Technology

Apple's Plan to Make Its iOS Software Look Cool Again


Apple's Plan to Make Its iOS Software Look Cool Again

Illustration by 731

(Corrects spelling of Charles Golvin's name, on second reference )

At Apple’s (AAPL) 24th Worldwide Developers Conference, starting June 10, many things will be reminiscent of years past. Tim Cook will take the stage at Moscone West and deliver a keynote speech. He’ll report how many apps users downloaded and how much money app makers have earned. He’ll probably wear jeans.

This year’s WWDC isn’t the usual victory lap, though. Since the last time Cook met with developers, Apple’s stock soared to a record high of $702 a share in September, only to slide back down to the mid-$400s today. The market share of its mobile operating system, iOS, fell from 22.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 18.2 percent a year later, as Google’s (GOOG) Android OS share jumped from 56.9 percent to 74.4 percent, according to market researcher Gartner (IT). Apple’s iOS chief, Scott Forstall, resigned following a public fiasco over bugs in its new Maps software.

The big demonstration expected at WWDC is the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 7.1. Industry watchers expect an expansion of the barcode-storing Passbook app, which may include a way for users to make payments from their iPhones. Cook recently spoke of greater flexibility within iOS, leading some to believe the new system will allow more customization than Apple currently does. The look of iOS may also evolve. “We’re going to expect crisper, simpler designs,” says Forrester (FORR) analyst Charles Golvin. Some competitors have grown comfortable stacking their products’ designs up against Apple’s aesthetic, a longtime strength that’s begun to look dated.

The conventional wisdom now is that mobile interfaces need to be “flat,” meaning a stripped-down, icons-on-white look like Microsoft’s Windows 8. Apple uses the “skeuomorphic” design championed by Steve Jobs (and Forstall), in which virtual objects resemble physical ones. On iOS, a notepad app looks like a legal pad, voice memos are accompanied by the image of a 1940s microphone, and a compass app is set in a rich virtual mahogany. Longtime Apple hardware chief Jonathan Ive, who’s also taken over software design after Forstall’s departure, is said to oppose skeuomorphism, and Cook has said Ive is “really key” to the latest version of iOS.

Ive’s opposition to skeuomorphism may drive design changes in iOSDavid Levene/Eyevine/ReduxIve’s opposition to skeuomorphism may drive design changes in iOS

“There’s a perception among some people that the pace of innovation at Apple has not kept up with the competition,” says Forrester’s Golvin. Partly that’s because Apple’s own track record of category-defining products is hard to top. Then there’s the flood of products from Samsung and other competitors, which means consumers can choose from smartphones and tablets at almost any size and price point. Apple hasn’t changed its iPhone and iPad models all that much. That’s a particular challenge abroad, where its brand counts for less and mobile sales growth is hottest. “We’re getting to the end of the first phase of growth in smartphone sales,” says Benedict Evans of technology watcher Enders Analysis. In the U.S., he says, “everyone who wants a smartphone, for the most part, has got one.”

Apple is hardly doomed. The company continues to dominate mobile and personal computing, capturing 57 percent of global profits in the smartphone industry—to the tune of $7.1 billion—in the first quarter, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. It commands nearly 40 percent of all tablet profits, more than the next four competitors combined, according to IDC. Mobile-browser company Opera Software (OPERA:NO) says iOS users are responsible for nearly 45 percent of Web traffic on mobile devices, while the Android devices that outnumber them account for 31 percent. Some of the boredom around Apple may also be due to a shift in its product release schedule, says Horace Dediu of mobile industry analyst Asymco. This year, instead of spacing new announcements throughout the calendar, “Apple moved all their product launches to the fall, for Christmas,” Dediu says. “It created this vast desert of time. From October until today, there’s been zero major product launches.”

During that time, Apple’s competitors haven’t been idle—or afraid to challenge the king. Samsung has received kudos from ad industry critics for its spots mocking Apple fans who wait in line for new iProducts. Consumers have also responded to the company’s Galaxy S4, which features a larger display and higher-quality video than the iPhone. Amazon.com (AMZN) continues to update and expand its line of Kindle tablets. Microsoft (MSFT) is pushing its Windows Phones and Surface tablet devices on what seems like every TV program on the air, though its well-reviewed products aren’t generating many sales.

Whatever the iOS redesign, it’s only part of Apple’s way forward. “We’re reaching the point where we want to know the next phase of the vision,” says Evans. “Is it search? Is it voice? Google has Google Now, Google Plus—they’re trying to index the user as well as the Web. What’s the next step for Apple?” Apple added voice-recognition app Siri to its products back in 2011 but, after some service hiccups, hasn’t really expanded its role. Last year’s plan to integrate Siri into new cars has stalled; so far only the Chevrolet Spark and Sonic are equipped with it.

Still, Apple has other projects under way. It’s close to revealing Internet radio software to compete with services like Pandora. An “iWatch” that would bring some smartphone functions to users’ wrists has also been rumored. And the company is expected to keep trying to shape Apple TV into a replacement for the cable box.

One thing competitors and analysts can be sure of is that whatever Apple’s strategy is, it’s been in place for a while. “Apple doesn’t really care about the competition, because it’s always had a long-term plan,” says Dediu. The company’s almost-40-year history of ups and downs encourages a long view. Many of its competitors don’t have that depth of experience, says Dediu. “You can’t compare Apple to other companies for just the past five years. Google has never failed in that time frame.”

The bottom line: For the forthcoming update of iOS, Apple is expected to shift the mobile software’s design to a less literal look.

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and the managing editor of Bloomberg Digital Video. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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