Apple's new harshest critic: Apple

Rob Walker

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

The forthcoming iOS 7, Apple design guru Jonathan Ive said via a promotional video shown during Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday, is “completely new.” Notably: a revamped structure “that is coherent.”

Good idea! But after a year of outsider skepticism about the company’s post-Steve Jobs future, isn’t that a bit of a backhanded assessment of, you know, the whole history of iOS? Maybe it’s no surprise that Ive would diss previous iterations of iOS: By one account he and Scott Forstall, who was VP of iOS Software before getting sacked last year, “clashed so severely in recent years that they avoided being in the same room together.”

But it seemed to be a recurring theme, in the touting of the upcoming operating system, to underscore how brilliantly it, uh, eliminates design elements of the current one. For example, no more visual references to wooden bookcases and green felt gaming tables — the “skeumorphic” metaphors drawn from the analog world that have become such a bugaboo recently.

Evidently we have a new contender for most trenchant critic of Apple’s interface design: Apple.

This seems to be fallout of a broader strategy by Apple to reclaim the idea of its design supremacy. If you missed WWDC and don’t have time to watch it, consider just checking out the company’s newest marketing efforts. At you’ll find video that opened the conference: Crisp and simple animation, with tinkling-piano and terse text, it amounts to a short and emotional essay on the power of design. Scroll down for Apple’s newest commercial, making a similarly point with shamelessly lush imagery of people being delighted by its products, landing on the slogan “Designed By Apple In California.” While that’s not exactly a new selling point for Apple, it says a lot about the company’s apparent strategy: Without quite admitting that it might have wandered off the design-leadership path in the recent past, it is doubling down on design’s selling power as a key to its future.

The actual iOS7 demo was presented onstage by engineering honcho Craig Federighi. The ad and Ive’s promo video stuck to soaring rhetoric about design being so much more than about how a thing looks. It fell to Federighi to quietly mock the axed skeumorphs — and to go on and on about how great the new iOS aesthetics are going to be. “It’s unbelievable. It’s just gorgeous,” he began. “From the typography on this lock screen, to the vitality of the background and animation, to the home screen, with these icons. It looks so great! It looks fantastic.” Later he demonstrated a weather app that shows falling snow, and a calendar revise with better typography. As for the new Mail: “The type is so clean,” he enthused. So how does it look, Craig?

The upshot was a thorough rejection of the “look and feel,” if you will, that has been hyped by Apple as the gold standard of mobile operating systems for years. Meanwhile, it was much harder to assess what both Ive and Federighi described, and sort of demonstrated, as a system of multiple translucent “layers” for displaying content in a way that gives it a sense of “depth.” It looks kinda cool in the videos, but the user experience — how it works, how it feels — remain to be seen (or rather, experienced).

Other than that, little if anything Federighi said about iOS7 sounded terribly breathtaking in terms of the actual technology. But that’s why it makes sense for Apple to try and restart the conversation about itself as an innovator with a highfalutin ad touting its commitment to design — plus a slew of changes we can all see, ASAP. It’s an attempt to seem less like a company playing defense and spending too much time attacking rivals like Samsung, and more like a company that has some sense of its own recent vulnerabilities.

In the long run, it’s going to take much bigger breakthroughs to prove that Apple can live up to its own history. But in the short run, gets its stylistic house in order again is not only smart but necessary. Because all rhetoric aside, Apple knows better than most that looks matter.