Does Apple Have a Point About Design? Part 2: Operating Systems

Published on Author Eli Fennell


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iPhone vs. Android is the “Coke vs. Pepsi” of the mobile world.  They’re different, but are they different enough to distinguish at a glance?

This, I think, was the source of Steve Jobs’ ire with Android.  If you own an Android, you’ve probably experienced someone glancing at your device and asking, “Is that the iPhone?”  Some of that can be attributed to a “Kleenex” effect where people who don’t know better assume every smartphone is an iPhone, and that has diminished as Android has become a household name.

But, what if they’ve seen both, and even got a glance at what was on your screen briefly, and still couldn’t tell the difference?  What if even an experienced Android user, like myself, sometimes asks someone what their phone is and has them respond “iPhone” as if you’d just asked the dumbest question in the world, even though it was dark and the phone was inside a case that masked its distinctive design?

I’m not suggesting anyone is actually confused, but what Apple seems to demand of opponents is, “Even at a mere glance, someone should be able to tell our stuff apart.”  That may be unreasonable… but not entirely bad, either.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 manages this.  The second you discerned the tile layout, you’d know it wasn’t an iPhone if you’d ever seen an iPhone.  Android?  Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.  There have been, let’s be honest, more similarities in the past than differences.

Take bounce-back scrolling.  It’s only one of at least several possible ways to indicate to the user that they have overscrolled.  No one has yet found an exact duplicate of the rubber banding effect of iOS in prior art, only some that are similar but different in key ways.  Apple thinks this is an important part of their design.  Google thinks “edge glow” is a worthy replacement, and it doesn’t seem to have affected sales negatively.

So, does Apple have a point?  Frankly, yes.  Many of the verdicts in their favor, in jurisdictions around the world, have come by way of the rubber banding effect Google has since replaced.  Apple has the right to believe that this is part of their signature design, since numerous clearly-different solutions are available.

Google also has the right to remove it and prove that users don’t really care, that it’s purely a matter of taste between different ways of solving the same problem.  Rather than exalting Apple’s design prowess, they’ve challenged it, and exposed it for being pretty weak.

With each new version of Android, the list of design differences have grown, and I think users have generally benefited.  Edge glow is at least as elegant a solution to the problem it solves as rubber banding.

The newer lockscreens (with circular unlock) are visually nicer, and often more functional, able to open apps from the launch screen, use facial unlock, etc…  The app drawer no longer resembles the iOS homescreen a bit too much, and in my opinion is nicer.

The importance of widgets in marketing the product has grown and widgets have improved in quality.  Google’s notification center both preceded, and is nicer than, Apple’s.  Jellybean has gained some unique visual effects of its own that are at least as nice as the rubber banding effect.  All of this is great for consumers and creates a clearer choice between the two.

If there’s any truth to the rumors that Google and Apple have been quietly discussing a patent truce, the changes Google has made in recent versions of Android may have a lot to do with it.  Even by Apple’s standards, stock Android 3.0+ and most of the new “skins” are distinct at a mere glance from iOS.

Apple can continue to try to sue, of course, but the strength of their claims is growing weaker against each new device, and their estimation of the value of their design prowess being further undermined as differently designed software and devices continue to outsell iPhone overall.

At some point, surely, Apple and Google will arrive at a “gentleman’s agreement” like Apple has with Microsoft, whereby each side will be allowed to “infringe” a bit on the other as long as the designs are distinctive.

Apple may be reaching a bit far with their design claims, but on the other hand, a strong brand like Android that grows and evolves rapidly need not live in the shadow of Apple’s designs forever.  That, in fact, would be very poor strategy: Google doesn’t want Android to be known as the “poor man’s iPhone/iPad” after all.  They surely want it to stand on its own as testament to Google’s talent for both software and design.

Even Microsoft, eventually, stepped out of Macintosh’s shadow and embraced being a design leader, rather than merely a design follower, although they haven’t held onto that momentum.  Maybe, just maybe, Google can.  If not, then Apple deserves their sky high valuation; all the great coders in the world can be worth less than a single great designer sometimes.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.