Disruptions: Mobile competition turns to software design

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Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, on Monday at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.Credit Eric Risberg/Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Last week, Timothy D. Cook, chief executive of Apple, stood on stage at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference without a new version of the iPhone or iPad or a new device.

After showing off new laptops and a new cylindrical Mac Pro, Cook and other Apple executives spent the rest of their two-hour keynote discussing the features of Apple’s latest mobile operating system. Apple, iOS 7. With an image of a flattened smartphone interface with fine typography on a screen in the background, Cook proudly noted, “This is the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone.

How does he understand this?

Mr Cook’s bold claim was based on something well understood in tech circles but easily overlooked by consumers. It is the design of the software, much more than the appearance of the device itself, that allows a company to leapfrog its competitors.

Hardware characteristics such as processing speed or screen resolution or even a well-functioning camera only offer fleeting advantages in the constant competition between smartphone manufacturers. And with over a billion smartphones in the world today, most of which have the same rectangular design meant to be held in the hand but large enough to be used as a phone, it’s hard to imagine a breakthrough in their general appearance.

But changes to software are only limited by the skills and creativity of a company’s engineers and designers and aren’t as easily imitated because they appeal to softer notions like “experience” rather than speed or weight.

Designers from Apple, Microsoft and Google seem to have been acutely aware of this as they worked on the latest versions of their mobile operating systems, experimenting with ways to create software that was unique but as intuitive as a control panel. signage.

“I have my house, I have my office and now I have my telephone interface,” said Paola Antonelli, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “When you turn off a smartphone, it’s an enigmatic monolith; it is the interface that not only animates it but gives it meaning. Ms. Antonelli said she hopes to one day include iOS 7 in MoMA’s design collection.

Apple is making sweeping changes to the way its software looks with the latest operating system, which will be available to consumers in the fall. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design and executive director responsible for the new look, removed design metaphors like a wooden shelf for the phone’s virtual newsstand. The new look also eliminates boundaries. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it allows apps to stretch across the screen, making the phone look bigger. By removing shadows and dark colors, the design also makes the phone screen brighter.

Interestingly, until this update, within the digital technology community, Apple was losing its reputation for cutting-edge design as competitors like Microsoft experimented.

“Design-wise, Apple’s interface has become quite cheesy and predictable,” said Yves Béhar, the founder of Fuseproject, a San Francisco design agency that helped create the low-cost PC. One Laptop Per Child and the Jawbone Up bracelet health monitoring device. . “He lacked strength and vision.”

Microsoft, which has been regularly criticized in recent years for the stuffy look of its software, has pushed design boundaries as it tries to catch up on smartphones. In a recent blog post on the company’s website, Steve Clayton, chief design officer at Microsoft, wrote that company executives finally figured out about three years ago that the look and feel of software was just as important as what the device could do.

The new look of the company’s operating system for mobile devices, Windows Phone 7, consists of a set of flat, colored squares that can be easily moved around the screen. Although when this tile-based look was also applied to the Windows 8 PC operating system, some long-time customers complained that it was too drastic.

But it’s been good for the mobile business.

In the first quarter of 2013, Windows Phone pushed Blackberry to the third most popular phone operating system in the world, according to a report by IDC, a market research firm. Microsoft shipped seven million Windows Phone 7 devices in the first quarter, compared to 6.3 million Blackberry devices. Blackberry is trying to bounce back with a new version of its phone with software that has also changed a lot from the older versions.

Mr. Béhar said good software design will always help sell more hardware.

“We’re in a time where the 30-second TV commercial doesn’t matter 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.”

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