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.