Trajectories

Software

I have a hard time believing it, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the Mac has reached the end of the line. Let’s say there’s little room left to innovate on the hardware side, and just room for small refinements and life-support maintenance on the software side. Let’s say Apple is not entirely wrong in choosing to neglect the Mac. Let’s say iOS is really the future and the right bet.

How is iOS supposed to evolve to become as mature and versatile a platform as the Mac?

If how iOS has evolved until now is of any indication, the trajectory points towards the addition of Mac-like features and behaviours to the operating system. For example, iPads have become better tools for doing ‘serious work’ by adding more (and more useful) keyboard shortcuts, and by improving app multitasking with features like Slide Over, Split View, and Picture in Picture.

I may be wrong about this but my theory is that, in order for iOS to become more powerful and versatile, its user interface and user interaction are bound to get progressively more complex. The need may arise to increase the number of specialised, iPad-only features, features that would make little sense on the iPhone’s smaller footprint, or for the way people use iPhones versus iPads.

Current iOS power users, proficient tech people who have mastered the art of picking the right apps and perfecting workflows, would certainly be happier if iOS allowed for more built-in flexibility and interoperability, so as to make such workflows (mostly reliant on third-party apps) even smoother. They certainly wouldn’t mind the added complexity of the user interface/interaction.

Brief aside: I’m speaking of ‘complexity’ in relative terms. Think, for example, how iOS 7 was more complex than iOS 4, and how iOS 10 is more complex than iOS 7. It’s a complexity derived from the addition of features, gestures, layers of interaction.

There’s an observation that has stuck with me, something an acquaintance wrote me some time ago. I talked about his experience in this article. He said (emphasis mine): I can learn to become efficient on the iPad more or less to the point where I am now with Macs and PCs […] but at the same time I wonder why I should bother. […] My impression is that to switch to iPad-only, I have to take three steps back in order to make one step forward, while I just can keep moving forward by staying on the Mac. I may be totally wrong, but it doesn’t really feel like ‘progress’, this re-learning of workflows to maybe one day be as efficient and productive as I already am now.

I realise there are people today who experience iOS first, and maybe Mac OS later, or even not at all. The afore-quoted observation may not apply to them, but I think it’s still valid for a great number of people out there.

Suppose Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on. What is iOS’s trajectory going to be? How is it going to evolve? One of iOS’s major strengths is the hardware-software integration, which is perhaps even more cohesive than the Mac’s. If the future is iOS-first or iOS-only in Apple’s plans, it is necessary that new iOS devices appear at a certain point. Devices that need to be more sophisticated, maybe with bigger displays or with hardware capabilities that let them interface with external displays and peripherals. Solutions will have to be implemented to provide a seamless experience for the user if or when these hypothetical desktop-oriented iOS devices appear. If touch remains the only input method in iOS, how can the user interface and the user interaction be kept ‘simple’ when future iOS devices need to connect and interact with other peripherals? The relatively straightforward scenario where a future iOS tablet or laptop hybrid connects to an external display to do more than just desktop mirroring begets all kinds of user experience considerations. To make just one example — Does the main device display essentially become a touchpad and the OS interface gets transferred to the external display, and will there be some sort of pointer to manipulate the UI in this configuration?

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating, perhaps I’m just following a pet theory I have and am blinded by confirmation bias, but when I look at possible trajectories for iOS, all I see is a not-fully-mature operating system that, year after year, version after version, is approaching a point the ‘old’ Mac OS X reached a while ago. Innovation in the iOS platform is mostly hardware-driven, in my opinion. Oversimplifying a bit, the software part is a touch-based container for apps. In iOS’s software and user interface, the innovative bit happened at the beginning: simplicity through a series of well-designed, easily predictable touch gestures. Henceforth, it has been an accumulation of features, new gestures, new layers to interact with. The system has maintained a certain degree of intuitiveness, but many new features and gestures are truly intuitive mostly to long-time iOS users. Discoverability is still an issue for people who are not tech-savvy.

What I’m trying to argue here is that — if we zoom out a bit and consider the big picture — the revolution in personal computing brought by iOS feels (to me) more like a reinvention of the wheel [1] than a tangible progression. iOS has made some things simpler for a wider number of people, and that’s really nice, but for now this purported ‘Post-PC era’ is (to me) still rough and somewhat disappointing. If I understood Steve Jobs’s vision, the ‘Post-PC era’ should be a time where iPhones and iPads can be valid solutions to accomplish most tasks in a mobile-driven scenario, instead of having to bring traditional computers everywhere, but where traditional computers — and especially the Mac — still have a place to take care of all the complex tasks they excel at.

Instead, what I’m feeling when I consider how Apple is currently treating the Mac (both the hardware and the software), is a different take on the jobsian Post-PC era of ‘cars’ and ‘trucks’. It’s a take where the traditional computer and its operating system are dumbed down and made progressively less relevant to push a platform that is still not equipped to fully stand on its own. A Post-PC era where we should eventually get rid of traditional computers to switch to devices and an operating system that will have to behave more like traditional computers to provide a similar level of versatility. And we will have gone through the effort to reach a similar level of productivity as we have now on the Mac because…? Because iOS is nicer and feels fresher? And for how long will iOS keep feeling nicer and fresher? Is there something more in iOS’s trajectory than iteratively better iPhones and iPads?


Related reading: The Mac is just as compelling

 


  • 1. An undeniably cool one, but still. ↩︎

 

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