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Why Aral Balkan Thinks iOS Can Still Compete

Aral Balkan is a respected designer, software engineer, and lecturer based in the U.K. Here’s why he thinks iOS is still the best mobile operating system, and what Apple can do to keep its lead.

Why Aral Balkan Thinks iOS Can Still Compete

Respected iOS designer and developer Aral Balkan is currently working on several projects, including an experiment with a personal drone that follows you around and helps you out in various ways, a new unobtrusive template engine for JavaScript called Tally, and a Mac app that makes it stupidly simple to curate and share information. You can find out more about him on his website and you can follow him on Twitter @aral. Interested in teaching your kids how to code? Check out Code Club.

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Since its introduction in 2007, iOS has widely been considered the shining example of what a mobile OS should be. But we all know how much competition has heated up. With Android moving ahead at a breakneck pace, is iOS still the best?

When iOS was released, it was the best mobile OS on the planet. However, since its inception, things have changed. iOS is no longer just a mobile OS–it is part of a greater ecosystem that includes OS X. And that’s how we should be judging it. Mobile devices do not exist in a vacuum where we use them to carry out a set of dedicated, self‐contained tasks. Instead, they plug into our lives to help us with tasks that can span multiple devices and both the tangible and virtual worlds. My mobile phone might have a great contacts app, for example, but that is useless if it doesn’t also automatically synchronize those contacts seamlessly to my other devices. (Manual sync just doesn’t cut the mustard any longer.) The Twitter app on my tablet may be great but can I continue reading my timeline on my computer or phone afterwards? This is where iOS and OS X really shine and it was the introduction of iCloud that has made this possible. So, is iOS the best mobile OS on the planet today? Yes. But it is more than that: It is the best continuous‐client OS out there today and that is even more important.

Speaking of iCloud: Some developers say it’s a nightmare. Is Apple going about the cloud totally wrong? Is someone doing it better? How should it be done?

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iCloud is awesome… when it works. Unfortunately, for a service that should provide a seamless continuous-client experience between all your Apple devices, it currently doesn’t work as well as it should. And it is a bitch to develop for. For my own app, I’m building my own seamless synchronization system from scratch because iCloud doesn’t do everything I want it to (while simultaneously doing too much) and because it’s actually easier for me to do that than to use the atrocious APIs that iCloud currently ships with. This is one area in which Apple has a long way to go. I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as the Maps fiasco but it is a somewhat distant second.

But what’s the worst thing about developing for iOS?

I really love Xcode and I don’t have any problems with the development tools per se. However, the weakest link for me is the App Store model. For one thing, it needs free previews (or apps that have a preview period). Go ahead, try out my app for an hour or a day and then decide if you want to buy it. You can’t do that today and I feel that that lets users down. I also feel that it pushes users towards free apps, as they don’t want to risk their money on something they haven’t tried. The other thing Apple must do is to allow developers to use in‐app purchases for service subscriptions. The really interesting apps today all have a server‐side component and that’s an ongoing expense for developers. It makes no business sense whatsoever to sell a product at a fixed price if you have ongoing costs to maintain it. Allowing developers to sell service subscriptions via in‐app purchases will fix this. As far as I am aware, Apple is allowing some partners to experiment with this so I hope it won’t be long before we see it opened up to the greater developer community.

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Is there anything Apple can learn from Windows Mobile or Android?

Android has a very different business model. Google took Microsoft’s model with Windows and implemented it for mobile and that’s how we got Android. It really is the Microsoft Windows of the mobile world. Google has never had a consistent design vision for Android. As such, I don’t think there’s much that Apple can learn from them on that front. If anything, Apple needs to match the stability of Google’s web services. Windows Mobile–although it brought with it a fresh visual language–is not a great continuous client platform. Your phone doesn’t seamlessly integrate with your other devices as do Apple and Google’s offerings. Even the visual language–although flat design is all the rage recently–has its problems (affordances are lost and landmarks are weak). As such, I don’t think Apple has anything to learn from Windows Mobile.

You’ve heard about the rumored black and white “flat” overhaul Jony Ive is doing to iOS. If true, is this necessary?

