Why the OS X Look and Feel Needs to Change

| Editorial

The look and feel of OS X had its origins in the Classic Mac OS, long before we had iPhones and iPads. Today, millions of customers are looking at their iPhones and iPads and wondering why OS X looks the way it does.


Those of us who grew up with the Mac tend to think of its OS as cast in stone as the way a modern GUI on top of a classic BSD UNIX system should look and feel. It's easy to fall into the idea that change is bad.

The fact is, however, is that Apple has sold roughly 700 million iOS devices. That swamps the number of the Macs sold to date. And so, when it comes to thinking about the future look and feel of OS X, it's not a question of sticking with the origins, or, conversely, changing just in order to be trendy.

Vast differences remain in the look and feel of these two OSes. Why must that be?

Neither is the issue of legibility or clarity at stake. It's not as if one day Apple engineers woke up and said to themselves, "After 13 years, this UI is too hard to read!" Years of refinement in every little detail have made OS X very easy to use and pleasant to look at.

Instead, I tend to think about how Apple wants its products to work together as a family of products. In order to do that, it's necessary to think about the long-term strategy. Part of that is a recognition that many customers new to OS X wonder why it looks the way it does.

iOS-ification Rears Its Ugly Head

Right now, we know that Apple believes that Macs and iOS devices are generally used for different tasks. The Mac is a powerful content creation tool while the iOS family is used for more casual content consumption — with some emerging elements of creation with Microsoft Office and other sophisticated apps. However, just because the way we use Macs and iOS devices is generally different doesn't mean that they shouldn't have common functionality and appearance in things like settings, mail, browsing, messages, notifications, and so on.

I think that in those areas where there is common functionality, it is wise for Apple to continue to introduce, as they have been, a more common look at feel. It just makes business sense to promote a reverse halo effect. That is, our affection for mobility and our iPhones and iPads tends to get reflected in our desktop and laptop Macs purchase decisions.

I don't think this kind of design uniformity and elegance means that Apple is interested in toaster-fridges and 2-in-1 devices. Rather, continued refinements in the look and feel of OS X would simply be a recognition of modern user interfaces. Changes reflect the best understanding of modern look and feel, especially as displays become Retina across the product line. Finally, there may be a sense that there's no need for the Mac to look anachronistic simply to satisfy the graybeards.

If OS X 10.10 makes these kinds of changes, it won't bother me at all. It's just part of moving forward with Apple products.

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My only issue with copying over look and feel is that it needs to take into account the differing interfaces. What is best for touch is not best for keyboard and mouse, especially on devices which may not have a touch interface built in.

A good example of this is the Launchpad. I use it regularly, but it is such an incredible pain to set up, because it relies entirely on the iOS touch system. I can’t see multiple screens at once, drag and drop multiple files, or right click to create subcategories, like I would with the finder. Instead I have to edit positions one at a time, one page at a time, pausing before every action, as if my finger is the only method of input.

Unifying the design language for consistency and ease of use is good, but not if it fails to recognize the difference in the user interface mechanics.

Jeff Barbose

I think the whole point of the article was that Apple was smart enough not to just wholesale-copy the iOS UI over to the Mac, but rather bring the Mac’s UI into line where iOS and OS X visually (and somewhat functionally) are familiar (and familial) to one another.


I don’t expect my dirt bike to drive like my van, or vice-versa.

I don’t know why people keep harping that a full-power computer operating system needs to look/feel more like the OS on portable devices.  The iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch are used in an entirely different manner than are Macintosh computers, and for the most part, for different purposes.  The iOS interface is based on touch screen access. It looks and operates the way it does because the touch screen display is part of the interface.  Translating such to a mouse & keyboard interface would simply end up being clunky, slow, and frustrating. And forget adding touch screen to the Mac - at least the desktop models.  If my iMac were to be placed close enough to use as a touch screen the eye strain would have me out of the office with severe headache every other day.

Apple has it right (so far).  Macs and iOS devices are two different critters with different - though admittedly overlapping - uses.  But overlap or not, they are different enough to warrant keeping the interface different also.


I think millions of customers are looking at their iPhones & iPads and wondering why Windows looks the way it does!

John Martellaro

Jeff Barbose:  yes.

Lancashire-Witch: Good one!

