It's all about the now. This moment. Your next moment may or may not arrive while your previous iota of time has already disappeared. There's only the immediacy of your present bundle of sensation. Apple [AAPL] in its next-generation mobile operating system seems to be getting a handle on what 'now' means to its users. Maybe.
[ABOVE: Replace the word 'iPhone' with the word 'iOS' and its clear just how much Apple has riding on iOS 7.]
Look for the Now
I'll be honest. The evidence on which I'm basing this article is insanely slim: it consists of the company's recently-introduced WWDC app, which the great, good and grubby of the Apple news reporting planet all seem to feel is suggestive of the kind of usability changes we will see in iOS 7.
For me, the most telling change isn't going to be overtly carried in the big stuff -- new color choices and aesthetic design elements, but in the small details. That's the area we'll see the most signs of Apple designer, Jony Ive's attention to design. He sweats the details.
"When we were developing the notebooks, we worked really, really, really hard to make sure that when you opened it up, the display was the display," he said during a talk at London's Design Museum in 2004.
"One thing probably none of you have got a clue about," he said, "We worked really, really hard to develop a mechanism that basically spring-loads the clutch so that at a point when you are opening it you counter-balance the display. And it's one of the points we spent so much time working out, so that the product was so much nicer than anything else."
In admitting this Ive reveals a primary part of his design imperative. His mission isn't about the pros and cons of skeumorphic design, nor is it about unifying the design of app icons or creating a so-called "flat" interface across the device: it's about ensuring the elements that comprise the user interface just work.
"Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new," he explains. This isn't the correct approach. Instead, people who want to out-innovate Cupertino need to try to invent something that's "genuinely" better. Built with care, sincerity and "real discipline."
[ABOVE: Apple's WWDC app, then and now.]
Simple -- by design
That complex simplicity is what drives the company to achieve product designs which somehow capture the "now" moment, devices which seem natural to use. That kind of instinctive reaction doesn't come easy of course -- just take a look at the spring-loading system Ive describes above.
So is this what's happening within iOS 7?
The image to the left captures an older edition of the WWDC app, while the one on the right is the most recent edition. What's interesting is the position of the Now button, which has moved from the left hand side of the screen to the right.
Why is that so exciting?
Because it more clearly matches the way your eyes work when you read. Most of us read from left to right. When we read we always end up with our eyes to the right -- this takes place instinctively. That area to the right of the line is our present, because we automatically scan the line of text before it. That position makes that button a natural target for a user's hand and eye.
In iOS 7, Apple is focused on the transient moment that is the here and now.
Older versions of the app would force a user to read across the menu and then flip back (left) to the Now button, a subtle psychological difference that made it slightly less intuitive. (Another subtle difference being the replacement of the nebulous "Places" icon with a more relevant "Maps".)
I recognize this may seem trivial, but that focus on detail suggests Ive's teams have attempted to deliver a unified OS that should work consistently and intuitively with the user. It's not too much to expect, given this focus on detail is such a central element to Ive's award-winning design philosophy.
[ABOVE: 'Shut Up': Slightly derivative, Savages focus on the nature of self in a complex age. I like them at the moment.]
Where the puck is
Simplicity is complicated. To deliver something that simple you need to attend to a host of details and grapple with feasts of technological or philosophical complexity. To make something simple, you need to attend to the details.
I suggest the WWDC app shows Ive's team has been sweating these details. Previous reports also suggest it, one report claimed the new OS may include easy-to-access widgets from which to control such functions as Network settings and/or the behavior of iTunes Match -- frequently-used features you previously had to reach via nested menus in Settings.
Apple's new iOS may indeed turn out to be flat, but with a little luck it will be sufficiently intuitive that it won't be long until iDevice users see it as completely normal. The operating system millions use most each day will enter the Now. If Apple achieves this, then you can pretty much guarantee device sales will follow suit.
"Consumers are incredibly discerning, they sense where there has been great care in the design, and when there is cynicism and greed. We've found that really encouraging," Ive said.
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