Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

WWDC 2019 Prelude

I’m not a developer for any of Apple’s software platforms; and, so, WWDC usually comes every year as a welcome annual indication of where their platforms are headed, but I’m not compelled to fly down to San Jose, book a hotel room, and file for bankruptcy. This year, though, I’m getting the feeling that I should be there. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the air this year that seems just a little different — and I like it.

For old times’ sake, I wanted to put together one of those part-retrospective part-speculative pieces where I point out some of the new things I’d like to see this year. Maybe some of these things will be introduced, and that would be cool; I wouldn’t bet on too much of this list, though. These are just a few things that have been swirling in my head.

iOS, Visually

Here’s something remarkable: the design language that emerged from the iOS 7 upheaval has now been with us for the same amount of time as its glossier and more colourful predecessor on iOS. Of course, that alone should not dictate whether it is time for a new coat of paint — to my eyes, this aesthetic is holding up far better than the last one at about the same time in its life.1 In part, that’s because Apple has done a good job updating it in the intervening years: switching to their custom San Francisco typeface, for example, and introducing some big, bold typography in iOS 11. Since iOS 7’s ship date, there’s nothing in the system that has felt so instantly tacky as, say, the metallic action buttons in the iOS 6 sharing sheet.

Yet, for everything that iOS 7 did right in setting Apple up for creating software that looks and works like it matches their hardware, there are some things that have never sat right with me. I don’t think shapeless buttons have ever been a good idea. They look unfinished, unanchored, and uncharacteristically sloppy; I am dismayed that they have stayed virtually the same for six years. I’ve also never been fond of any of the glyph-on-a-white-background icons that shipped in iOS 7, save for Photos. That is a beautiful illustration. The rest — Music, Reminders, Home, Calendar, Files, Health, Find My iPhone, and (if we’re being generous with the definition of “white background”) Calculator — are drab things that I have mostly buried in assorted folders on the second through fourth pages of my iPhone’s home screen.

I also think this would be a great time to revisit some of the more delightful spit-and-polish qualities of visual interface design. I was thinking recently about Time Machine — more on that below. Backing up a computer is a mundane task; finding and restoring a deleted file can be very stressful, particularly if it’s an important document. Time Machine somehow made this dreadful part of computing enjoyable. But, not everything about Time Machine was good. I remember my irritation any time I accidentally clicked on its Dock icon and watching helplessly as my entire computer — a mid-2007 MacBook Pro; so, brand new when Leopard shipped — ground to a halt to render some stars over a swirling nebula backdrop.

So, while I am not necessarily eager to return to an era of photorealistically-rendered window textures and glossy everything, I would love to see a middle ground. The “card” that pops up when you connect your AirPods or share a WiFi network’s password is, I think, very elegant, particularly on my iPhone X where the corner radius is matched to the screen’s, making it feel like an extension of the phone itself. I do wish the button were a gorgeous saturated blue, though. The revised design of Wallet in iOS 12.2 is also very nice; I welcome the return of enclosed cells in table views. Refinement throughout the system to add a little more colour and visual cues would also be delightful. The “Backup and Restore” section of Apple’s iCloud marketing webpage includes screenshots of some of the most dreary visual patterns in iOS. More spit-and-polish, better use of colour, and more elegance will always be welcomed in visual design.

I’d also like to see more attention to detail in not allowing obvious sloppiness to be shipped.

We’ve had an era of sorely needed recalibration from excessive and overwrought visual design patterns. Let’s inject a feeling of craft and beauty back into the software we use, though. Apps like Things illustrate a fantastic interpretation of how a less decorative design language can still be lively and tactile.

iOS, Functionally

Beyond the more surface-level stuff, there are some functional changes I’d like to see in iOS. More specifically, I have different hopes for each the iPhone and the iPad.

First, a quick observation: it’s remarkable just how much Apple got completely right with the first iPhone’s user interface. The tab bar that runs across the bottom of many apps is, I think, a brilliant piece of foresight. From the 3.5-inch displays of the first four generations of iPhone to the windowpane of glass that is the iPhone XS Max, it has scaled beautifully.

But the stuff at the top of the display — app toolbars, notifications, Notification Centre, and Control Centre — is something I think sorely needs reconsidering. There have been moves made to this effect for several years. Keen observers of third-party app design trends on iOS will remember that the downfall of the then-ubiquitous “hamburger” menu began around the time that Plus-model iPhones became popular. iOS 7 also launched a universal gesture for paging back by swiping from the left edge of the screen, which became immensely useful on larger-screened iPhones.

But that still leaves a few remaining gestures that require a telescopic thumb. And, I should point out, I still think it’s ridiculous that notifications are positioned to overlap the upper toolbar of pretty much every app. On a semi-frequent basis, my thumb will go to hit some control at the top of the display only to have a notification pop in, so when my thumb contacts the display, I get whisked off to some other app. It’s not a very good game.

On the bigger side of the iOS device spectrum, I am anticipating improvements to the iPad’s home screen and its multitasking capabilities. As was reported early last year by Mark Gurman — and which I have heard separately as well — the iPad improvements that were supposed to debut with iOS 12 were bumped as a result of that update’s increased focus on stability and speed. With another year of polish, I’m looking forward to seeing what may be in store.

Perhaps better indication of which app in a split view is foregrounded, particularly when an external keyboard is used.

Maybe the home screen will have more flexibility in what can be placed on it and how those items can be arranged.

