iOS9 Gains Features, Loses Elegance


I downloaded iOS9 last night. In the words of a few Doctors, “You’ve redecorated! I don’t like it.”

The visual changes to iOS9 are subtle. There’s a new system font, San Francisco, which trims down the previous font in inoffensive ways. Folders now display 16 icons instead of 9, and some of the system app icons have been tweaked.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these changes, though I suspect they’re more about optimizing for the upcoming iPad Pro than providing any benefit to current users. My guess is that the tweaks will keep the Pro’s larger display from looking chunky and awkward, but I find my eyes working slightly harder to parse the thinner letters of the San Francisco font.

IOS9 Shows Off New Features…

The new features range from pleasant to forgettable. I appreciate the improved battery usage and streamlining — optimization is always a good thing! — but the product was already “good enough”. It doesn’t change how I use my devices.

It looks like the same will be true about the much-touted News app. I like how News presents itself. It was easy to pick out a set of favorite publications, and the stories are put together in an attractive, easy-to-read format.

I’m not sold on the idea of aggregating my News, though. I pick my news sources based on my mood and the information I’m looking for. When I’m want to read a Guardian article, I’m not looking for coverage from Slate. Switching editorial viewpoints makes my brain work harder — something that seems to be happening a lot with iOS9 — and overall I’d rather just go to a publication’s app.

One thing I am sold on is the availability of ad content blocking in Safari. I helped write an investment research report on ad blocking a few weeks ago, which sensitized me to the rising tide of advertising appearing in my mobile browser.

After spending hours talking with sources about this feature, I was eager to see it in action. It took less than three minutes to download the Crystal app and give Safari permission to use it, and I instantly saw a difference in the speed and readability of sites in my browser. As power user features go, content blocking is about as easy and accessible as it gets.

… But At What Cost?

That said, the problem with iOS9 is that Apple seems to be steering more and more towards the power user. Each new feature adds a layer of complexity to learning and using the device. I can see some appeal to looking up a citation or chatting on Facetime while I work on a story, but do I really gain anything from dividing my attention that way? Is that minimal gain worth the several times I’ve already had to dismiss an app I didn’t actually want to swipe in from the right?

Worse, some of iOS9’s new features don’t look very good. When I pull in an app from the side, it looks angular and sharp against the smooth curves of the device. The new app-switching carousel feels crowded, wedged in on the left side to accommodate the new multi-task activity on the right.

I try not to subscribe to the cult of Steve Jobs. I certainly don’t think that just because Steve said it was so five years ago, it should be so now. But one of the things Apple did well during his reign was to strip out features until what was left was elegant and easy enough that even techphobic grandmothers (Hi Mom!) could embrace it.

Today’s Apple seems to be going the other way, bolting on features and product lines to meet every perceived need. Maybe today’s mobile device users are more sophisticated, and the benefits of iOS9’s new features outweigh the cognitive load of mastering them. But I find myself wishing for the days when an Apple device did one thing and did it well.

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Copyright 2015 The Roaming Designer