The future of iOS (apps) should look a lot like Windows Phone

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 7, 2012

From The News Desk

"Metro is our design language. We call it Metro, because it's modern and clean. It's fast and in motion. It's about content and typography. And it's entirely authentic."

That paragraph is one Brit and a white background away from an Apple promo video. Yet it wasn't written in Cupertino -- it was written by Microsoft to explain the philosophy behind the interface powering Windows Phone 7 and, now, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The interface formerly known as Metro is characterized by clean, simple lines, heavy iconography, and its Segoe UI typeface, offering a stark contrast to Apple's linen-and-leather designs.

If some of the apps released recently are any indication, however, Metro and iOS might become more similar as time goes on. Combined with Scott Forstall, the former head of iOS, leaving Apple, the technorati are abuzz with potential changes to Apple's design. There have been more chants of "down with leather!" in the last month than there have been this side of a PETA rally, and this time, there's actually hope for change.

Several popular apps have been sporting this Metro styling recently, from the Rdio streaming service to the Letterpress game and the Icon Factory's Twitterrific 5. Each app is characterized by a lot of white space, an emphasis on typography, and simple, colorful iconography.

Despite looking vastly different from, say, Apple's Contacts, Calendar, Find my Friends, or Passbook apps, each app listed above manages to feel at home on iOS. There's a certain element of playfulness not often found in other Metro-styled apps, like the "bops" and "boops" of Letterpress (which, apparently, were made by Loren Brichter spitting and making random noises at a microphone) or the best pull-to-refresh animation I've ever seen in Twitterrific 5, shown below.


This playfulness and attention to user interaction forms the basis of Apple's user interface strategies. The company is perhaps the best example of "do as I say, not as I do" in interaction design – its own apps can be convoluted eyesores, but iOS is often considered to have the best-designed apps of any platform. (Google's Holo interface, introduced with recent versions of the Android operating system, is nice, but many Android developers have neglected to embrace the change.)

Some apps combine principles from both interfaces, to great effect. Tumblr's iPhone app has the gritty/touchable texture associated with iOS, but its "post" screen is nothing but a grid of icons and text. Day One, a journalling app, uses the same principles. "Good" design is shifting from Apple's heavy-handedness to Microsoft's simplicity (a sentence many never expected to read or type).

Until now this shift has been restricted to apps built on the platform. Apple's Game Center still looks like a pool table, Find my Friends still has more leather than a Texan tannery, and Passbook still "shreds" discarded passes. The list goes on and on. But there is a ray of hope, and his name is Jonathan Ive.

"Jony [Ive, senior vice president of industrial design], who I think has the best taste of anyone in the world and the best design skills, now has responsibility for the human interface," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in the eminently-quotable Bloomberg Businessweek interview. "The face of [the iPhone] is the software, right? And the face of this iPad is the software. So it’s saying, Jony has done a remarkable job leading our hardware design, so let’s also have Jony responsible for the software and the look and feel of the software, not the underlying architecture and so forth, but the look and feel."

Consider the look of the iPhone and the iPad, both designed by Ive. Besides a penchant for glass and aluminum, both devices have been redesigned with clean, simple lines and a  strong emphasis on getting out of the user's way. The Verge described the iPad mini as a "solidly made watch." Is the man who designed that likely to let a piece of software that looks like a pool table screw that up? Hopefully not.

Developers are embracing Metro's (Windows', whatever) design sensibilities. If he takes the same approach to software design as he does hardware design, Ive may well do the same. Microsoft's design language has had an impact vastly disproportionate to Windows Phone's marketshare.