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Beauty in Simplicity

Jony Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple) says that there is beauty in simplicity. It’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field (even without the influence of Steve Jobs) and rave about how great Apple’s latest efforts are without really analysing them logically, but I think that catch-phrase – beauty in simplicity – has a lot of truth.

As a programmer and database and web site designer myself I know how easy it is to create something with a lot of features and functions. But while a “Microsoft” type of product with every feature imaginable and a disorganised mess of user interface elements to access those features may seem impressive, it’s actually the simpler, uncluttered products, such as the one’s Apple makes, which are truly superior.

In some ways it’s about what you leave out rather than what you put in. If something is designed properly it can appear simple and uncluttered while still providing plenty of functionality. But that is actually harder than just trying to do everything with little thought to how the user accesses those functions, how they are presented, or how they work together.

I think this principle applies to everything which is why I used more general terms above, but it is most apparent in software design, hence the example of Microsoft software user interfaces.

So what’s the point of all this? Well Apple are currently holding their World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco and the keynote presentation showed off several new iterations of Apple’s current products including iOS7, the latest version of the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

I don’t generally like to comment on products I haven’t used myself but I will present some initial thoughts here and perhaps do an actual review once I have used iOS7 for a while.

Many people (me included) think that the current version of iOS is very functional and simple to use but it is starting to feel a little bit lacking in some areas and maybe starting to show it’s age. After all, the first iPhone which used iOS was introduced a whole 6 years ago now – an eternity in computer terms!

So something had to be done and it seemed to make sense to have Apple’s design genius, Jony Ive, have a look at the system and bundled apps and apply some of his magic. It looks like he has succeeded. The new iOS looks simpler and cleaner but still has more functionality. The advanced features are accessible when they need to be, but don’t get in the way. It looks encouraging although I think they could have gone even further in perhaps eliminating the simple grid application layout.

Some people will say there isn’t a lot of real innovation there. I agree. But in many ways – despite what is often believed – Apple isn’t really about innovation at the most basic level. They are more about doing things right rather than doing them first. Let’s look at some examples…

The Apple II was the first home computer which most people could use, but there were a few other models which pre-dated it so it wasn’t really first home computer.

The graphical interface and mouse on the Mac (and Lisa before that) weren’t invented by Apple. They were developed at Xerox PARC. But Apple took those elements and improved them to a point where they worked (within the limitations of the hardware of the day). So again they weren’t the first with a graphical interface they were just the first to do it right.

The iPod was not the first MP3 player. There were plenty of others before that. But again the iPod was easy to use and had good capacity (although 5GB seems small by today’s standards) so it become very successful (at least once a PC compatible version was released) and to many seems like it was the one product which started the digital music revolution.

The same applies to the iPhone. There were many smart phones before that. Some of them had quite impressive feature lists, but those features were slow and awkward and most people didn’t use them. I had a very sophisticated Sony phone before I got my first iPhone and it had a web browser, email client, video chat, and many other features. But I didn’t use those features because they just didn’t work well. That all changed with the iPhone because everything was usable.

You must be getting the idea now so do I really need to mention that the iPad was not the first tablet, but that earlier efforts were truly awful?

So the same applies to iOS7. There are elements there which are just enhanced versions of what is in iOS6, and there are elements reminiscent of alternative systems like Android and Windows 8. But I suspect that it is how the functions work together and how they are so easily accessible and so intuitive to the user which sets them apart.

I guess I won’t really know until I start using iOS7. Luckily my iPhone 5 is new enough to be able to use all of its features. Sadly, my poor old iPad 1 can’t even run iOS6. Still, that is now 3 years old – virtually a vintage device in the fast moving world of computers!

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