The new iPhone is a sign Apple needs a big iOS rethink

Anthony Caruana
11 September, 2017
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I was chatting to my kids the other day about how movies rarely live up to pre-release hype (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – I’m looking at you) and it struck me that the hype around the iPhone 8 (or iPhone X if some rumours are to be believed) are getting over the top. Wireless charging, better screens, faster processors, facial recognition, augmented reality… the hype around these and features is getting a little excessive.

Apple makes great products. If you look back, the first iBooks and iMacs completely redefined what computers could look like. The beige boxes were gone, replaced with colourful designs that made our computers feel more like furniture than simply a device. They remind me, in a way, of the old record player cabinet my grandparents had. Encased in a crafted timber case, it might have been a record player but it represented a time when design mattered.

That’s what Apple brought to computers. And it did the same with creations like the ‘sunflower iMac’, sometimes called the iLamp. Sure, it was a computer with an LCD display – something few computer users enjoyed at the time – but it looked great. Even the Power Mac G4 Cube, despite its shortcomings, reflected a design philosophy that something could look beautiful and still be useful.

Instead, it seems to me that the great design has been relegated to the background. Now it’s about screen sizes and their size to the decimal point that’s important. Apple seems intent on packing in more features these days – even what it’s to the detriment of users.

While ‘more features’ sounds like a good thing, it’s become a problem for Apple. It’s locked into an arms race with Google and its Android mobile operating system. Every time Android gets a new feature or one of the many non-iOS smartphone makers releases a new device, one of the first things written about is how the new feature is not part of Apple’s products.

The result has been a continuing quest to pack more features in, but the cost has been usability. While it remains easy to make calls, send texts and carry out basic functions, many commands are now buried under an impenetrable layer of interface complexity. Here’s an example.

The iPhone has an in-built torch application. But it’s not an app. It is accessed from the Control Centre. That’s the array of icons you can access by flicking up on the bottom edge of the display. If I had a dollar for every time I wanted to scroll up or down a page, and flicking up from the bottom of the screen or down from the top opened Control Centre or the Notification Centre, I’d be a wealthy man.

So, we have a command that relies on a finger on the screen and depends on quite precise movement.

Assuming you’ve found the torch icon, I discovered by accident that doing a Force Touch (that’s not a Jedi mind trick, it’s when you press down a little harder on the display of recent iPhones and get haptic feedback) you can adjust the brightness of the torch.

Seriously, how is someone meant to know this stuff when there is scant documentation?

Without a doubt, the new iPhone will look like a beautiful device. I’m sure Tim Cook and his team, when they reveal the new phone next week, will have spent the week with their noses buried in a thesaurus looking for new superlatives to tell us how great the new iPhone is. But I’ll bet you that, while the new features will be ‘revolutionary’ and ‘world changing’, a bunch of useful, everyday tasks will be camouflaged and almost inaccessible under an increasingly complex and messy interface.

Some responses from readers

From Tom:

I quite agree – it is time Apple broke the mould again.

I emailed Apple with the full details of an existing technology, where every printed image can be a web link – invisible QR code-like technology.

It already works and is languishing because the owner wants to control and monetarise the image to link pathway. Newspapers and magazines have tried it but the cost per image, US$50-100 per year, and the congestion created by intermediary pathway, made them abject failures.

If Apple built the scanner code into its cameras, built the imbedding into Pages (currently it is a Photoshop add-on), and only managed the links in terms of collecting the raw data incase it was needed for terrorism or abuse policing – it would cause an explosion of image to content publishing. All books would become portals to content, and all signs, public or advertising, could have links to activity, information, images, video, etc.  Imagine a railway map that showed you how to get to a platform, or a real estate ad that turned into a video walkthrough.

Your business card (or t-shirt) could contain multiple relevant links. Each part of an image or page can hold link data, and you can do it all yourself – it would be up to the image owner or creator to maintain the link(s) and content.

I thought that the cost to Apple would be peanuts compared to the uptake in hardware, plus the prestige of exciting the creativity of people everywhere. I work in niche publishing – non-fiction for kids – and to have affordable books as portals to content created and managed by the authors and publishers would be heaven on a stick.

But I am not Tim Cook!

From Alan:

Hi, just read your editorial about hidden actions of the iPhone and I realised when I upgraded from my 5 to 7, I was given training on all the new things I could expect to find, including the torch and its multi-level brightness.

So I suggest you need some training on new gear when you use it.

From Chris:

Your comment about Apple feature overload … “Seriously, how is someone meant to know this stuff when there is scant documentation?”

My experience:

For many years, I have NOT replied to emails where I needed to attach something (using IOS) because the feature is NOT there.

I would always make a mental note to handle that email when I got home using my iMac.

A couple days ago, I was replying to an email and I held a finger on the screen for longer than normal and the frickin’ option to attach something appeared!

At once, I was pleased, annoyed, angry and bottom line … pissed off with Apple for hiding it from me.



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