No, that headline’s not a song title from either Panic! at the Disco or Fall Out Boy.
On Monday, Apple announced several big things at the keynote for their Worldwide Developers Conference: a revision of their MacBook Air line, a preview of their upcoming Mac OS X Mavericks (wait, what? Mavericks? Fine.), and a long-awaited reboot of their Mac Pro that looks like it was designed by Dyson. But all of this was secondary to the news everyone was waiting for: iOS 7.
Now, iOS gets updated every year, usually to coincide with a new iPhone, which I imagine will come with the official release of iOS 7 in the fall, and is accompanied with the usual fanfare. But this time was different. Many had anticipated a complete visual overhaul, mainly due to the influence of Jony Ive, Apple’s longtime hardware designer and newly-minted software designer. And the pundits were not wrong in their predictions.
The buzzword pre- and post-keynote was “skeuomorphism,” as in the predicted lack of it in iOS 7. Skeuomorphism is not, as initially thought, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. It’s that thing – and I know I’m about to sound like Stefon here – where an artificial item looks like the thing it’s representing. Specifically speaking to iOS, it’s how the Calendar app, especially on iPad, looked like a desk calendar, or how the Game Center app (that I’ve maybe viewed 3 times ever) was clad in green felt, much like a pool or card table. I guess the assumption behind this aesthetic was some sort of subliminal trigger to the user that whatever app you were using served that particular purpose. “Stitched leather? Oh, it’s like a Filofax!” And so forth.
What got me, and many others, about the keynote wasn’t that they just eliminated the skeuomorphism; they killed it completely. They murdered it. They pulled its pants down in the school gym and laughed at its tiny dick. Think I’m being weird? Well, I am, but read some of these quotes:
On Game Center’s new look: “We ran out of green felt.”
Regarding the Calendar app: “Absolutely no cows were harmed in the making of this.”
Given the high-profile (and contentious) removal of previous software VP Scott Forstall, it’s hard not to read these jokes as throwing Forstall under the bus for such design choices. The final straw was, of course, the Maps debacle, but he also seemed to be a big champion for the skeuomorphic design choices all over iOS. (Apparently, though, so was Jobs.) Jony Ive’s inheritance of the interface design job augured such a design overhaul, but the very fact that there were jokes made directly toward the previous designs at the official keynote speaks loudly to the glee the new team must have had in ditching the felt and wood. These weren’t passing remarks; the iOS team went on a stage in public and basically said, “Fuck you, shiny buttons.”
Forstall may be at home, curled up with a bottle of whiskey, crying. Or maybe not. Either way, it had to sting.
What of the redesign? I like it, quite a bit really. It’s good eye candy, if nothing else. Even if you dislike the new look, this is the first total redesign for iOS ever, and I think it was due for a reboot (ha) soon. But the larger point, I feel, is that with this new design, the era of digital skeuomorphism is on its way out. Windows Phone made a big splash (critically, at least, I’m not sure that many people are using Windows Phone) with its flat, tile-based format. And it looks like Android has at least gone part of the way away from skeuomorphism. iOS’s discarding of leather and wood has put another nail in the coffin.
And why now? Why, after only a few years of smartphone touch interfaces, have software designers moved away from skeuomorphism? Simply, I don’t think we need it anymore. When the iPhone and its descendents first arrived, even if we would understand what a piece of software did anyhow, maybe there was a need to subliminally telegraph an app’s function to the user as a way to introduce people to these new machines. Now that these phones and tablets have become massive successes, and are so ubiquitous that someone using a “dumb phone” draws a few curious looks nowadays, that telegraphing is unnecessary. We get how a calendar app works; no need for leather binding. We can just arrange the dates in order and we get the idea.
Of course, it could also be that stitched leather looks goofy on a touchscreen, and we’re better than that.