Without Forstall, How Will Apple Change iOS?

| Hidden Dimensions

“Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve..” -- Tom Landry

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” -- Tony Blair

Scott Forstall has been the driving force behind the look and feel of iOS. However, stories have surfaced that trouble has been brewing, and that other senior Apple executives opposed the direction Mr. Forstall was taking. Notable amongst the opponents has been Jonathan Ive, who is now in charge of Apple's interface design. But there’s also a larger issue of Apple’s overall OS direction at stake. What kind of changes can we expect?

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Basically, the children are squabbling over the vision of Steve Jobs. Part of this may be the perceived nature of the threat of vigorous competition, part of it may be that other Apple executives have more confidence in the design intuition of Jonathan Ive than Scott Forstall, part of it may be that the kind of OS team Apple needs is changing, and part of it may be the issue of whether skeuomorphism has run its course.

I’ll get to al those ideas here, but first, for those who missed the discussion the first time around, a major part of the whole story originates in the idea of skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism is a visual design principle that's been used in iOS. It's defined as the invocation of "an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artifact in another material." A good example of skeuomorphism, and one that's often criticized, is the leather and torn paper look in the iOS calendar app, especially when it got carried over to OS X. I discussed this at length in: "Apple Doesn’t Need Tutoring on Software Design."

In that article, I explored several concepts. First, that Steve Jobs always felt that computer design should be at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Basically, pure computer technology without understanding humans needs is sterile.

Second, many new customers (young and old) are being drawn away from the hassles of the traditional PC and are adopting the idea that a tablet may be all they need. In order to make that transition, it's desirable to have familiar signposts along the way. Skeuomorphism reinforces the idea that That Thing You Do is grounded in what you used to do, only it's better. So if you hated your PC but loved your day planner, the iPad is like a day planner, but better.

Opposing Forces

There are those, even within Apple, who argue that  Skeumorphism, which has been around for a long time, not just in iOS, has run its course. To carry the metaphor to its extreme, spanning beyond iOS, we no longer need to make a contact list look like a Rolodex because no one in the current generation of young users even knows what a Rolodex is anymore.

The opposing forces argue that form follows function, and the iPad functions differently. So it should present itself to the user in a way that befits the technology. Both Microsoft and Google’s Android are taking the latter approach.

One has to ask, at this point, whether a starker, simpler design is actually better or whether it's an effort to avoid patent litigation. After all, Apple has made it clear that some design essentials are basic to its brand, for example the rounded edges of icons.

In the article that ignited this discussion, Austin Carr wrote, "Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction."

Ultimately, the argument about all this boils down to not only executive judgment and competitive analysis, but also whose judgment you trust: Mr. Ive or Mr. Forstall.

The Larger Context - Teamwork

However, skeuomorphism isn't the whole story. Not by a long shot. There are larger issues at Apple. They exist in both the structure of the Apple team that’s going to carry forward under Tim Cook, and to a significant extent, the specifics of iOS design.

In an intense, competitive environment in which Apple needs to maintain a lead, not come from behind, it’s necessary to have a team that works well together. A company like that needs executives that are cerebral, but not brainy; amiable team builders, not obnoxious turf-builders. A terrific article that explains this thesis is, “On Being a Senior Engineer.” For example, Senior Engineers have to ask tough questions: “What could I be missing?” and “How will this not work?”

In addition, “condescension, belittling, narcissism, and ego-boosting behavior send” the wrong message to other engineers. It seems that Tim Cook felt that, after the iOS 6 maps fiasco, this was the time to address the topic of his senior iOS executive engineer do some team building. That may, in turn, lead to a more elegant synergy between OS X and iOS instead of iOS being the turf of one man.

The Larger Context - OS design

The other major issue is that iOS is suffering growing pains. As the Apple lineup expands, into large and small iPads, not just iPhones, much will be demanded of iOS. Items such as navigation, context, multiple windows and apps running visibly, side by side, widgets, keyboard input, how we move files around, how we get notified, consistency of window themes and so on come into stronger play -- all those things that constitute the operation and feel, the user interface (UI) and the user experience (UX) of iOS. And all that needs to be done in concert with developers who are pleased with Apple’s leadership and technical decisions.

For example, when we perform an action in an app that takes us to Safari, we're left there, hanging, with no obvious return mechanism. Another example is the Contacts app in iOS 6 which broke with tradition so strongly in its handling of groups, it has driven customers to anger and frustration. Again, the basics of iOS UI design are still not set in concrete, and there may be a feeling by Apple most senior executives that the fine hand of Jon Ive can bring a lot to the table when it comes to handling the iOS UI for the future.

After all, there may come a day when iOS is our predominate OS, with OS X heading to the sidelines. Certainly, the way we live now with our 4-inch iPhones and 9.7-inch iPads is not the way we want to be living in 2017 with much vastly more capable CPU/GPUs and (perhaps) larger iPad displays.

