In many quarters of the tech universe, such a statement would be heresy. Apple are widely lauded for their forward-thinking and game-changing design and interface development, so why does iOS deserve to be compared to an operating system that celebrates its twentieth birthday this year?

 The reason is that, essentially, iOS and Windows 3.1 come from similar design philosophies. The basic element of both interfaces is the application, from which and through which all interaction must flow. It’s even in the iPhone slogan, “There’s an app for that.” This is all very well and good, until you realise that the function of most apps is quite narrow. To deal with all the “that”s you might encounter, you need an immense library of apps, which is when the iOS interface shows its true 1992 colours. It ends up an anti-aliased and glossy retread of the Windows 3.1 Program Manager. The similarities don’t end there – iOS support for multitasking is roughly at the same level as Windows 3.1’s multitasking support. For both, applications take up the entire screen, and minimizing seems like a tacked-on feature.

This contrasts hugely with the approaches taken by Microsoft for Windows Phone and Google for Android. Apple have not updated their interface in any meaningful way for five years – the biggest changes in the interface have been the introduction of app folders in iOS 4 (another great idea straight out of the early 90s), and the search feature, Spotlight, which mostly serves to overcome some of the limitations of the design dead-end they’ve found themselves in. Android and especially Windows Phone, on the other hand, have both undergone transformations to the slick, low-clutter and low-complexity interfaces they have today.

Android has shed its beginnings as a iPhone-clone to become a fully-fledged smart phone and tablet OS. It has been the source of several innovations copied by Apple to mitigate the box-of-apps design of iOS, such as the notification bar. However, it is hard to discuss the Android user interface as a unified concept, as phone manufacturers and network providers are free to customise and change the user interface as much as they like (indeed, it is made much easier for the user to do so as well.) HTC in particular have received much praise for their Sense interface, and other Android users can download it as a custom ROM. This in itself allows a huge amount of interface development and wide testing of new ideas. It also permits a greater degree of app integration – it took until iOS 5 for Twitter to get anything approaching full integration, while Android has been able to similarly integrate this and other services, such as Google Voice, for a long time.

Microsoft’s approach to mobile devices has also changed massively. Jettisoning the Windows Mobile series of mobile OSes in late 2010, Microsoft released Windows Phone, which has a completely different design. In contrast to the app-centric approach of iOS, Windows Phone is feature-centric and focuses on “glanceable information.” This sets it quite far apart from the other two OSes – Android may be far more customisable than iOS, but it is still much closer to the box-of-apps design than Windows Phone is.

One area where this becomes apparent is in notifications. These seem like a relatively minor matter, but how your phone initially communicates new information to you is massively important. Earlier versions of iOS came under much criticism for the incredibly basic nature of their notifications. They appeared (and still do) as number badges on home screen icons, with nothing to indicate what you might be being notified about, other than what app is concerned. iOS 4 brought the swipe-down notification screen, but again, this feels rather tacked on. Additionally, it is exactly the approach to notifications that Android has taken with its status bar. Some innovation! Windows Phone’s focus on “glanceability” makes quite a difference. Message notifications admittedly are still numbers on a box, but others are (as Microsoft touts) “alive with information.” The calendar tile gives you the time of your next appointment, for example, and the weather tile actually tells you the weather. They act as a happy middle ground between an app icon and a widget.

The final area of comparison is the respective platforms’ cloud services. The iOS approach is a little reminiscent of the pre-Google Microsoft approach to the internet – that is, “we will let you use it how we want for our services and you’ll like it.” iCloud replaces the barely-used MobileMe feature, and so far is mostly employed as a cloud backup service for iOS and other Apple devices, with some data storage facilities. Google and Microsoft both take quite a different approach, however. They both treat cloud services as more like a virtual SD card, with media streaming a major feature. To Apple, data is something that belongs on devices, with “cloud” not meaning much more than off-site backup, but to Google and Microsoft, data belongs where it is most convenient at the time. Deleted a film you bought to make space for something else on your phone? No problem, you can stream it from the cloud. And this is not to mention the massive difference in free storage space on iCloud (5GB) compared to Windows’ SkyDrive (25GB).

It is clear that Apple will soon have to do something pretty special to keep the smart phone and tablet markets interested. Microsoft have been getting rave reviews for Windows Phone 7.5 (aka “Mango”), and incremental updates won’t keep everyone happy forever. The next release of Windows Phone promises features like full Skype integration for phone calls, and full support for app-to-app communication – features that Apple would in the first place likely never consider, and also would probably each alone warrant a full version number update. iPhones are also losing their previously insurmountable technical advantage – other manufacturers are catching up quickly, offering similar-quality screens and improved battery life. The recent release of Nokia’s new Lumia line of Windows phones potentially threatens Apple’s dominance.

Oh, and iOS still doesn’t support Flash.

8 comments

  1. Reply

    I really must fire up my windows phone, like most it is the thought of changing from the well marketed iphone which I am comfortable with to the new phone which is daunting in my busy life but it is clear the operating benefits and real productivity gains will speak for themselves….am now going to extract the digit and move forward 🙂

  2. Reply

    Great take on this… and thanks for posting it… this is exactly what I was thinking when the iPhone came out.. they did not realy evolve.. they just devolved and reduced functionality.. this was not in err though since sometimes we need to go back in time and start again in order to get back on track.

    When iPhone 1st came out.. you could not install additional Apps and there was no functions like copy and paste that were well established on other phones. But it did make getting to the apps easier… removing clutter. Being someone who has been in the tech world for a while it did not amaze me, but what was amazing was the consumer response, which highlighted how disconnected people are with the technology that is available and how it was marketed. All Apple really did was get old technology and market it well… in fact the iPhone was almost an exact copy of the pre iPhone LG Prada phone, a simple phone designed for simple people.

  3. Reply

    Flawed, from someone who obviously has a “hate-on” for Apple’s product.

    For example, your “Deleted a film you bought…” comparison, iTunes Match does exactly what you described without a capped quota. Currently, I have over 45GB of music hosted “in the cloud” by Apple, and not 1 byte of that counts against my 5GB cap.

    And as a person who uses my phone everywhere, I still don’t want or need Flash and have more respect (as an engineer) for a corporation who takes the time to make sure their site “just works” everywhere.

    • Reply

      I take your feedback, but think that you’ve missed the point. The premise of the post was about the fact that iOS interface is relatively stale and simplistic – and reminds me of the Windows 3.1 Program Manager interface (eg. program icons, groups and limited multitasking).
      A correction back to you though – I’m not an Apple hater. In fact I admire the company and its products for effectively revolutionising the way we all work and play. Their hardware is amazing and as a company they are quite innovative.
      Until an iPad-like device is released that runs Windows 8 I will still be borrowing my iPad 2 back from my wife periodically because it is light and quick. My main issue is that the interface is dated and pales in comparison when compared to the current smartphone operating system interfaces from Google and Microsoft.

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  5. Wayne

    Reply

    Good article. My iPad Mini is 2 years old and ran quite well (i.e. the seams in its multitasking were less obvious) until iOS8. All the extra overhead bricked it substantially. (Isn’t there a lawsuit about this?) That release brought back bad memories of a crude multitasking environment like Win 3.1 or even (groan) Geos, in that it seems to struggle moving from app to app and even different tabs within Safari. If the message or the answer is “buy an updated Apple”, well, there are other options which I’ll have to seriously consider. Point well taken that iOS and Win 3.1 have similarities and similar flaws. We do have to respect Apple, but I wonder if we’ve come full circle from the snarky slogan “Windows 95 is Mac OS 89″…

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