There's a lot to be happy about in iPhone OS 4. Like multitasking, and threaded inboxes. So why doesn't it feel right?
iPhone OS 4 isn't a drastic overhaul, or a radical reinvention of the iPhone formula; it's just another predictable step forward. But the little things it delivers in response to popular whims are what feel most awkward and ill-fitting—things like custom wallpapers, folders and even the way it handles multitasking.
iPhone 4.0 is in still beta, which is a good thing, because that means Apple still has time to improve on what has been previewed. We're not sure how much will actually change between now and this summer, but here's what we hope Apple pays closest attention to as they get down to the wire:
One of Apple's more paradoxically admirable qualities is that it doesn't give people what they ask for. When they do, well, it can look like this. And it's gross. Worse, this is just the default wallpaper. Can you imagine what people's iPhones are going to look like when they start adding their own ugly wallpapers? Wallpapers work on the iPad, because there's a ton of space. On the iPhone's smaller screen, packed with icons, it's too much. With the iPhone's simple black backdrop, Apple actually saved people from themselves.
At the very least, keep the default wallpaper black, and throw in some more serene alternatives.
The iPhone's system of organizing apps stops scaling after a certain point—somewhere around 6 pages filled with little squares, the system collapses into a pile of stabby pain and frustration, long before you even hit the maximum number of 11 pages of apps. Folders attempts to fix this set of issues, letting you pour multiple apps into one little icon, organizing them however you wish, and bumping the maximum number of apps to just over 2,000 (which, BTW, means you're crazy).
There are several problems with Folders. Foremost, if iPhone OS is a new computing and interface paradigm that's designed to break us out of the desktop model, why is Apple going back to an old metaphor like Folders? Even simply calling it something different, like Stacks, would be slightly better from a mental model standpoint.
Second, it is messy file management. Each folder can hold up to 12 apps inside, but the folder thumbnail that you see in the home screen only shows nine icons. If you do have 12 apps, opening the folder reveals a neat and tidy three rows of four. But if you prefer nine, as many obviously would, you get a scrambled, non-logical layout—two rows of 4, plus a little orphan icon on its own row. It's a strange paradox for a company that takes pride in consciously clever design, especially when there's a pretty easy way to make Folders work better.
A final more trivial point is that it clashes with the overall iPhone aesthetic. The weird dimpled, vaguely rubber texture under the enclosed apps. The floating folder title. The odd fade-and-slide animation. It's all kind of misplaced.
A slightly cleaner look and concept is really all that needs to happen here.
Multitasking. A godsend. Except the way it actually works. Double-tapping the home button brings up a single row of recently used apps, a snaking trail of icons that grows indefinitely until you perform a full restart or manually quit each one. They're dispersed in what feels like a random order, requiring you to flick, flick, flick to get to the app you want. It's just as easy, if not easier, to bounce back to the homescreen for your desired app. If the number of recent apps grows to a certain number, why not use more of the screen real estate—say two rows of icons—to make it easier to get to the app you're looking for.
Oh, and task management. It makes sense Apple doesn't want people to think about it, but if you actually do futilely attempt to task manage, it's kludgy at best—press and hold an icon, wait until it dances, then tap the minus button to kill the already paused process.
Let's face it: The iPhone interface simply wasn't designed from the beginning for users to juggle multiple apps. So on the whole, it feels bolted on—well, it is—rather than seamless. Is there a way to elegantly do multitasking without completely upending the iPhone's interface? Maybe. So far, this isn't it.
In a sentence: Killing zombies shouldn't be interrupted by a barrage of notifications that completely freeze and take over my entire screen.
iAds aren't all bad—they're going to help developers make a better living. But baking them into the OS does mean users are probably going to be seeing a lot more ads—like in apps that previously didn't have them—because why not? They're there, they're easy to implement. Sure, they'll be nicer than the average ad—like mini apps, even!—but it is hard to get excited about more ads.
Each new major piece feature seems to contribute its own little bit of design horror. In some cases, things that worked—like the old double-tap for favorites—get morphed into more complicated moves (double-tap and hooooold) to make room. Swirling the new features all together—the visual noise of the wallpapers, chintzy sliding animations, strange textures, even the reflective dock—iPhone OS 4.0 is a cloying, hyperglossy, barf-y mess, far from the straightforwardly iconic image of the original iPhone. We just want it to look clean and elegant again. Is that even possible?
Those are our major issues with iPhone 4.0 after using it for a couple of weeks, issues that we hope are smoothed out by this summer. Some, we have hope for. Others, not as much.