Joe White / AppAdvice

The iOS Paradigm

iOS’s controversial success and ultimate failure

Three years ago, Apple’s premiere, evolutionary software project— iPhone OS— became iOS. At the forefront, the legendary iPhone 4 was packed with beautiful new features, starring iOS 4, arguably one of the most substantial iterations in the chain of OSs that brought more features to more parts of the devices it operated. However, there were still clearly-defined boundaries. This was a time before Notification Center, lockscreen grabbers, Background Refresh, Maps, the ever-imposing Newsstand, and much longer before Control Center. Apps lived on the homescreen, where they were always meant to be. Additional functions hid in specific actions— such as the App Switcher and Accessibility, called with several hits of the home button. The obvious hierarchy of views and defined purpose in features left no room for complications or confusion. This, in terms of the iOS Paradigm, or iParadigm, as I’m fond of calling it, is the height of iOS as “simple” platform.

Three years would bring three new, immense problems, however. How does the monolith behind the most popular and easily operable OS improve what was once self-deemed perfection— without conflicting with its core vision? How do the approachable icons and friendly, calm interfaces evolve to compete with the harsh functionality of Android, or the bolstered technology engines that keep churning out corporate-tuned Windows Phones and BlackBerries?

With iOS 5, the fabric of the iParadigm began to wrinkle. iParadigm, a word I’ve mentioned twice now, is precisely what Apple’s been out to well-define and improve year after year. Previous to 2011’s take on iOS, this wasn’t a topic of conversation. There were three main areas of the iDevice, with few static features that were universally accessible (none of which were necessities). The average use went:

Lockscreen > Homescreen > App > Homescreen > …

and for the power-user,

Lockscreen > Homescreen > App > Switcher > App > …

Only the status bar, volume indicator, accessibility controls, and switcher interfered with app immersion, and only the status bar was usage-required (for the end-user, designers, and developers). All touches and gestures were allowed.

Our lovely little wrinkle of an OS really spun this paradigm on its head, however, with the introduction of Notification Center, Newsstand, and the lockscreen camera grabber. Suddenly, all apps that utilized a top-down gesture had to think different, as iOS reserved that gesture. What seemed obvious— folders— became muddled with Newsstand, a folder-app that could be switched to and killed from the switcher.

The grabber, along with quick-tweets and statuses from the Notification Center’s Share widget, also brought two important questions:

Who assigns the importance of these functions? Apparently the Facebook and Twitter apps were deemed so crucial to the user experience that they deserved built-in allocations in the Notification Center, a view (page? overlay?) that was unconditionally a part of every view on the device (sans the lockscreen).

What are widgets? As Android propelled the functionality of widgets far ahead of iOS, the introduction of a mere three ever-present widgets seemed overtly confusing. Were we meant to dream of creating our own someday? Why are Camera, Weather, Social Updates, and Stocks, all with dedicated apps, able to break the entire idea of “apps” by appearing in places other than themselves? And with Twitter and Facebook, unlike the un-installable stock apps, you don’t even need the clients installed! What does this mean for the iParadigm?

It means the slow collapse of a system that used to be so well established. For example, take the sandboxingof apps. Through this maneuver, Apple denotes the place for apps on iOS. But, if you “make it big,” (see: Facebook, Twitter, Weemo, Flickr, Linkedin, etc) you can break out of the box, and become a “feature” of the OS. A curious move, particularly on Apple’s part, when you consider the removal of Google’s incredible Maps service, in favor of an Apple in-house creation. Was that not meant to make the stock apps seem more stock? And thus, the Apple OS more Apple? As the world outside of the homescreen grew, and invaded the rest of iOS, the left-behinds shrunk, and became more restricted.

But, it certainly doesn’t end there. Let’s skip a year, a few more hits to the iParadigm.

Two months ago, most of us saw our devices bounce to life with the insouciant, colorful iOS 7. Most protested over the drastic changes in the app icons, the user-interface guidelines, the idea that function must be obvious and unquestionable, with hardly any guides necessary (or available). In an ideal world, it seemed, a user could install any iOS 7 app, and without tutorial, know intuitively how to use every function. That’s a noble goal to strive for— one we designers should all keep in mind— but one that can cripple long-set precedences in design, and applications that were already so familiar to the user.