Or maybe it will soon be possible to run more than one instance of an app, so you can pull up a couple of Pages documents side-by-side to more easily work with both of them. Even having more complex layouts like that which recently debuted in Fiery Feeds would be a boon.

This would be really a great year for Siri, Notification Centre, and Control Centre to stop taking over the entire display when invoked, and the same for the whole-screen dominance of an incoming phone call. Hey, a guy can dream.

Overall, I’d like to see great understanding that a single task often requires referencing multiple things across several apps. Part of that can be resolved through UI changes. However, I’d also like the system to do a better job of holding multiple apps in memory. iOS, as I understand it, has a far more limited virtual memory system than MacOS. That, combined with less RAM, means that apps in the background are frequently kicked out of memory and must be reloaded. This can be deeply interruptive when working in multiple apps at once, and it’s something I’ve never seen on MacOS. It’s so interruptive to me that I will often be working on something on my iPad only to find it has, once again, kicked all my Safari tabs out of memory after I checked my email or responded to a text; at that point, I find it easier to simply switch to my Mac.

The Mac

The biggest Mac news of WWDC this year will almost certainly be a new Mac Pro. It makes total sense to introduce it to a developer audience, even if it isn’t available soon after — though I hope it is. While I doubt they will acknowledge the failure of the last Mac Pro, I hope to hear Apple make the case for the feasibility of updating the new one more frequently than once every seven years.

I am also looking forward to the display that it will reportedly be paired with. Fifteen years ago, Apple defined what a professional-grade desktop display ought to be with the 30-inch Cinema Display. I would not be disappointed if the new display is a 5K 27-inch model — there is certainly a dearth of those — but I would love to be surprised by a product that’s the spiritual successor of the 30-inch Cinema Display: some gigantic, high-resolution thing with that isn’t available anywhere else. Technology permitting, of course.

It’s unlikely, but I would also like to see an acknowledgement of the failure of their “butterfly” keyboard design that is currently shipping in every portable Mac they make. These keyboards are terrible. I’ve seen frustration with these keyboards referenced increasingly in non-tech circles, so news is spreading that Apple’s laptops aren’t fully reliable.

On the software front, I am mostly concerned about the next stage of the so-called “Marzipan” apps. The four apps that have been released so far are not good, and are poor examples for the developer community. I am cautiously optimistic about what we could see this year, though. These apps were clearly stopgap proofs-of-concept that, arguably, shouldn’t have shipped, and my hope is that we’ll see truly Mac-like iterations of these and other apps this year. I don’t want iOS apps running with a MacOS title bar to be the new standard.

That’s not to say that all things from iOS do not or could not work on the Mac. In particular, the effects introduced in Messages and FaceTime on iOS should absolutely be brought to the Mac as well. I get why Animoji and Memoji can’t be on the Mac — yet — but surely I should be able to send and receive messages with the laser effect, or use some goofy FaceTime filters.

From a services perspective, I hope this is the year that we see an iCloud-powered Time Machine backup option. It has always struck me as very odd how Apple banged the drum for years about how easy backups are on the Mac with Time Machine, but never evolved it. Even if you count document versioning as an update to Time Machine, there have been virtually no updates to it since the version that shipped with Lion eight years ago. In that time, the biggest Time Machine-related news was the discontinuation of the Time Capsule a couple of years back. That means that users of Apple’s notebooks either need to remember to plug in a hard drive, or they need to know about Backblaze or another third-party remote backup service. Yet, Apple sells iCloud plans offering up to two terabytes of storage, and recommends switching on iCloud backups for iOS devices when they are set up. I want the same thing for my Mac.

Finally, there are still features that haven’t made their way into iCloud despite being available in Apple’s previous online subscription services. Because I now have two Macs, it would be great to be able to sync everything from app preferences to my Dock layout between both machines. These are things that don’t often change but, when they do, it’s likely that I want that setting applied on both. iCloud is most of the way there already, with features like Documents and Desktop syncing, iCloud Keychain, and automatic downloads from Apple’s stores — I’d just like to see a last push.

Apple TV, HomePod, and More

Something I’m aching for with my Apple TV is better support for multiple users. I know this has been a perennial request by owners of family-used iPads, but I think it makes even more sense on the Apple TV and, presumably, HomePod, as they are inherently communal devices. The Apple TV in our house is signed into my Apple ID because it was the one with the Apple Music subscription before we sorted all that out. Both my partner and I play music with the Apple Music app and, while we have similar tastes in a lot of areas, her picks have definitely skewed my recommendations a little.

Netflix solves this by allowing one account to have several profiles. I wish Apple’s apps would allow switching between accounts in the same iCloud Family.

I also think Apple could do a better job of defining what makes a great app for tvOS. I’ve previously complained about the YouTube app and I still feel very strongly that it is a bad app. But so, too, is Music in its own way: when it resumes, it bumps whatever album was last playing to the front of your Recently Played list, even if that album is paused or stopped; the For You page reloads as you move around; the entire app is slow and navigating it is poor.

Finally, one thing I’d like to see more generally is a greater focus on unification of product and service availability no matter where users live. I recognize that there are regulatory hurdles and licensing restrictions that make this difficult — if not impossible — but, as a non-American, this is important to me.

  1. A caveat: the original iPhone UI was clearly a descendent of the Aqua design language that was Apple’s standard since Mac OS X debuted in 2001. So perhaps it’s a bit premature to declare the iOS 7 visual language the same age; but, on the iPhone, it is. Also, the iOS 7 language was never named. ↩︎