Apple's latest iteration of its mobile operating system, iOS 7, introduces a number of long-awaited features. For everyone other than iPhone devotees, however, much of what Apple presented on stage looked eerily familiar.
The new interface, devoid of leather, felt, and stitching, invites comparisons with Microsoft's “Metro” UI found on Windows Phone and Windows 8. Apple has played a game of design catch-up to some extent, adding settings toggles, a simpler multitasking interface, and swiping gestures to its OS.
Apart from a few remarkable examples, almost every concept in modern mobile UI has its origins elsewhere. Let's take a look at Apple's new multitasking menu. The simple icon-based multitasking is gone, replaced by a horizontally scrolling set of page previews. Immediate parallels can be drawn with Windows Phone’s multitasking menu, but the interface is also virtually identical to that introduced with the HTC One X and Sense 4. For anyone that's used a Palm Pre, though, the ancestry of modern multitasking is clear. Palm's highly innovative webOS introduced card-based multitasking to the world over four years ago, with horizontally scrolling preview panes that could be closed with a simple swipe away.
Visual similarities make Sense
Control Center serves as another prime example of how ideas are born, reused, and reworked constantly by mobile designers. Apple's new swipe-up menu gives you quick access to often-used functions like Airplane mode, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a brightness control. LG and Samsung were among the first major manufacturers to implement swipe-down settings toggles, adding them to their Android skins a few years ago. Several iterations of Nokia's Symbian also featured settings toggles, as did Microsoft's Windows Mobile devices, and they've been available in Android as optional homescreen add-ons for a long time. Given their prevalence across other platforms, toggles have been a much-anticipated addition to Apple's mobile interface, so it should come as no surprise that jailbreakers have made such functionality available to them for years. SBSettings is a highly customizable menu that lets you add a number of settings to a swipe-down drawer. It predates Apple's Notification Center by years.
Both Control Center and the tweaked Notification Center also introduce transparency in a way never seen before in iOS. But again, anyone familiar with modern mobile interfaces won't be shocked by the implementation. Jailbreak apps like NBSettings, which has similar functionality to SBSettings, use Gaussian blur and transparency to overlay the menu above your content, just like Control Center. But the concept goes back a long way. WebOS was full of transparency — the app launcher even floated above your wallpaper in a translucent bubble.
Blur and transparency date back to Windows Vista
For the first major use of blur and transparency in a consumer OS, you need only look at Windows Vista. The introduction of Aero Glass, which blurred background content in a strikingly similar way to iOS 7's overlays, came in 2005, although OS X had translucency in its dock since its introduction in 2000, and Apple has toyed with the concept a lot in its desktop software over the years.
Much of Apple's iOS refresh is simply a "modernization" of its age-old interface. Messages, Mail, Calendar, Notes, Reminders, and other pre-installed apps have been reworked with sparse interfaces, but in most cases the way the apps function is virtually identical. There are a few borrowed ideas even here, though: all of Apple's core apps support a swipe from the left to go back a step, replacing the old "back" button present in virtually every iOS app. Anyone familiar with Android will be used to swiping from the edge, but the idea was first popularized by Nokia with the company's MeeGo-powered N9 and its Swipe UI, and it is also featured in BlackBerry 10.
The issue isn't whether Apple stole, it's whether it did a good job of it
Such is the nature of software design; we could go through Apple's entire UI and pick apart the influences. Apple's new incoming call screen, which calls on users to "swipe to answer," is similar in function to Samsung’s TouchWiz, and looks just like Windows Phone 8. The playful "parallax" backgrounds, which shift when you move your phone, were demoed by now-BlackBerry-owned TAT in 2009. The Camera app now lets you take square pictures and apply filters — sound familiar? Speaking of the Camera app, that icon looks an awful lot like BlackBerry 10's. Aren't those "motion backgrounds," which feature circles and lots of soft bokeh, just like the wallpapers introduced by Google in Android Ice Cream Sandwich? The list goes on. But let's travel back to 1994, when Steve Jobs famously paraphrased Picasso, saying that "good artists copy, great artists steal." Taking concepts and interpreting them as your own is something all creatives do. It’s this interpretation and improvement of ideas that’s key. With iOS 7, the question isn't whether Apple's artists are copying or stealing good ideas — it’s whether they're doing a good job evolving them.