Apple is losing its lead in the area of user interface.

I’m not talking about skeuomorphism, which is a poorly-understood concept anyway. Probably any good touch interface is skeuomorphic by nature: this is not really a page under glass that you’re sliding around in Safari or Chrome.

Nor is this about the spectrum that lies between totally flat design and extreme texture realism.1

Where I see Apple losing ground is in those areas which are really key to a user interface in the post-PC, touch-driven era. For me, that’s largely not about color, texture, shading or even icons(!).

Rather, interfaces succeed or fail on the basis of organization (of the whole), layout (of the immediate view), typography, responsiveness, constancy2 and accessibility. By “accessibility” I don’t mean only access for the impaired, but access to the features or information the user needs at any given moment.

So while Apple’s graphical surfaces continue to outshine the competition’s in attractiveness, its interfaces could be falling behind in other areas.

One of the most important issues of accessibility for modern touch devices is the virtual keyboard. It’s an interface we use constantly: for searching the web, for sending a message, for entering a password, for adding an appointment to a calendar or for adding comments to a photo.

As it stands, I’d rate Apple as holding a solid third place in keyboards. While it’s fast and responsive, offers user-definable shortcuts and includes a sometimes helpful, sometimes maddening autocorrection system, the iOS keyboard has changed very little since the iPhone was released in 2007. (Text fields did gain copy and paste, which are both helpful and maddening in other ways.) Meanwhile, keyboards in Android and Blackberry have pushed ahead with predictive auto-fill capabilities. These systems hone in on what your most likely next word is, and offer to let you insert it with a tap or gesture. Since typing on glass is never without some frustration, requiring fewer taps means fewer opportunities for aggravation.

Andy Ihnatko switched to Android in part because of its superior keyboard offerings; while Ars Technica concludes “the BlackBerry 10 keyboard [with its flick-up-to-autofill feature] is one of the best virtual keyboards we’ve ever used.”

Good for Android and Blackberry 10. But it’s not just text entry where Apple is falling short; text editing remains remarkably painful on iOS. Having to fat-finger the insertion point into the hairline space between two letters so you can remove an unintended capitalization is a recipe for exasperation — and the need for doing so comes up multiple times a day. There are good ideas out there for how iOS editing could be improved. So far, Apple hasn’t shown much zeal here.

There are accessibility issues beyond the keyboard. Toggling wifi or bluetooth connections and adjusting brightness remain points of annoyance on iOS. Switching apps on iPhone requires a clumsy double-click on a button that was never engineered for that purpose. And even on the large, pixel-rich display of the retina iPad, there is no way to load a social stream alongside a live video (as I’ve wanted to do during political debates) or keep an online article handy while writing a response to it.

These are all interface issues that have been addressed to one degree or another on other mobile platforms.

Sharing data between apps, or between devices, remains a profound hassle. Using a photo from one app in another usually requires the ridiculous step of saving it to a third app — Photos — first. And if you want to move that photo to another device (or to your Mac), well… I hope you’re a Dropbox user, because Apple can’t help you.

Nothing here represents a problem beyond Apple’s ability to solve.3 Instead, what we seem to be seeing here is an example of Ed Catmull’s adage, “Success hides problems.” Apple continues to be monstrously successful across nearly every one of its product lines. If the iPhone 5 is the world’s best-selling smartphone and the iPad is the leader among tablets, what can there be to fix? My fear is that at some point these little niggling annoyances — each minor enough when taken on its own — will cease to be worth putting up with as a whole. If these are all solved problems on other platforms, customers will start to wonder why they have to keep tolerating them on an Apple device.

At that point, it’s already too late.

Apple does many things exceptionally well. Its industrial design and hardware engineering aren’t in danger of being eclipsed anytime soon. But competitors are chipping away at its lead in user interface. If Apple means to stay at the top of the mobile market, it needs to start closing these gaps.

  1. Talking about these design decisions as a matter of choosing one’s place on the spectrum, rather as a dichotomy which requires everyone choose a side, would be a helpful evolution of that discussion.
  2. Here I mean both “consistency” and “reliability.” An interface that changes with every view may suffer from inconstancy, but so might a particular view whose content fluctuates rapidly while struggling with sporadic availability of a server.
  3. Apple’s ongoing struggles with web services are another matter, but not an interface design issue.

# # # #

March 9, 2013