Last week, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, stood on stage at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference without a new version of the iPhone or the iPad or some new device.
After showing off new laptop computers and a new, cylindrical Mac Pro, Mr. Cook and other Apple executives spent the rest of their two-hour keynote address discussing the features of Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 7. With the image of a flattened smartphone interface with thin typography on a screen in the background, Mr. Cook proudly noted, “This is the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone.”
How does he figure that?
Mr. Cook’s bold claim was based on something that is well understood in tech circles but is easily overlooked by consumers. It is the design of the software, far more than the look and feel of the device itself, that allows a company to leap over its competitors.
Hardware features like processing speed or screen resolution or even how well a camera works offer only fleeting advantages in the constant competition among smartphone manufacturers. And with more than a billion smartphones in the world today, much of them with the same rectangular design meant to fit in your hand yet large enough to be used as a phone, it is hard to imagine a breakthrough in their general look.
But changes to the software are limited only by the skill and creativity of a company’s engineers and designers and are not as easily mimicked since they appeal to softer notions like “experience” rather than speed or weight.
Designers at Apple, Microsoft and Google appear to have been keenly aware of that when they worked on the latest versions of their mobile operating systems, experimenting with ways of making software that is unique yet as intuitive as a road sign.
“I have my home, I have my office and I now I have my phone interface,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “When you turn a smartphone off it is an enigmatic monolith; it’s the interface that not only animates it but gives it meaning.” Ms. Antonelli said she hoped to one day include iOS 7 in MoMA’s design collection.
Apple is making some stark changes to the appearance of its software with the latest operating system, which will be available to consumers in the fall. Jonathan Ive, senior vice president for industrial design at Apple and the executive responsible for the new look, has done away with design metaphors like a wood grain bookshelf for the phone’s virtual newsstand. The new look also eliminates borders. It doesn’t sound like much, but that allows apps to stretch across the screen, which makes the phone feel larger. By doing away with shadows and dark colors, the design makes the phone’s screen feel brighter, too.
Interestingly, until this update, among the digital technology community, Apple was losing its reputation for cutting-edge design as competitors like Microsoft experimented.
“From a design standpoint, Apple’s interface became pretty cheesy and predictable,” said Yves Béhar, the founder of Fuseproject, a San Francisco design agency that helped create the low-cost One Laptop Per Child PC and the Jawbone Up wristband health-monitoring device. “It lacked strength and vision.”
Microsoft, which was regularly criticized in recent years for the staid look of its software, has been pushing the design boundaries as it tries to play catch-up in smartphones. In a recent blog post on the company’s Web site, Steve Clayton, a design manager at Microsoft, wrote that company executives finally understood about three years ago that the look of the software was just as important as what the device could do.
The new appearance of the company’s operating system for mobile devices, Windows Phone 7, consists of an array of flat, colorful squares that can be easily moved around on the screen. Though when that tiles-based look was also applied to the Windows 8 PC operating system, some longtime customers complained it was too drastic.
But it has been good for the mobile business.
In the first quarter of 2013, Windows Phone nudged Blackberry to become the third most popular phone operating system globally, according to a report by IDC, a market research firm. Microsoft shipped seven million Windows Phone 7 devices in the first quarter, compared with 6.3 million Blackberry devices. Blackberry is trying to rebound with a new version of its phone with software that has also changed considerably from older versions.
Mr. Béhar said a good software design would always help sell more hardware.
“We are in an era where the 30-second TV ad doesn’t count anymore,” he said. “The product — the smartphone — is its own form of advertising today and a good experience, where people want to spend more time with the product, is what people see.”