For better or for worse, and to varying extents, the tech community has the power to be tastemakers for the broader masses. What the recent shutdown of Google Reader proved is that while most normal people do not use RSS — I can’t find a single user, even amongst my tech-savvy group of friends — the tech press does use it, and frequently. They love it. The news of the forthcoming shuttering of Reader has struck journalists and writers in a unique way, spawning articles like this one from Ezra Klein:
Together, the Gmail experience, the death of Google Reader, and the closure of Picnik all have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in “free” Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do.
The tech press — the tastemakers — are brewing a sense of distrust of Google after the shutdown of a product used by that specific crowd every day. By emphasizing that Google is about to discontinue a product which they relied on, and that this will cause them to resist using new Google products, they are telling people not to trust the company to make the right decision. It’s the beginning ripple from the group that is trusted with telling normal people how to navigate the complex world of technology.
The tech press also likes to perceive Apple’s iOS as being stale and lacking features that Android and Windows Phone have. Take the home screen of each platform: Android has widgets, Windows Phone has live tiles, and iOS has an automatically-updated Calendar icon. Apple has used the same grid since the beginning, while the others have flirted with varying styles and interpretations.
But don’t confuse a perceived need for freshness with an imperative for change. It isn’t necessarily a good thing that Google likes to dick around with Android’s UI design, or that everything in Windows Phone is all flat and trendy in a digital equivalent of heroin chic. Much in the same way that the press is communicating a sense of distrust of the permanence of future Google apps, they are also parading a perceived need for Apple to replace iOS’s glass icons and textured surfaces.
Keep in mind that if Apple were to redesign the iOS home screen, it would be a Herculean task. They have 300 million users on iOS 6 alone, and they’ve sold around half a billion iOS devices. That means that there are hundreds of millions of people who know how to use the operating system. A complete overhaul could be disorientating to all these users. Christina Bonnington of Wired argues that confusing users could be worth it.
For the sake of “freshness”, the progress of the iOS user experience is perceived to be virtually unchanged from when the platform was first shown in 2007. A cynic would say that this is a sign that Apple is stagnating.1 I think it’s a sign that Apple got a bunch of stuff right the first time around. The 4 × 4 (now 4 × 5) icon grid is such a familiar metaphor that an iPhone can be recognized by it alone. But, as the above comment (and many like it) states, the perception is that Apple isn’t willing to change iOS. So many features have been globbed onto an interface that looks pretty much the same that it’s clear that it’s struggling in some areas.
Take folders, for example. With the advent and rise of the App Store, it became necessary to increase the amount of slots available for apps on each users’ phone. By adding multiple pages and folders, these apps are able to be better-organized in what is effectively the same user interface. The progress is hard to see, but by keeping the home screen roughly the same, they’ve added functionality without changing how straightforward it is to use. But folders merely hide the mess away; they can’t be the best interface for multiple apps.
And, lest we forget, power users want widgets. Yet, according to Drew Bamford of HTC, 90% of their users never use widgets. That’s probably because widgets, in general, are a poor way of viewing content. They’re really only great for glanceable information that requires no user input, like the weather and stock prices. But wouldn’t it be great if the Weather icon updated automatically?
These issues should not be confused with a perceived need to keep the OS looking “fresh”, or conversely, to prevent it from becoming “stale”. iOS has real issues which Apple should address in the future. It would be nice if there were a better way to handle hundreds of apps. It would be delightful if the Weather icon reflected actual conditions. But this isn’t a sign that Apple needs to heed the advice of the tech press and replace every gradient with flatness, and every shadow with a border. The perception of staleness is one created by a press too excited and impatient for their own good by comparing it to companies that chase trends, rather than just making a damn good product.
“This would never happen if Steve were alive.” ↩