Apple has become a design follower instead of a leader — and it may be just fine with that

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For a long time I’ve been bored by iOS. While the competition has continually innovated and improved the design of their platforms, iOS has gradually come to feel stale and even a bit clunky. With this week’s official announcement at WWDC, my first reaction was that finally, we’re moving again. The design looked fresh and contemporary, there’s bold typography, smart use of transparency and layering, and nice transitions to replace the dated visual chrome and  fairly clunky behavior of prior iOS versions.

Yet quite quickly I felt myself longing for more.

Yes, Apple is still moving forward. But the competition is so much more aggressive and innovative than a few years ago, that Apple will need to speed up if it wants to be seen again as a leader in innovation and design. The question is whether it can move from being a fast follower to a faster follower, and eventually return to being in a leader position again – one that changes the game and disrupts. Then again, perhaps the bigger question is whether it even needs or wants to do that.

Credit where due

Much of what Apple aims to do with iOS 7 is laudable. The layered transparency is a positive improvement, as it offers continuity and context in a simple way. iOS 7 also uses space better, and there are fewer superfluous boxes within boxes (for example in utility apps like Calculator and Stocks). The transitions also help bring the experience to life, and make the OS feel more contemporary. In Safari it’s great to see the interface play a subservient role to the page content.

On the functional side, it’s nice to see Apple replacing the clumsy graphical back button with a swipe to go back. The multitasking view is also clearly improved. But the most positive improvements for me are found in the Photos app, where the smart clustering and grouping help users organize and make sense of all their photos, and in the location-aware app suggestions offered through Apps Near Me.

And importantly, the new design of iOS 7 is also truly comprehensive – nothing is left untouched.

Major missed opportunities

As iOS 7 continues to rely on a grid of icons at the top level of the OS, the iconography of the native apps feels surprisingly rushed and sometimes amateurish. Since Apple in its WWDC communication so clearly emphasized the need for “perfection,” it should really deliver on that too.

In some places where translucency is used the text contrast is rather poor, and it’s tricky to read the text quickly – it’s the very opposite of glanceable design. And while the Control Center is a good idea, it’s a very busy screen – and that’s the first iteration. Imagine how it will look after a few more generations and many new functions are added!

The parallax viewing on the home screen feels like a gimmick, as does the cheesy background animation in the Weather app. The photo filter fad is also given too much prominence in the camera mode. These all feel like populist design choices (a decidedly un-Apple approach.)

A course correction, not a sea change

Overall, iOS 7 feels just a bit too predictable. The first thing Apple apparently wants users to feel is delight and surprise (followed by love and connection). But iOS 7 doesn’t offer much cause for surprise because hardly anything in iOS 7 feels new. Instead it feels familiar, and that’s because many of the design approaches in iOS 7 have been lifted from other platforms.

For example, Windows 8 makes use of bold typography and uses smooth transitions to bring the experience to life; WebOS had a multitasking view remarkably similar to what was shown in iOS 7; and Nokia’s innovative MeeGo OS made swiping gestures central to the smartphone experience (while it also placed great emphasis on consistent and meaningful iconography). In iOS 7 Apple has clearly adopted these and others’ designs, and have aimed to further improve them. And so amazingly, in design Apple now finds itself in the role of a fast follower.

Cursed by the Innovator’s Dilemma

When I last wrote about design at Apple, I was asking for more fundamental changes: “a radical refresh of iOS, a category-defining entry into wearables, or a confident push into services like search or commerce.” Yes, iOS was refreshed this week, but if you look beyond the surface level, it was hardly radical. Perhaps the fact that iOS now has hundreds of millions of active users is both a blessing and a curse for Apple. With that size, its priorities have moved from disrupting others to scaling and protecting what it has. As things unfold over the next few years, Apple will probably become a new textbook example of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

In the 90’s, when Apple was in crisis and had little to lose, its “Think Different” campaign celebrated gutsy innovation. That tune has changed dramatically, and the opening video at this week’s WWDC instead celebrated patience and perfection. “If everyone is busy making everything, how can anyone perfect anything? It takes time.” Apple rose to prominence as a company that brilliantly anticipated customers’ future needs. But today Apple focuses mainly on serving their existing customers’ current needs.

When Jony Ive says that “iOS 7 is defining an important new direction,” and Tim Cook says that iOS 7 is “the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone,” it tells me that Apple will be quite happy to continue as a fast follower. And so I will continue to admire how Apple adopts and improves the designs of others, and how it gracefully evolves iOS over time. But it seems I will have to look elsewhere for game-changing design and innovation.

Olof Schybergson is CEO and co-founder of the service design consultancy Fjord. Follow Fjord on Twitter @fjord.

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