Apple’s WWDC keynote was largely about catching up. Fix iCloud. Release a subscription music service. And ditch all the skeuomorphism that was making them look hokey next to their contemporaries.
For those who’ve been following the minutiae of interface design, you’ll see that many of their ideas, from OS X Maverick to iOS 7 are actually old, or at the very least familiar. You can’t look at Apple’s latest software without seeing the influence of Windows 8, Android, and yes, even Chromebooks. But as Steve Jobs once famously paraphrased (and the tech press has mentioned way too often), "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." Here’s some of what Apple stole in their latest software updates and, in many cases, made better:
Origin: Windows Vista "Aero"
The first thing you notice when looking at iOS 7 is the flatness. The home screen’s icons lack a plastic sheen. iMessage’s chat bubbles are no longer bubbly. And each button has been reconsidered with a 2-D presence.
But the second thing you’ll notice are the liberal plays on transparency. Menus like Command Center look like typography has been printed directly on a pane of glass. Meanwhile, your desktop or app blurs away in the background—still there, just no longer noticeable.
It’s a trick that we originally saw in Aero, the Windows Vista transparent interface that was notorious for requiring powerful graphics cards (many of us had to turn it off to run Windows at all). But there is a big difference in implementation. Whereas Microsoft used transparency to sell us on the grandeur of 3-D, Apple is using it to subtly highlight the otherwise hidden depth of its "flat" interface. The effect is humanizing, as a photo of a friend or child hides below, tempering the graphic minimalism.
When Android came on the scene, it was incredibly ugly—except for one stunning feature known as live wallpapers. They were actually a poor design choice, generally clashing with icons and distracting your eye from the UI (do you really want a cartoon playing under a stagnant app?). Plus, they further decimated Android’s already lousy battery life.
Today, Apple isn’t embracing a fully animated background with iOS 7, but it is lifting the detailed weather screens that were probably the live wallpaper’s greatest hallmark. More importantly, though, Apple is also animating the homepage in a far subtler way: parallax viewing. As the angle of the phone changes in your hand, the image shifts so you can actually look around and under icons. With live wallpapers, Google wanted your desktop to feel alive. With iOS 7’s responsive, parallax home screen, the iPhone just might.
Since Google I/O, I’ve been living with (and sometimes cursing at) the Google Chromebook they handed me after the keynote. I’m convinced it’s actually a model of computing to come, even if its browser and cloud-based apps have gotten a lot of flack.
Moving on to OS X Mavericks, the unpopular Chromebook’s influence is clear. Apple is shifting apps like iWork to a browser-based panel, where every change you make is automatically synced in the cloud. You can even open iWork on a PC and, because of this setup, experience the same iWork UI as you have on your Mac.
Like a car company reshaping the lines of its iconic sports car over five to ten years, Apple is coyly easing us into the app as a cloud wrapper, while solving one of Apple’s greatest problems today: How to sync a user’s apps across desktops and mobiles. Now, is that the right approach for a design leader? I don’t know. But it is the proven way for a big company to make big changes without raising big blowback from consumers.
The Palm Pre was the best phone that nobody bought. And it infamously recruited many of Apple’s own designers and engineers to build it—who, in turn, were eager to fix many issues with the old iOS. The most beloved fix in the Pre was likely its approach to multitasking, which depicted apps as a series of cards that you could flick through, left to right.
Truth be told, this is probably iOS’s most blatant design lift (though the Mail app’s swiping gestures are a close second), and Apple didn’t necessarily inject so much of its own identity that it feels remade. But who cares? What you see here is simply the best way anyone has ever devised to multitask on a phone. I’d rather see the Pre channeled posthumously than lose this logical, tactile piece of UI forever.
Tags, currently popularized by Twitter "hash" variety (originating in IRC), and tabbed browsing (with old origins but popularized by Opera and Firefox) are vastly different UI elements, but they were both born with the same intent: In the internet age, how do you enable a person to sort through a gluttony of information when they’ve bitten off more than they can possibly chew?
By adding tags to sort through OS X’s Finder, and by implementing tabs to organize their own desktop apps, Apple has adopted two of the most subtly powerful tools of using the Internet for the desktop. When you consider the fact that cloud apps are only becoming more important to Apple (see above), it’s clear that Apple is laying the scaffolding for its own Chromebook that consumers may adore as much as a Macbook.
It’s easy to read an article like this one and villainize Apple. (After all, this is the company that patented some of its fundamental gestures like pinch-to-zoom.) But to do so misses out on the greater narrative at play.
Truth be told, Apple is rarely first to market with any technological trick. Heck, it even stole the GUI from Xerox! What Apple has excelled at for decades is the ability to lift all the right parts of all the right design and place them all in the right places. Apple will sell us on Chromebooks, in their own way, just like it convinced us that a battery-powered hard drive was the greatest portable music player ever invented. Because in Apple’s hands, discrete etudes of design can become product symphony.