As iOS has grown more complex, the question arises as to whether things need to be the way they always have been, and along those lines, here's an eye-opening discussion of how the iOS UI and UX often fail us: “An iPhone UI And UX Analysis.

The Way Forward

The path Apple takes forward depends a lot on both the vision of Tim Cook and the trust he places in certain people to develop their own vision. Even though Steve Jobs led the way for many years, before and after his sabbatical at NeXT, the really tough decisions nowadays will be in deciding why and how and when to depart from his thinking.

Tim Cook is now formulating the team that will take Apple forward from here, a team that can work together. The men he selects will determine the fate of the company. For our overall OS development, it’s going to be Craig Federighi. For our Internet life, it’s going to be Eddy Cue. And for the iOS user interface and experience, it's going to be Jonathan Ive.

The Captain has put together what seems to be an amiable team that can work with each other to achieve Apple’s goals.

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16 Comments Leave Your Own

ma

Tim Cook, not his brother Steve?

Bryan

You said Steve Cook…ha ha ha

John Martellaro

Now that was a Dick Enberg moment. Oh, my.

1stplacemacuser

How about this:  for the contacts app (iOS or OSX), have a way to sort by date of entry.  Usually, I add new people in when I meet them at networking events.  I get their card, then later that day or the next day, I enter the information.  But I usually don’t remember the person’s name because, well, the person’s new.  But I certainly remember the date of the event (I have it on my iCal as well, so I can cross-check).  So how do I get that person’s name?  It would be nice if I can sort my address book by date of entry, as well as last date of change (so if a friend moves to another address, that change is reflected).  Also, there should be some easy archiving of prior addresses and phone numbers and emails.  I might remember Joe Blow’s old email address he had for 10 years, joe@blow.com, but now that he’s changed it to joeblow@earthlink.net, I keep forgetting to use the current one (or my address expander defaults to his old one).  Well, I like to archive his old address, for reference, but use his new for actual addressing.

These are two nice features for Contacts/Address book.  Right now, I enter the date of meeting the person in the notes section and then do a search for that date.  Doesn’t work on iOS, though.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I’ve been working on a web based “reader” app for awhile. It uses the full beautiful screen of whatever device it’s running on—or at least the full area the browser allows. Recently, I was asked by a potential customer why there are no graphics surrounding the page to give it a book feel and why pages simply scroll left and right to “turn” rather than show an elaborate page turning animation. The answer is because the tablet is not a book with pages, it’s a tablet with a beautiful, large screen. I’m not radically anti-skeuomorphic, though. A background paper-like texture can actually make the page look more natural and be more readable with less eye strain. Much like white letters on black background makes a better read in darker settings.

There are similar issues with what constitutes a page. In print, you’re limited by physical dimensions and capacity. On a tablet, you can scroll down. So a “page” doesn’t have to have a uniform amount of content. It can encapsulate an idea, or a digestible portion thereof. And instead of flipping (swiping left to right) to the next physcial block of content, you can flip/swipe to the next logical thought.

The funny things about skeuomorphism is that it is definitely part of the current Apple brand. Developers even seem encouraged to adopt it. On the Android and Windows side of mobile, there is a lot less of it, with developers playing more to the devices rather than to real world metaphors. For Apple, this change of course may be more about keeping up than setting a new standard.

Lancashire-Witch

I’ve got used to my iOS devices - and the weird way the UI works sometimes.  I didn’t realise how bad it was until last week - when I tried to show a friend how to use her brand new iPad.

I still can’t shake the nagging thought that I should have bought an 11-inch MBA instead of an iPad.

An 11-inch MBA with Retina display will be hard to resist!

Terrin

One of the problems Apple has suffered is that the user interface is not consistent throughout all apps. For instance, on the Mac version of Pages the full screen icon doesn’t look the same as the general OS, and it is on the opposite side of the Window. Annoying. Perhaps putting the whole show under one person will fix that.

I, however, wouldn’t have fired the guy for not apologizing for the Maps app. The apology was weak, unnecessary, and was not what Jobs would have done. Moreover, it baffles me how Apple was smart enough to release Siri as a beta, but not Maps. Google is smart in that it always seems to release software to the public as a beta and keeps it that way for a while.

Terrin

PS:

I vote for integrating a more Quicktime type look and feel. I love running quicktime just for the way the windows look.

mhikl

I don’t know why I haven’t read about skeuomorphic design from Apple analysts before the removal of Forstall (usually strange and interesting words peak my interest) but I suspect there has been some sleeping at the switch by analysts. Maybe the delay in a revamped iTunes is to give time for the skeuomorphic designs to be sent to the trash.

