Has function triumphed over aesthetics & art at Apple?
Is Apple headed in the right direction? It seems to be question on everybody’s mind after last Monday (10th June 2013) night’s sneak peek into the future. At first glance, the preview wasn’t very impressive. Just troll through the internet to witness the parodies and memes of what would happen if “Jony Ive redesigns things”. The new screens with flat designs seemed unfinished and poorly executed after they got rid of any and every form of skeuomorphism like it was a malign tumor impeding future growth. It even made most wonder if firing Scott Forstall was the right decision? Is Jony Ive the man for the job? How many would actually move to the new OS?
In fact, it took me back to a moment not so long ago when I read a piece by Austin Carr on Fast Company of the tensions within the company regarding skeuomorphic design. Where Carr wrote that “Inside Apple, tension has brewed for years over the issue. Apple iOS SVP Scott Forstall is said to push for skeuomorphic design, while industrial designer Jony Ive and other Apple higher-ups are said to oppose the direction. You could tell who did the product based on how much glitz was in the UI.” I realized that having Jony Ive heading the head of human interface and becoming the SVP was bound to bring about change. My first impression – maybe he is not an artist but he is ‘the designer’, one who was the driving force behind great Apple products for more than a decade.
Despite my initial disappointment at what they revealed; it failed to impress with the first glimpse which is rare for Apple products. We all missed the artistic aesthetics and the visual finesse that we are used to from Apple. But deep down a voice kept telling me that we were bound to find leaps in function and that is exactly what I found when I looked beyond the visually pale interface. Underneath, the iOS comes alive and so does the OS X Mavericks with improved power and memory management.
Lets begin with the iOS, if on the surface they removed skeuomorphism, underneath it breathes through dimensional layers flipping, turning, folding and even bouncing. Doing all sorts of delightful things including multitasking with cards that you can flip away, taking the game-like technology introduced in the original iOS using OpenGL (for smoother animation) to a whole new level. iOS 7 introduces effects and physics that take the gamification of user experience to new heights. What we get is a virtual collection of objects that can be manipulated or played with by a person’s finger by acceleration and rotation, or through other elements of the system. The people at Apple call it “depth”. Combine that with a design language that lets designers shine, pulling away all the constraints of the previous versions such as layered bars -menu, status and tabs. The end result, all this new improvements truly allows the content to shine.
In the Mavericks OS, we are introduced to new features for power users like App Nap, Timer Coalescing, and Safari Power Saver. Where App Nap intelligently observes what a hidden app behind other windows is doing and if the app is not running background tasks that need to stay active – such as playing music for example or processing data – it slows it down. Timer Coalescing enables the CPU to move into low power mode conserving juice only for application that really needs it. And in Safari the Power Saver doesn’t load cycle-sucking plug-in content until you actually want to watch or interact with it.
iTunes HD is another such feature where power reduction is emphasized by reducing disk access by using the graphics hardware more efficiently and making audio playback more energy-efficient – apparently it adds up to about 35 percent less waste when playing video. If all this was not enough, then Mavericks introduces Compressed Memory – where you can open a bunch of apps without worrying how that impacts your Mac’s available memory. All achieved by compressing data from inactive apps, making power available where it is needed by reducing the size of swap files. Smaller swap files means less disk access translating into improved performance, Apple estimates that Maverick’s responsiveness under load is almost 1.4x better than Mountain Lion, waking from standby mode about 1.5x better.
In the end I am left with a thought that maybe last Monday was not so impressive because it was less than what we have come to expect from the ‘Jobs Era’, vis a vis a visually spectacular presentation. But keeping in mind that some of these technologies will require a buy-in from developers to get the most benefit, it is a good sign that Mac is is giving developers time to optimize before the final product is launched if even at the risk of looking unfinished. What they have achieved in return is getting a framework in place for the next generation of interactive smartphones in place and addressed the need of power users for a more robust system – keeping in mind that Apple sells more laptops than desktops – which benefits everyone in the end.
Yes things look unfinished and unpolished for now, definitely less glitzy. Maybe they might have removed skeuomorphism in the icons but in form and function i feel they have taken it to a whole new level. If my instincts are right, write off and parody Jony Ive and his aesthetic taste at your own expense because come fall be ready to expect a wave unlike none you have ever experienced before.