What’s Really Missing From The iPhone X? A New Metaphor For Computing

Apple resorts to incrementalism at a time when we need new metaphors from which to build the smartphone’s ecosystem.

Holy crap those emoji were amazing!


Bounding onto the stage yesterday, Apple’s head software engineer Craig Federighi showed off how the tech behind Apple’s new Face ID, a feature that allows you to unlock the newly announced iPhone X just by looking at it. Then he showed how the same face-mapping algorithms could map your features onto a custom, real-time emoji. You too could be a clucking chicken, or even, I daresay, a smiling pile of poo. As a feat of engineering, it was stunning. It was as if the engineers who put a man on the moon had instead decided to make a super good coloring book. You might not need a coloring book, but hey, wouldn’t that be the best damn coloring book you’d ever seen?

[Image: Apple]

After Federighi, Phil Schiller came back on to remind people how fond Steve Jobs was of the old Wayne Gretzky maxim about skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been. “That’s what the iPhone X is all about,” he said. This, he continued, was the future of the smartphone. Maybe. Or maybe not? With Apple’s last several years of announcements, we’ve gotten used to the introduction of features instead of big ideas. Federeghi today was particularly proud of eliminating the Home button, taking time over and over again to show users how a swipe would now suffice. You can’t blame Apple for such incrementalism. No one is going to challenge its dominance. No one else can spend billions of dollars in engineering muscle to put your face on a poo emoji. Any wholesale rethinking of the problems with modern mobile computing would be painful, risky, and unnecessary if the goal is to keep Apple on track to become the world’s first trillion-dollar company.

It was just 10 years ago that Apple introduced one of the most revolutionary ideas ever. Not just the multi-touch interface and not just the smartphone–but also, the App Store. The interface helped the iPhone change the world. But it was the App Store that opened the floodgates for innovations ranging from Uber to Instagram.

The App Store wasn’t just an intuitive interface; it was a metaphor 120 years in the making. In the 19th century, shopkeepers used to store their wares behind the counter. For a customer to see anything, the shopkeeper would first pull it down then explain what made that product special. Then came Harry Gordon Selfridge. His eponymous department store in London pulled all the goods out from behind the counter, putting them on display on the showroom floor so that customers could make their own judgments. They didn’t need someone to tell them why something was special. They could touch it themselves. A century later, if you look at the App Store, you’re seeing icons laid out in just that same manner, with the same assumption: Whether it’s an app or a new sport coat, a product must sell itself with how finely it’s made and how well it fits you.

[Photo: Apple]
When the App Store was introduced, that metaphor made perfect sense. Software was still sold in boxes on store shelves, in a manner Selfridge would have loved. And the top apps did indeed work as standalone goods: From the New York Times to Crash Bandicoot, they weren’t linked up in a web of related use cases.

Fast forward to today, and things are different. To do something as simple as book a date with a friend, you might have to pop in and out of a half dozen apps, ferrying information to and fro not using your smartphone’s memory, but your own. The problem is that the overarching metaphor of a bunch of awesome new products sitting on a shelf, waiting to be tried out, is at odds with the underlying structure of what the smartphone is: a network of connected uses and apps and websites, linked by your personal habits and social connections. More worrisome, the App Store metaphor is also responsible for the constant distractions the smartphones have introduced: Apps are incentivized to compete for our time, so the each try to hook us in their own ways.


So while the iPhone introduced a radical simplification and clarification of what computing could be, it also introduced new seams and friction points. When you see the movie Her, you realize that reason it looks futuristic is that those seams don’t exist. The computers simply understand what you want, and execute. They don’t make you remember which app is right, or what order to use them in.

It might sound silly to hope for that kind of ease, but Apple’s competitors are already working to bring that future about. For example, Google’s experimental OS Fuchsia is not designed around a wall of apps, but rather a series of “stories” in which apps can apparently be linked up in ways molded to how people use them. Meanwhile, Amazon has paired with Microsoft Cortana, to start developing new interactions between computing and commerce. The future augured by Her is indeed inching forward. But it’s not doing so on the same models that created the iPhone. It’s relying on new metaphors, ranging from the News Feed to the Story Card.

To be sure, Apple’s iPhone X event is dedicated to hardware, not software. But it’s a piece of Apple’s last software event this summer, in which iOS 11 was announced. No big new ideas. Lots of really great new features.

During the event yesterday, when Cook started in on his bit hyping the iPhone X, he said, “We can create devices that are far more intelligent and far more capable than before.” Absolutely. But making something out of that promise won’t be about refining the hardware, which, as Apple’s chief design officer Jony Ive suggested in a video voiceover, has finally reached its platonic ideal after 10 years of impossibly hard labor. Creating those futuristic new devices won’t even be about refining the software, which Apple can integrate with its phones in a manner that Google can only dream about. Rather, we’ll have to find new metaphors from which to build the smartphone’s ecosystem. In that respect, Apple seems wedded to where the hockey puck has been ever since Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.