Ever since Apple announced the iPhone X and iPhone 8 last month, I've been thinking a lot about how they've begun to approach design as a whole, and frankly, it's not good.
Let's start with the "notch" on the iPhone X. It’s not strange, nor interesting, nor even odd. It’s just bad, and that results in a bad user experience. Apple attempted to justify the notch by saying it houses all of this new technology for Face ID, which lets you unlock the device just by looking at it. This could have easily been accomplished without a visual break in the display, yet here we are, a device with an awkward blind spot cradled by two useless blobs of otherwise useful screen real estate.
Visually speaking, it’s ugly and thoroughly un-Apple like. It completely undermines the core premise of the iPhone X’s design – all screen. It offers a feature as an excuse in search of a solution that was needed – no one asked nor wanted Face ID, and now it raises new concerns about security for users. Apple could have just as easily removed the notch and kept Touch ID, but this time on the back of the device (similar to what many Android OEMs have been doing for years now in an attempt to create a truly immersive front panel i.e. Samsung, LG, Essential, Google to name a few). And from a performance standpoint, nothing differentiates the iPhone X from the iPhone 8 beyond aesthetics and the fact that the former is the flagship out of the two only because Apple wants it to be.
Honestly, I’d love to say that the awful design compromise – and that is what it is, a compromise – is an anomaly for Apple, but it would be far more accurate to describe it as the norm.
Let’s go back in time a little bit and reminisce when Apple could do little wrong. “Macintosh works the way people work,” read one 1992 ad. Rather than requiring downloads and installations, Apple made it so that you could just plug in a mouse and start up the machine and it would just work. They managed to marry that ease of use with truly innovative and groundbreaking industrial design that so many other companies tried and failed to imitate over the last two decades. It’s easy to see just how Apple became the company for artists – the work was sublime and elegant.
Apple was frequently lauded as the best-in-class when it came to the synchronicity between hardware and software design, but things began to change right around the time of iOS 7 launching back in 2013.
iOS 7 was the first visual refresh to iOS overseen by Jony Ive, the darling designed of Silicon Valley who up to that point was seen as someone who could do no wrong. That wasn’t the case, as iOS 7 was confusing and amateurish, and up until iOS 9, still felt relatively incomplete as a thought. Ive had eschewed the former skeuomorphic design in favour of a more minimal, flat aesthetic – one that the digital world was fast embracing. However, Ive’s approach lacked any consistency. Icons all across the system could vary, and while it may seem like nitpicking, these are the kinds of details that Apple would never have gotten wrong before. Apple’s foundation – the lust worth design, the cohesion, total simplicity without sacrificing utility, was slowly eroding with the release of each new product.
Even John Gruber, the most evangelical and ardent of Apple bloggers, said this of the iPhone X’s notch: "It offends me. It’s ungainly and unnatural. This is Apple’s biggest product of 2017?”
What’s most surprising is that it’s been a long time since Apple blew anyone away with its innovation. Most of what’s been released in the Tim Cook era has been largely iterative of the Steve Jobs era. Larger iPads and smaller iPads. Bigger iPhones and smaller iPhones. Sure, Apple released a stylus for the iPad, but that was Apple merely addressing a market and what third parties had been clumsily producing for years. Sure, the cameras got better and the screens sharper, but so did everyone else's. Samsung for years has showcased larger, higher resolution and more sophisticated displays. The software became more complex but not necessarily more usable. Siri went from being there to, "eh, maybe it’ll work this time who knows?" (and totally blown out of the water by the likes of Google and Amazon). Apple Maps improved but is compared to Google’s offering in the same way that Bing is compared to Google’s search. It’s there, but who really cares?
And then there’s the Watch. Late to the game, as usual, everyone thought that it was just because Apple wanted to release the perfect smartwatch, and well, it was far from that. It was riffing off of other devices that came before it and the software was so poorly conceived that Apple had to rebuild it just two versions later. And the newest release is being torn to shreds for features that should work but just don’t (like LTE that can’t connect and a laughable battery).
This doesn’t just end at the hardware level, nor the UI. The ecosystem as a whole is an utter mess. It’s impossible to backup your iPhone without needed iTunes, and your Apple ID and iTunes Account are seemingly separate for reasons only Eddy Cue and Phil Schiller know. It’s almost as if the company is starting to go down the path of itself back in the 90s being buried under the weight of its products, before the return of Jobs. Its unable to cut ties with past concepts that don’t fit the ecosystem anymore (iTunes), unable to choose clear paths forward (USB-C or Lightning?) and is choosing a user-hostile route by compromising core, universal elements to make room for splashy “features” all the while executing short-term solutions to long-term problems (AirPods > 3.5mm headphone jack?)
Even the naming scheme of Apple is thoroughly confusing. There’s the:
- MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro,
- Mac Mini, Mac Pro
- iMac, iMac Pro
- iPad, iPad Pro, iPad Mini,
- iPhone, iPhone Plus, iPhone X
- Watch Series 1, Watch Series 3, Watch Nike+, Watch Hermes, Watch Edition
That’s Mini, Air, Pro, Edition, Plus. No consistency across products names, no consistency across product hardware, and most importantly, no consistency across the user experience as a whole. This isn’t an argument as to what Jobs may or may not have done; this is an argument for a central, cohesive vision that just isn’t there. When Schiller, Ive, and Cook cannot and will not provide that vision, who can and will?
Fans will shout justifications for a stylus that must be charged by sticking it in the bottom of an iPad, a “back” button that crammed into a tiny status bar, a system of expensive dongles used to connect devices that until a year ago didn’t need dongles and adapters, and a visual notch that rudely juts into the display of a $1,000 phone. However, the reality is that no matter how much or how well Apple sells, the company is stuck in an idea vacuum, like Microsoft in the 00s, or Apple in the 90s.
When smartphones first came on the scene, Blackberry and Nokia reigned supreme. But they became complacent and stopped innovating. They didn't see the need for things like a 3.5mm headphone jack. Then came the iPhone in 2007, and Apple turned the entire industry on its head. Everyone was chasing Apple and their design supremacy. What's funny is that now Apple is the one playing catchup in both hardware and software, as the likes of LG and Samsung (and now Google, Huawei and Xiaomi) are out-Apple'ing Apple.
The thing is that with victory often comes a sense of complacency, and in Apple’s case, that comes in the form of design for design’s sake. Design without tough. A comfort in resting on your laurels and lauded history. An increasing lack of concern for what’s coming next. And in technology, the next thing is always the one that breaks you, which makes me ask the question:
Does Apple know what’s coming next?