Skeuomorphism Isn’t iOS’s Biggest Problem

Word leaked out earlier that the new release of Apple’s operating system, iOS 7, is in for a major overhaul, most notably bringing an end to so-called “skeuomorphic” design (visual metaphors reflecting the physical objects a digital version aims to replace – e.g. the faux leather in “Find My Friends,” bookshelves in iBooks, fake glass, notepad paper in Notes, green felt in Game Center, and so on.) It’s a welcome change to say the least, but more concerning is the fact that outside of the visual tweaks, the overall look of the operating system is supposed to remain very familiar.

That’s too bad, because iOS – perfectly simple as she may be – has gotten a little boring.

It’s easy to see the dilemma. Apple has found success by making technology accessible to a wide audience through careful design, quality craftsmanship and in-store technical assistance from blue shirt-wearing “geniuses.” A truly radical overhaul of its operating system could alienate a mainstream user base who’s grown comfortable with the general look-and-feel of iOS and its incrementally improving feature set.

But for another segment of the population – those no longer new to the concept of smartphones (or rather, these mini computers we occasionally use for phone calls) – iOS is starting to feel dated.

Rows of app icons. Hooray.

After years of back and forth between iPhones and Nexus devices, god knows I’ve tried to make Android stick, lured away by things like customizations, launchers, live updating widgets, as well as improved app switching, voice search, navigation, notification drop-downs, lock screens, and more – all of which I’d call “better,” but people will argue, so let’s just say “better for me.”

Yet as someone who writes about technology and startups, you can’t just abandon yourself to one platform. Startups often launch iOS first, requiring continued use of an iPhone, though my SIM currently resides in a Nexus 4 for the above reasons.

Most people are locked into contracts or can only afford one phone at a time, so I’m fortunate to usually have a few Androids, Windows Phones and iPhones at my disposal. (Sorry BlackBerry). Moving between the three, and it’s clear to see that the OS now coming up short in terms of pushing the bar forward is iOS. Hopefully, the new version of the operating system will address that problem. I’d love to be surprised again.

With iOS 7, we reportedly may get the following additions: new toggle switches for accessing quick settings in the notifications bar; deeper Flickr and Vimeo integration into the core OS; panoramic, scrollable background wallpapers; notifications you can manipulate with gestures; and maybe a new gesture to access “glance-able” information panels, like Notification Center. (This is why there are fanboy wars. Who had these things first? Not Apple. And when you realize that, it’s hard not to scoff. I get it.)

The big shift from skeuomorphism to flat design has not been without controversy – battle lines have been drawn on both sides of the design community. But if this and a few other tweaks is all we’re getting, there will be some letdown. To the untrained user’s eye, they’ll probably only notice that the interface and apps look different or more modern, and then either feel warmly or turned off by those changes, without having the correct language to explain what precisely has been edited or why. But the end of the day, gradients, colors, textures, styles – it all starts feeling like the OS got a new coat of paint. Necessary because rust was starting to show – and wow, does this paint sparkle! – but a coat of paint, nonetheless.

What does iOS really need? Oh wait, someone already did that post, with some snark of course. (The point being, there’s no way Apple can announce enough things at WWDC to please everyone. This is true.)

But let’s dig in anyway. For starters, there’s the problem of Apple’s services being no match for Google’s. From mail to calendaring to documents, Google is winning in the cloud. Apple needs to build a more functional iCloud – one that people understand, that isn’t angering developers, one that isn’t broken, buggy and overpriced. Google’s predictive add-on Google Now, also currently outsmarts Siri’s more limited virtual assistant, though Apple could change that quickly by opening up Siri’s API to third-party developers.

Apple also needs to be at least slightly more open. There’s a way of doing this where it could still maintain some level of control. For instance, it would be useful if apps could better to talk to each other and share data between them. With an ever-increasing number of iOS applications available, it’s becoming a winner takes all market. But because apps are treated largely as isolated silos, app engagement and usage rapidly declines after install. A shocking percentage of apps are never even opened.

Apps are tucked away in obscure backscreen folders and forgotten. That means, developers, in turn, have to use increasingly spammy push notifications to encourage re-opens. Frustrated, users simply delete the apps constantly bothering them. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s hard also to see the harm in a bit more customizable operating system. One which loads the perfectly good vanilla experience for the masses, but which advanced users can personalize via the settings, allowing for new behaviors, gestures, homescreen setups, widgets, automations, different keyboards (I mean, really!), visualizations, layouts, and more. Why, for example, is it Apple’s call how many apps are stuffed in a folder, how many screens I have, or how many apps sit in my dock? Why can’t third-party apps become my “default”  browser, contacts app, notepad, weather app, mail client, and more? Why can’t I share to any app I want from Safari, not just Facebook, Twitter, iMessage and Mail? And so on.

There are those who will say that these sorts of changes are just not Apple’s M.O. They think for you, make the tough design decisions, and it usually works. It’s hard to point to their numbers and prove any differently. Still, a large number of Apple’s iOS users are perfectly comfortable with their iPhones and iPads now – they’re no longer as welcoming the heavy hand as they are feeling crushed by it. And they may be switching to Android, or just going Android-first when they finally ditch their feature phone.

So here’s hoping Apple can still surprise us with a new iOS 7 operating system whose newly upgraded beauty is more than skin deep, but is rather something which, once again, “just works”…for everyone.

Image credit: Simply Zesty