Apple’s iOS needs an overhaul in the age of bigger, faster smartphones
While every other smartphone manufacturer is trying to speed up your smartphone, providing ever snappier interactions, better links and faster access, Apple is intentionally holding the iPhone in the slow lane.
It’s obvious when you look at the iPhone and its default interactions. Everything has a smooth animation. Those slick-looking motions were interesting about three years ago, but today they’re holding users up, slowing things down that that should be quick.
There’s a clear reason for it: make them slow on a fast, new phone and it’ll help keep the experience consistent between generations. But when that slowness belays the power and improvement in devices, is it worth the trade-off?
With hundreds of million of iPhones and iPads sold each year, it is the piece of software that the majority of Apple users interact with the most. When it launched in 2007 with the original iPhone, Apple’s iPhone OS (as it was then called) looked almost revolutionary compared with the clunky, unrefined smartphones operating systems that had come before.
It was based on the idea of apps. Discrete silos you could tap, have the app fill the screen, do your thing, and then hit the home button to come back out. It was a step change and it was simple, effective and about as good a smartphone experience as you could get. At the start it was just Apple’s apps too, as the App Store didn’t launch until 2008, so everything had the same design ethos; interactions were universal.
But nine years on, smartphones have grown bigger, faster and more powerful. Tablets exist too and the app ecosystem has exploded with innovation and complexity. And iOS wasn’t designed for this.
Bounce, bounce, bounce
It may have changed aesthetically over the past nine years – from skeuomorphism to flat colour and parallax effects – but iOS’s interface paradigm has not shifted. This means as a user a primary interaction is bouncing between apps and the homescreen. The system feels like it’s stuck in 2010.
Take the laborious task of app switching by double-tapping the home button. Users are forced to bounce around, wasting time, when everything else around them becomes faster and all about time saving.
Even something as basic as Settings no longer just works. Apple joined the modern smartphone party with Control Center in 2013 providing quick toggles for things such as Airplane mode, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But doing more than simply toggling functions on or off requires heading to the settings’ app, which there’s inexplicably no shortcut to from the Control Panel. It’s at least two taps and possibly a swipe from any other app.
Meanwhile, as users we’re doing more things with a greater number of apps, each doing one thing well, which means getting around really needs to be fast and easy. But using settings as an example: connecting to a different Wi-Fi network takes four taps from any other app. Disconnecting from a Bluetooth speaker takes five taps. Activating Low Power Mode takes four taps. You get the picture.
The animations have weight and look nice in isolation, but the slow, constant bouncing into and out-of apps gets old really quickly. It stands in stark contrast to the desktop operating system Mac OS X El Capitan, which Apple has successfully made faster than ever. In fact, while other mobile operating systems are faster than iOS, none has yet cracked snappy and useful multitasking quite like a desktop computer.
Bigger phones, phablets and tablets
The problems with iOS aren’t limited to the change in intensity of what we do on our iPhones though. Apple’s hardware has changed its size, and the software is no longer fit for purpose.
The lack of a universal back button within reach is a good example. On a smaller sub-4in screen this wasn’t an issue. But first with tablets, and then worse still with phablets, the usability has dramatically decreased. To go back one step in an app you used to have to tap a menu button in the top left-hand corner of the screen. Try that one-handed a large phone.
Now you can swipe right to go back one stage within an app – if you know about it – while a force swipe from the very left of the screen on an iPhone 6S will switch to the last used app or to the recently used apps. It’s difficult to pull off, particularly with one hand, with a case on your smartphone or when using the 5.5in iPhone 6S Plus. And it’s not intuitive. Instead, you’re encouraged by muscle memory to double-press the home button to bounce to the recently used apps, select one and zoom back in. Rinse and repeat.
The “return to the previous app” system, which places a small text link at the very top left of the screen, seemed like an upgrade. But while it works as advertised, try reaching that without using two hands. Plus, no one seems to have thought about obscuring the cellular signal indicator, or if they did, they didn’t care.
In the frequent signal- or data-less UK, unknowingly tapping a link and getting nothing because you haven’t got a connection is infuriating. The only way to get rid of the text covering the cell signal without going back to another app? You’ve guessed it, bounce out to the homescreen or another app and bounce back in again.
When smartphones are large enough that you can’t easily reach the top of the screen with one hand or two hands in a thumb-typing position, without having to resort to some accessibility function such as the double-tap home button screen crush, it’s time to change something. Every other modern mobile operating system has some resemblance of a back-one-step button within easy reach.
Then there are notifications, which should be cored to a mobile OS, but bring their own circle of hell to iOS. They are practically unusable. Apple still relies on badges, banners and a list of notifications in a pull-down sorted by day that is some-how disconnected from the apps that are meant to have received the notification.
If you go into an app that has a notification, you’ll quickly find it doesn’t actually have the message and has to go and get it, which you can forget if you’ve just gone underground or out of range. Once you’ve actually managed to read the message the notification stays stuck in the notification shade until you manually clear it. Notifications, then, end up being abandoned like email inboxes overflowing with 10,000+ unread.
So, while Apple’s hardware has gotten a lot faster, more capable and productive, iOS feels like it’s stuck in 2010.
As it did 15 years ago on desktop with its transition from Mac OS 9 to OS X, Apple needs to reinvent the way users interact with its mobile OS. Fortunately this time round it doesn’t need an underlying rewrite – as OS 9 did when it bought an operating system with the return of Jobs and Apple’s acquisition of NeXT – but iOS needs more than just a lick of paint.