Paul Goodwin

I agree with the commenters above when talking about taking into account the human input interface. The machines are vastly different in that respect. What’s good for one isn’t necessarily good for the other. The other major factor with the human interface is the screen size. What works on the larger screen Mac devices wouldn’t work well on the smaller devices. Also, the complexity of the devices plays a major factor. Things like the Mac System Preferences app. I can’t even imagine taking it and putting it into a list like what is in iOS settings. It works in Settings because the list is short due to the relative simplicity of the iOS device. The icons have come to mean something in the Mac OS. You look at the icons before the words underneath them because the visual aid helps get you what you want quickly. The words are there merely for confirmation and for making them searchable. There isn’t enough screen real estate on an iOS device to do both, so you just get the words (except for the Home screen.

I wouldn’t use the term anachronistic when describing the Mac OS. It’s the most well thought out human-computer interface that’s ever been invented. IOS is great for what it is. But if any interface improvements are to be made, IMO it’s better to leverage the excellence of the Mac OS into iOS than vica versa. But because of the differences in the human interfaces (input devices and screen size) it all can’t (and doesn’t have to) look the same.

I can only hope and trust that Apple will make the right choices. If they over iOSify the Mac OS, the Mac world will revolt if they leave out the Mac OS X Classic option like MS did with Win8. Please tell me we won’t have to go through a nightmare like that. MS still hasn’t recovered from that misstep.

Bryan Kennedy

GUI’s are like fashion, they gradually change. Eye candy isn’t in anymore. I’ve realized I’m distracted by it at work with Windows 7 and shut off all the fancy stuff for a flatter, Windows 2000 look.

I’m tired of the 3D glass dock. All of this shiny 3D stuff taxes the graphics processor. I remember my first iBook in 2001. Everyone was so excited about the fancy graphics and my new iBook was slow as a sloth.


“The Mac is a powerful content creation tool while the iOS family is used for more casual content consumption — with some emerging elements of creation with Microsoft Office and other sophisticated apps.”

Am I the only one who finds this sentence silly—if not infuriating? iOS devices have been used for “creation” in photography, videography, music, art, and design for almost seven years now. The idea that content creation is only “emerging” now that Office is out implies that “content” is spreadsheets and slide presentations.

[blockquote=“Jeff Barbose”]I think the whole point of the article was that Apple was smart enough not to just wholesale-copy the iOS UI over to the Mac

Right, but I’m pointing out an area where they DID wholesale copy in a bad way, with Launchpad.

You can manage the apps on an iPhone through the phone’s touch interface, or through iTunes. The iTunes interface is much faster and easier. With Launchpad, they didn’t add that iTunes interface as a control panel or menu option, relying on the slower, clunkier iOS method of managing apps.

So while the Launchpad is a good idea from iOS, failing to provide an iTunes-style management option is a good example of sloppy design integration.


Greetings, John:

Intriguing thoughts, and a recrudescence perhaps of the heady and heated discussions from a couple of years ago, and versions back, of OS X and fears around iOSification of the Mac platform. As some of us argued then, and has events have born out, most of these fears were both understandable and overstated: understandable because change, by virtue of its unpredictable disruptiveness, induces fear and worries over worst case scenarios, for which Windows 8 has served as the poster child; overstated because Apple’s culture, while embracing disruptiveness and cannibalisation, exploits the ‘user experience’ as an organising principle round which all of Apple’s products and services, including their iterations, are built and revolve. This is substantively different from, say MS’s approach with OS and device designs (Surface), which have been organised around the principle of serving the company by perpetuating Windows, that company’s cash cow and core product.

The outcomes of these organising principles, the fruits if you will, of these two companies’ tell the tale, and reflect the disparate natures of their philosophies, intent and driving forces that guide them. The tree is known by its fruits. Although mistakes and missteps happen, and Apple is no stranger to these, system-wide design flaw born from inherent disregard of the end user and how that user engages the product, is more than misstep, and would require a departure from that culture and nature described above - an occurrence we have not witnessed since Apple’s rebirth in 1997.

My personal view, without rehearsing the well worn points that many of us argued years before, is that Apple and their community are engaged in a symbiotic - indeed an organic - process of co-evolution in which, as the demographic of the community transitions over time, bringing with it a change in the expectations, preferences and practices of that community, and as the technology progresses such that it enables a consistent and reliable experience that serves those expectations and user preferences, both the hardware and software will be modified accordingly.

As most Apple clients are iOS users, we can, and should, anticipate further harmonisation of function and feature sets between OS X and iOS without adverse disruption or abandonment of either’s core capabilities, which after all, are intentionally designed around the user experience of what remain two distinct categories of hardware.


Suhaka Andrea

I have to disagree. Something that sits close to my face with a touchscreen is far different than a desktop. I have never been able to use a touchpad with any coordination & always need a mouse with my MBP. OSX & iOS are fine looking different because they are different. I really don’t want them to grow any closer together. System 7.5 was my fave. #GetOffMyLawn.

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