For me, the greatest problem with iOS 7 is, and will always be, the utter shattering of the iParadigm. Control Center and native back-swipes meant three out of the four commonly-used app gestures were eliminated. Suddenly iOS tore out the entire widget idea (which was bound to happen) and replaced it with a overview section, “Today”, and allowed it to be accessible from the lockscreen. But what determined the function and functionality of these sections? Not you, iOS. With all sections of Today enabled, some still disappeared, and were only usable when content was thrown at them from dedicated apps. Reminders, in particular, only showed pertinent tasks when they were deemed so by the OS. Calendar, however, always showed the current block of hours (the size of which is pre-determined), regardless of utility (could be entirely empty). Stocks was expanded to take an immense portion of screen space, sacrificing the familiar skeu-scroll widget of the past. Features that let iOS write to you were selectively forced into the top section of the Notification Center. Birthdays, alarms, schedule summaries, weather, and transportation averages were mostly unconfigurable. Even enabling weather and frequent locations in Settings made no guarantees for what would display. It was up to iOS’ data-discretion and radio-analysis, not you. Even if you wanted to ignore battery conservation or admit possible inaccuracies in locational data, there’s nothing you could do. This padlocked feature-set made me jump to disable all of the above entirely, but even then the iParadigm confuses. If frequent locations is a Notification Center feature, why are its settings in the System Services subsection of the Location Services subsection of the Privacy section in Settings? Can you imagine trying to instruct your grandmother on how to configure the most obvious of features of one of the most important areas of their device? All Apple Genius’ must’ve felt the weight on their shoulders heavy tenfold when mid-September came around this year.

It’s my belief that even Apple is confused about the iParadigm. Removing 3rd-party service widgets in “Today” is understandable, and allowing for Newsstand to be nested is commonsensical. But retaining the widget idea with stock apps seems like cheating. Making Newsstand appear to be a sandboxed, common app, but still forcing App Store content to appear in its threshold is frustrating. Shouldn’t all content access for an app be limited to the app itself? Is Newsstand still a folder, or is it finally an app? You can’t escape from it unless you hit the home button, but you can drag and re-arrange App Store apps from inside!

Even if we back up, and look at the design of iOS 7 as a whole, regardless of specific functions, the iParadigm shudders. Indecisiveness permeates throughout the entire interface of our “most innovative” OS. The über-hyped Parallax that draws in the user, that which is meant to “help establish hierarchy and order,” presents the following ideal:

Wallpaper > Contents > Centers

In this paradigm, user familiarity comes first, then comes the purpose for using the device, until finally comes the power-features, such as Notifications and Control. As you enter an app’s home, its icon, the entire interface zooms— perpetuating the idea that hierarchy is ever-present. You’re entering the second level of the homescreen. The fine-tuned parallax motion of overlays, icons, and menus, directly attests to and conflicts with this model. Whereas before there were well-defined parallel view hierarchies:

App/Folder > Content
Switcher > Notification Center

There is now one super-hierarchy that’s bound to confuse:

Wallpaper > Content/Switcher > Centers/Overlays

Each step of which is highlighted with unavoidable animations. If we think in utmost resoluteness, however, since the overlays and centers can be accessed from any area of iOS, and the switcher from every area except for the lockscreen, the hierarchy refines into two subsets:

Lockscreen: {Wallpaper > Content > Centers > Overlays}
Homescreen: {Wallpaper > Content/Switcher > Centers > Overlays}

With minor redundancies with the lockscreen and the content of the Centers (music controls and notifications appear in the main view, even though they are concurrently designated to their respective centers).

This all comes to a head with the final hit which killed the iParadigm: Quick Reply in Messages. On Mavericks. Back in iOS 4, long before this generation of Apple OSs (iOS 7 and Mavericks), the iParadigm was obvious; the reasons for no Quick Reply were apparent. Messages is an app, and so you should only be able to use it from the app. But, in iOS 7, isn’t Reminders still an app? Calendar? Stocks? Weather? Maps? Good lord, Maps overtakes precisely every possible interface in iOS when giving directions. So, why does Mavericks, an OS which doesn’t have any need for a native Quick Reply, deserve it more than an OS begging for it?

Who’s in charge here, the OS or the apps?
The designer or the developer?
The iParadigm or the competition?

Any honorable Apple developer would say the iParadigm. Yes, integrity is crown. But, whether they realized it or not, they no longer have any ground to stand on, for they removed it themselves. When I say I want an area in Today for my academic application, iStudiez, and a task-view for my productivity app, Clear, who are you to deny me? Apple’s favoritism for its own work is a knock to the gut of every iOS developer who’s released an app for iOS 7.

And now, we all have no choice but to watch for next year’s WWDC headline. If Apple ever believed in “no half measures,” iOS 7 is its greatest conflict, and iOS 8 can be its greatest redemption.