Without Forstall, How Will Apple Change iOS?

“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?


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.