The weather icon on the iPhone's homescreen always reads a pleasant 73 degrees and sunny. It has since the original iPhone was released, a comfortable, inoffensive temperature that matches the comfortable, inoffensive homescreen on iOS.
The prevailing opinion after the iPhone 5 announcement is that it's boring, but still pretty great. The hardware is without a doubt impressive from a technical and engineering standpoint, but iterative on previous designs. The software is as competent as we've come to expect from Apple. Together they make for a product that's not surprising — and therefore a little boring.
"Boring" doesn't quite encapsulate what's happening with the iPhone 5, though. The new iPhone is timid. Apple has taken very few — if any — real chances. It's a safe, pleasant, and sunny 73 degrees on the iPhone.
Thoughtful, beautiful, and a wonder of modern engineering — but it is not radical
As we noted in our hands-on with the iPhone 5, the thinner and taller design feels incredibly light yet still very sturdy. Apple has tossed in the usual assortment of spec bumps: a faster processor, improved camera, and a larger screen. That last item is a bigger change than usual for Apple, but it actually does very little with the extra space from a software perspective. Moreover, compared to the other smartphones, Apple's small adjustment in screen size still leaves its smartphone at the bottom end of the spectrum.
From a distance, it’s actually difficult to tell the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4S apart. Phil Schiller told us that "The design language is an iteration, but otherwise this is a completely new phone." In a promotional video, Jony Ive explained the reticence towards radically changing the iPhone’s design:
When you think about your iPhone, it’s probably the object that you use most in your life. It’s the product that you have with you all the time. With this unique relationship people have with their iPhone, we take changing it really seriously. We don’t want to just make a new phone, we want to make a much better phone.
Apple wasn’t pursuing a bold, new design, it decided to take a safer approach. Scott Wilson, founder of Chicago-based studio MINIMAL — who's had a hand in the design of the Xbox 360, Dell Venue Pro, Microsoft Courier, and the TikTok and LunaTIK iPod nano watches — characterized Apple as "masters of refinement." He puts a positive spin on Apple’s conservative design decisions, saying that "you have to respect the restraint that the company has." The design of the iPhone 5 is thoughtful, beautiful, and a wonder of modern engineering — but it is not radical.
The most important part of the iPhone's physical design has always been its minimalism. It's primarily a window into the software, where all the action is on smartphones. While consistency has served Apple well when it comes to physical design of its products, on the software side it’s a little more complicated. If software is the main design element on modern smartphones — and it is — then we should be seeing Apple sweating each and every pixel just as it sweated each and every micron. Just try to close a dozen notifications on the iPhone and ask yourself if Apple is sweating the details.
The iPhone’s UI basics have never changed
You can count the major UI changes that Apple has made to iOS on one hand: Folders, dock-based multitasking, universal search, the notification drop down, and Siri. In its five year history, iOS has seen smartphone competitors take radically different tacks on the core UI — webOS's multitasking cards, Android's widgets and stacked multitasking thumbnails, Windows Phone's active tiles, and even the upcoming BlackBerry 10's "flow" UI. Through it all, the iPhone’s UI basics have never changed; they invariably consist of a dock of 4 icons, a grid of icons above that, and lots of added features on the periphery.
Because Apple is sticking with its basic UI design, users are missing out in genuinely helpful and innovative ideas that can improve a smartphone experience. Swiping notifications away, widgets and tiles with live information, more intuitive and informative multitasking experiences — are all of these things really so disruptive to the iPhone's simplicity that they would put off new users?
Even if you don't compare iOS to other smartphone platforms, you can compare it to the third-party apps on iOS itself. There has been quite a lot of innovation in UI design and even a degree of consistency. Much of that consistency comes from Apple's own design guidelines, but a new trend has emerged across multiple flagship apps. Sliding panels, where you can swipe the main screen to the right to get a menu of options that lies "behind" it, has found its way into apps from Google, Facebook, Evernote, Path, and many more. It has quickly become a commonly understood and used UI model on iOS apps, but Apple hasn’t adopted it.
Apple doesn't seem to be willing to take any risks at all with the core UI of iOS
The innovation on third party UIs comes in part because developers have near total control over their UI in their apps, free to play around and try new things. Apple, however, doesn't seem to be willing to take any risks at all with the core UI of iOS. Why is that? It could be that the company still believes it nailed it with the iPhone's original UI, but perhaps there's a better explanation.
When Microsoft was at the height of its Windows dominance, it found itself caught in a cycle of sameness with Windows. The need to keep backwards compatibility and the fear that big changes would upset its user base led Microsoft to keep Windows looking the same and behaving the same. It packed on feature after feature, ultimately resulting in a confusing mess of mixed UI metaphors and arcane functionality. The trend culminated in Vista, where Microsoft tried to square the circle of innovating on UI while keeping app functionality the same. It didn't work, and because of the problems in Vista the OS was widely rejected.
Some of that old Microsoftian "don’t mess with success" myopia seems to have affected Apple
Apple has supplanted Microsoft as both the biggest and the most influential company in consumer electronics and technology. Like Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s, it is taking a very conservative approach to updating its core UI in the name of accessibility and consistency. Apple is keeping the iPhone in a very familiar and safe zone, but does it really need to? It’s risky, taking something that’s massively successful and trying something new and different with it. Most companies don’t do it, but Apple has a reputation built making those kinds of bets. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve that reputation anymore.
We could really dig into some of the aggravating parts of iOS 6 — and there are plenty of them — to try to draw a direct parallel to Vista, but that would be disingenuous. To be very clear, the iPhone 5 won't be Apple’s Vista moment. Unlike Vista, it will work and be successful. Some of that old Microsoftian "don’t mess with success" myopia seems to have affected Apple, though. Success and innovation are not the same thing, and once a company stops driving for continuous innovation, it can be a difficult trait to rekindle should business ever slow. Just ask Microsoft, which has spent years rebooting Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
The faster you go, the harder it is to turn
The success of the iPhone has moved at breakneck speed and with every new version it has only accelerated. The faster you go, the harder it is to turn. In that context, it makes sense for Apple to play it safe when it comes to design, both from a hardware and a software perspective.
But we’ve seen where the road of not innovating OS design goes, and Apple may find that the road is shorter than it thinks.