Apple has shown their cards, for now. And even in light of all the hysteria around Jony Ive’s first new products and iOS 7’s unicorn icons, not much is different in Apple’s upcoming desktop and mobile software. iOS 7 is a reskin. OS 10.9 is an iterative update. So we got together with our friends at Co.Labs and began thinking, what do we want to see in Apple’s big update?
And what we imagined was very much in sync. Rather than an OS 11 or an iOS 8, we’re banking on Apple aiming higher—a unified Apple OS that could run on Macbooks, iPhones, iPads, and who knows, even iWatches and Apple TVs. But to pull off such a stunt is more than a mere technical feat; it will require Apple to solve some of the biggest problems in interface design today while anticipating the unforeseen challenges of tomorrow. Here are a few design features we’d like to see in Apple’s future unified OS.
Right now, to get a file from your Macbook to your iPhone, you might either email it or Dropbox it. That means uploading it from a computer or cell phone, through fiber optic deep underground, up to a satellite in space, back to the ground, through countless servers, to a cell phone tower, to your phone that’s five feet away. How silly.
Apple has introduced wireless standards like Airdrop to handle this locally, but we’d like to see Apple do even better. What if, just as Ischac Bertran showed, we could drag and drop files, right from one screen to another? Because if we’re using physical objects, why not acknowledge these objects, and allow them to interact with one another in real space?
Talking to the lead designer of Android recently, he let me in on the industry’s dirty little secret. Big companies like Google require their developers to lock their devices, but almost no normal person locks their phone or computer because even entering a PIN is a pain. So the industry works in a bubble, forgetting how vulnerable most of the population’s information is to theft.
Find My iPhone is an impressive service, but it’s only a start. With a unified OS, we’d like to see a new level of mindless security options just like we see in automobiles today. The experience should be something like Ford imagined—no harder than placing your phone next to your computer—while the backend can authenticate you in any way they’d like—some combination of your location, device signatures, and passive fingerprinting technologies (webcams have gotten a lot of flack in IDing faces, but times have changed—cameras can read your heartbeat now). If some combination of these checks fails (maybe 1/100 times), then fine, ask me for my password. I won’t mind. Apple should view security not as an on or off thing, but as a passive standard that can make everyone safer.
iWork and iBooks aren’t the most exciting breakthroughs in OS 10.9—well, not at first glance. But when you consider what they represent—cloud-synced apps that share files across platforms—the possibilities for a universal Apple OS are intriguing.
In short, we’d like to see every single app adopt a download once, get-it-everywhere model (which Apple is already playing with, to a small extent). But that’s not all. We’d like to see every file saved duplicated to the cloud. Basically, take the core promise of a Chromebook’s use of Google apps and apply it to everything in the App Store. As for iCloud, it can exist. But why should I, as a consumer, ever have to hear about it as a product distinct from the OS itself?
Windows 8’s Metro interface was, quite possibly, the most ambitious software redesign in history. Its promise was to offer a unified experience across tablets, laptops, and phones. Its problem was that Metro, while a beautiful, high-design product, lacks the multitasking prowess of an ugly old desktop.
This is Apple’s biggest, first-wave challenge of a unified OS: How to create a UI that works as well on tablets as it does laptops? To be honest, Apple’s best answer to that question might be a sidestep. Rather than create a universal experience across platforms, they should create a related experience across platforms. I imagine 80% similarity. Keep the language consistent but acknowledge that a mouse and keyboard will navigate a screen differently than a finger. Oh, and make Macbooks and iMacs touch-sensitive already, not because it’s the best way to use them but because it will create a feel of continuity that a universal OS requires. Fundamentally, the OS shouldn’t be touchable on one Apple platform but not another.
At WWDC, Apple talked a lot about prepping for the next decade. And the next decade will include the rise of the Internet of Things, when the dumb devices in your life begin speaking to one another (and to you!). But on the interface side, there’s a big problem: We’re lacking a means through which we’ll control them.
Apple’s OS will need to find a way into the Internet of Things. Maybe it’s a dashboard. Maybe it a proximity-based handshake (like NFC)—the iPhone with iOS 7 did race several R/C cars around stage at WWDC. The exact implementation is up in the air, but one thing is for sure: If you think your apps are unwieldy on your iPhone, the one-icon-one-object idea will only scale worse to a truly connected world. Apple needs to discover a control and indexing paradigm that doesn’t rely on every device you own being or having its own app.
Why is every experience we have on an Apple platform branded? Why is it wrapped in an app or a trademark? Why can’t Apple channel that old idea, the one where "it just works."
Apple’s next OS should live in the land of verbs, not nouns. I want to "listen," not open iTunes. I want to "go," not check a map for directions. And sometimes I want to just "talk" without somebody talking back. Today, Siri enables some of these interactions halfway. But why is it that Apple isn’t learning my tastes and predicting my preferences? Why doesn’t it anticipate that I’ll want music when I plug in my headphones if that’s my normal habit? Why doesn’t my Macbook pull up my Gmail each morning, since it’s the first thing I check at 6:45 each day? Google Now is pushing the web to anticipate our needs. Apple could do the same in our apps and interface.
Reading over our own list, I have to say, the suggestions seem tame. We’re not asking for objects that float in midair or wrap themselves around your living room. We’re not even asking for the relatively simple technologies that can enable screens and everyday objects to recognize your touch. With new software alone, Apple could revolutionize the feel of its existing products. Now here’s hoping it actually does it.
[Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]