A relentless drive for simplicity made Apple a powerhouse consumer electronics vendor. In a world of fully-featured yet complex products, simplicity is a differentiator and Apple can charge a premium for it. Over a decade ago, the iPhone changed the world by removing buttons for one home button and adding a touch screen. It brought a simple, human element to technology with software that responded to your touch. This new operating system, combined with the move to an app-centric mobile experience, revolutionized the smartphone and eventually the entire computing industry.
Fast forward and the world is different. The rise of Android proved that many people were willing to sacrifice usability for more features and greater customization capabilities. Intense competition in the smartphone market has driven companies to focus on delivering, even more, features at a faster pace. Today’s mobile market suffers from bloated, often buggy operating systems and mobile app software with so many features that customers don’t even know what’s available anymore.
Apple is working hard to make powerful equal simple
In its desire to broaden the customer base, Apple’s iOS releases have become behemoths. Last year we saw ten major announcements in iOS 10, this year felt equally significant with features that focused on iPad, messages, files, photos, music and redesigned app store experience. The drive for simplicity was not lost in iOS. In fact, it even won several battles in this latest release. For example:
- iMessage gets easier. iOS10 saw the launch of a richer iMessage but many have found the new functions difficult to discover and access. Use of apps and stickers in iMessages apps became easier in iOS 11 with a redesigned app drawer for App Store for iMessage making it easier to decorate messages. A small win but the company still has a way to go if it wants to rival WeChat while remaining the simplicity of Apple. The messages app also syncs across devices.
- Device and app navigation gets a boost. Apple has worked on improvements in multi-tasking software for several releases now. This time, Apple delivers a more usable set of multitasking features such as a new customizable Dock that provides quick access to frequently used apps and documents from any screen, and a redesigned app switcher makes it easier to move between pairs of active apps in Split View and now Slide Over. The company also added a “drag and drop” function that makes it easier to move images and text across the apps you’re using. The redesigned Control Center quick access to frequently used controls all on one page.
- A workable file system emerged. Ok, it’s only been ten years since Box and Dropbox redefined easier cloud file storage and file management. In truth, Apple has had both of these for some time, but it finally has brought it up to the latest modern practices. The new Files app provides visibility into all of your apps everything in one place, whether files are stored locally, in iCloud Drive or across other providers like Box, Dropbox.
- Siri gets more personal. The company, like others, has an intense focus on machine learning to improve its ability to deal with accents, colloquial phrases and other natural language processing issues. In addition to Siri to voice, Siri will now use on-device learning to deliver more personal experiences. The keynote highlighted an example where a person searched for information on Iceland in Safari and Siri remembered the context of this search in order to suggest information in News and add the correct spelling of cities such as Reykjavik when typing in other apps such as mail, messages. This is just one simple, useful example of how our devices can become more personal.
- Maps go indoors. Wayfinding in malls, stores and airports is the next wave of location-based services, but it’s been difficult to deploy. Apple Maps is making it a little easier by adding indoor maps for certain airports and shopping centers. It’s not ubiquitous, but it’s a good start. The company also added lane guidance to avoid missing a turn or exit which is a much-needed feature in GPS systems.
- The keyboard gets a boost. There are many third-party keyboards on the market for mobile devices, highlighting the limitations of existing mobile keyboards. Apple took a stab at eliminating the need for those with the one-handed keyboard mode on iPhone makes typing on the go even easier. Meanwhile, a QuickType keyboard on iPad delivers quick access to numbers, symbols and punctuation.
Apple’s iOS 11: should you be disappointed? No
Of course, there are many additional innovative features that push the experience forward in areas such as photos, person to person Apple Pay etc. You can see a full round up of those features here. Yet, for many, iOS 11 didn’t deliver a big “Wow” in the mobile arena. Samsung received a similarly mixed reception with its S8 launch as did Google’s I/O conference. There appears to be a general trend towards bashing a product if it doesn’t achieve breakthrough innovation.
As I said in last year’s piece on “Incrementalism or Innovation? A Perspective on Google’s IO and Apple’s WWDC” Mobility is a maturing market and you can’t reinvent an industry every year. The pace of change remains rapid, but the type of change is very different. Software features that appear to be incremental innovations are positive upgrades for the industry. Companies are focused on the refinement of existing functionality.
Consumers and enterprises can only absorb a certain amount of change at any given time. Before we pan the latest releases from companies such as Apple Google and Samsung, we should ask ourselves if we will be happier with mobile products that are faster and more stable than the past.
There are definite opportunities for legitimate breakthrough innovations such as full wireless charging, a two-day battery life, and foldable materials. However, without significant materials innovation, these are just theories and wishes. In lieu of this, companies like Apple, Google and Samsung are focused on making our existing technology experience more frictionless. We have a long way to go in areas such as natural language processing and image recognition. The types of experiences we’re receiving in our mobile phone software weren’t even possible three years ago. The latest wave of big data technologies and machine learning algorithms are delivering amazing breakthroughs in recommendations, image recognition and accessing information with natural speech. We’re seeing the fruits of that labor in iOS11.
My guess is that most consumers aren’t ready or willing to have their world reinvented with another new product category. What customers want is technology that easy and that delivers on its promises. What’s needed is a period of incrementalism that makes today’s innovations rock solid while gently pushing us forward into new features and usage patterns. On that front, I see Apple making progress by balancing innovation and refinements.