseless carriages?
Lookit: a networked, digital, interactive copy of, say, the Tao Te Ching is simultaneously more and less than the one I keep on my shelf. You give up the tangible, phenomenological isness of the book, and in return you’re afforded an extraordinary new range of capabilities. Shouldn’t the interface, y’know, reflect this? A digital book read in Kindle for iPad sure does, as does a text saved to the (wonderful, indispensable) Instapaper Pro.
The same thing, of course, is true of networked, digital, interactive compasses and datebooks and notepads. If anything, the case is even less ambivalent here, because in all of these instances the digital version is all-but-unalloyed in its superiority over the analogue alternative. On the iPad, only Maps seems to have something of the quality of a true network-age cartography viewer.
I want to use the strongest language here. This is a terribly disappointing renunciation of possibility on Apple’s part, a failure to articulate an interface-design vocabulary as “futuristic” as, and harmonious with, the formal vocabulary of the physical devices themselves. One of the deepest principles of interaction design I observe is that, except in special cases, the articulation of a user interface should suggest something of a device, service or application’s capabilities and affordances. This is clearly, thoroughly and intentionally undermined in Apple’s current suite of iOS offerings.
What Apple has to do now is find the visual language that explains the difference between a networked text and a book, a networked calendar entry and a page leaf, or a networked locational fix and a compass heading, and does so for a mass audience of tens or hundreds of millions of non-science-fiction-reading, non-interface-geek human users. The current direction is inexplicable, even cowardly, and the task sketched here is by no means easy. But if anybody can do this, it’s the organization that made generations of otherwise arcane propositions comprehensible to ordinary people, that got out far enough ahead of the technology that their offerings Just Worked.
Application interfaces as effortlessly twenty-minutes-into-the-future as every other aspect of the iPad experience? Now that truly would be revolutionary and magical. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, or to expect.