Microsoft’s non-skeuomorphic approach, though ugly and difficult to discern between tiles is a step in the right direction. The full colours are blinding. Google’s icons and layouts are ridiculously bland and often unintuitive. It will take the minds of better wo/men to get it right and Ive, as leader, seems the closest to the needed colossus to guide the design team. Apple’s trip back to the future of functional software design is a relief and will, as already’s happened, bring up claims of copying others’ designs or approach; but the skeuomorphic turn was a bad trip out of which lessons will be learned.

What is important is choice and good starters. If it takes Microsoft and its rejection of cluttered anachronistic design to shake Apple to its senses, then good for Apple to take on the challenge. I may not like Microsoft much, but the amoral can sometimes climb out of their caverns to join the better world and make amends for past actions. I am looking forwards to an even better Apple world with fair and challenging competition, all of which has much to do with any truly creative company’s success. (For example, it has been suggested elsewhere that after Apple gave up the challenge of Windows 95, Microsoft failed to further innovate.) Also, the copycats have learned a valuable lesson from the courts. Now all can get back into their sandboxes and build original and better castles.

For far too long we have assumed Apple could do it all on its own and for the most part, Apple had no choice. Now there may be real competition from better challengers to keep Apple’s hunger focused.

“I didn’t realise how bad it was until last week - when I tried to show a friend how to use her brand new iPad. . .” Exactly, Lancashire-Witch. Without good competition, it is often difficult to see the fly in one’s soup.

Charli

The real issue was doing it to do it while there were and still are real bugs in the software. Things like the moving shadows on the slider buttons serve no real purpose. Why waste time in that while there are major wifi issues that are costing customers money, features that were working in iOS 5 are totally broken etc

Lee Dronick

See today’s Joy of Tech comic http://www.geekculture.com/joyoftech/joyarchives/1762.html

Marc

I don’t believe for a minute this decision is about maps and maps alone. There are problems with the app for sure, but let’s get real there are deeper and more-significant issues with iOS. I’ve never gotten “Find my Friends” to work. iMessage does not work across multiple devices. Groups in Address Book are now useless based on the number of clicks needed to switch from one to another. Can’t connect to WiFi? Yeah, a whole bunch of people can’t do that.

Why isn’t iTunes 11 out as promised? Maybe because the guy who wouldn’t sign a letter of apology also couldn’t work very well with others.

FlipFriddle

It seems like Forestall leaving would be a good thing, because in my mind iOS hasn’t really grown at all. Things have been added to it yes, but it doesn’t seem to have adapted well to it’s popularity and sheer size now. The app store is still a disorganized mess, leading to iTunes being the same. I’m still shocked Apple still calls iTunes iTunes because it has ceased to be music software. It seems like it’s time to tear down Apple’s content/media/app front end and build something that can better accommodate it’s size and growth.

Brian Steere

I felt (in this news of Forstall’s departure), an opportunity to bring to attention and discussion, the nature of such interface decisions and implementations, as a kind of architecture that very many of us live in and which tend to condition our thinking. Our technology has always expressed and conditioned the mind. It also gives us a language for mind.

Cultural (currently shared) values are embodied in what we make and what we do - and become a layer or aspect of our environment which can either condition our thinking unawares - or provide faithful feedback that maps back to the ideas that it came from.

The latter is rarely consciously adopted - because the habit of being the user ‘within’ the interface tends to usurp the discernment of its nature.

Discernment is a quality that is quite different from strategic Judgement.  It arises more from listening and feeling in calm, than from exercising ‘point of view’.

I responded to Wired.com’s article:
Why Apple (and You) Might Miss Scott Forstall
http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/10/scott-forstall-apple-legacy/

with a comment that I also blogged:
http://willingness-to-listen.blogspot.co.uk/

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

After a couple days of this, I think what I like the most about Scott Forstall being sent out to pasture is that all blame for everything is being heaped on him. It’s like if your perfect 18 year old goes off to college, and you start digging through his room and find booze and drugs and porn and photos of parties with hookers. You know the other kids in the house are taking the opportunity to leave their stuff in his room too, so you find it there and think it’s your son.

I’m pretty sure I know where Scott Forstall lands next. Author. His book spilling the beans on Cook’s inability to guide the ship anywhere but where it’s going will be as big as Jobs’ biography. And ironically, it will usher in the Jony Ive as CEO era. Ironic, because Ive is the guy who really had Forstall tossed.

John Martellaro

FlipFriddle:  I’ve pondered the iTunes name myself.  There are good reasons to stick with it.  It has brand recognition. Some companies that got careless with their brand, in a hurry to rename, have had trouble.  Borland comes to mind.  Plus, doing a trademark search for a new name is expensive, and the ones that are available (not trademarked) are usually terribly funky and/or not very descriptive.  I’m thinking here of Ultraviolet.  So I am no longer hung up on the idea that iTunes, the brand, sells movies, TV shows, etc.

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