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As Steve Jobs famously said, ‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ In fact, how something looks and how it works are complementary: How something looks can tell you a lot about how it works. The canonical example is that of a door handle: If it is shaped like a knob or a handle that you can grip, you instinctively know that you should pull it. If it is a plate, you know–without instructions–that you should push it. In other words, the way a thing looks tells you about how it wants to be used. In design, we call this an affordance. Where we have problems is when an object creates an expectation because of its appearance that it does not meet in behavior. We’ve all seen the door with the handle that you instinctively pull but which you have to push to operate. A good example is the calendar app on OS X: It looks like a paper calendar and thus creates the expectation that you should be able to turn the pages in a natural manner. And yet you cannot (you can, however, on the calendar app in iOS). This is also an example of skeuomorphism–making an object mimic another material. I’m saying this because I would be very surprised if Jony Ive is changing the way iOS looks separately from how it works. If anything, he will be evolving the two in tandem. That said, there some skeuomorphic elements in iOS that create expectations which they do not meet and which, it would be safe to assume, will have their affordances tweaked in the next update.

Looking at iOS, Windows Mobile, Android, and Facebook Home, are there any similarities that can be drawn from them that say, “This is what a mobile OS needs to be successful?”

For a mobile device to be successful today, it must integrate seamlessly into your life; into your existing data, networks, and workflows. It needs to provide a great continuous-client experience. We can no longer judge the value of a mobile device on its own merits alone. It is the holistic experience that matters. So those companies that have the greatest control over the whole experience will be in a position to deliver devices that provide the best experiences. Currently, Apple is unique in its design‐led approach and control over nearly the whole experience. Google has such control only over the devices that it itself ships, not those that are customized by manufacturers or careers. To be successful today, you need to “make the whole widget” as Jobs used to say. Because the weakest part of a user experience will undoubtedly be the bit that is not under your control. So if you want to know who is going to create a great mobile device, you need to look at the organization. Is it design-led? Does it have control over the whole experience? If it ticks those boxes, you’re off to a good start.

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Tell me about Breakingthin.gs? What is a “personal reboot narrative”?

Last year, I decided to simplify my life, regain focus, and to document the process on a hand‐rolled blog that I called Breaking Things. Making the blog itself (from scratch, without using a blogging engine) was part of the process. I called it a reboot because I was, in effect, rebooting (like a computer). When a computer reboots, it clears its memory and gets a fresh start. That’s what I tried to do and it was a great experience. Sometimes you just have to stop, take a look around you, and reevaluate where you are and where you want to be. To take a look at the world with a fresh set of eyes. In fact, I would argue that you should do this not just once in a while but on a regular basis.

I’ve heard you say before, “We have to realize that a bus information app is not a bus information app; it is an object that affects and alters people’s lives, either for better or for worse.” You seem to think that apps have a cosmic significance. Isn’t that a bit far-fetched?

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Not at all. If you think about it, we all have a tiny bit of time in this world and then we die. And we spend that time having experiences. Experiences with people and experiences with things. It’s the quality of these experiences that determine the quality of our lives. So consider for a moment just about how much of your life today is spent interacting with things as opposed to people. And now think about how those experiences make you feel. Do they empower and delight you or do you end up getting frustrated and angry at things that either don’t work or don’t work well? We live in a designed world. As designers–as the people who craft experiences–we have a profound responsibility to not take for granted the limited time that people have in this world. We have a responsibility to make that time as painless, as empowering, as beautiful, and as delightful as we can.

You’re a director of Code Club. What is that?

Code Club is a network of volunteer‐led after‐school coding clubs in the U.K. that was founded last year by Clare Sutcliffe and Linda Sandvik, and currently we have close to 800 clubs around the U.K. with thousands of kids learning to code. (And we’re always looking for new volunteers and new schools, so if you want to help inspire the next generation of makers, do come join us.)

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Here in the U.K., a few MPs say that all children should be taught to code–that it’s as important as learning to read and write. What do you think about this?

When I was seven years old, my father brought home an IBM PC and a BASIC manual and set them in front of me. Then, he told me a very important thing: He said, “go ahead, play with it, you can’t break it.” (I did, much later, prove him wrong by spectacularly blowing the computer up after tinkering with it, but that’s a different story.) It’s because of him that I’m where I am today, doing what I do. I started out making simple games in BASIC–star fields, star ships… the thing is, if you can create your own universe at seven that’s the sort of magical spark that stays with you for your whole life. Today, I try to ignite that same spark in the next generation as one of the directors of Code Club. Coding–along with design–truly is the new literacy.

[Image: Flickr user William Hook]