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A brief look at the history of Apple's mobile UI, and what hints it may hold for iOS 6

iOS 6: A fresh coat of paint

A brief look at the history of Apple's mobile UI, and what hints it may hold for iOS 6

Sometimes you break out the sledge hammer. Sometimes you knock down the walls and rebuild from scratch. Palm did that. Microsoft did that. RIM is doing that. Other times you pick up a brush and slap a coat of paint on the walls, and the place suddenly looks good as new.

With iOS, Apple has both said and acted in a way that indicates they consider familiarity to be a feature -- that's why the iPad introduced in 2010 pretty much looked and worked the same way the iPhone did when it was introduced in 2007, and the same way both still do today.

It's also the reason the core of iOS -- Springboard -- isn't likely to change any faster than iOS' hundreds of millions of mainstream users can digest. Because, to users, the interface is the app. Apple can remove Google data from Maps.app, but as long as the interface works in a familiar way, and the content remains accurate and appealing, to many users the change will be transparent. How many noticed when Apple swapped out Skyhook Wi-Fi location data for Apple's own database?

As much as we've explored the idea of new iOS Home screen interfaces, and what potential a 4-inch, 16:9 iPhone screen may allow, we've also been hearing for a while now that renovation may not be on the agenda this year. For iOS 6, what we might be getting is more like a coat of really good paint.

But which colors will they use?

Here's a brief look at Apple's iPhone interface designs over the years, and how each of them would look applied to the default UIKit. (That part's just for fun -- many of them are clearly ludicrous.)

Pinstripes

The original iPhone app treatment remains the current iPhone app treatment. Pinstripes. Back in 2007, compared to PalmOS, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Symbian, the pale gray blue and subtle white line of iOS 1 (iPhone OS) worked. Or at least, people were all too busy playing with inertial scrolling and pinch-to-zoom to really pay attention to the color-scheme.

There were a few exceptions, like Notes with its yellow pad treatment, but most of the core iOS apps came into the world in pinstripes, and have worn them ever since.

Felt

For the first few years, first-party Apple apps stuck to the default interface. iOS 4's Game Center, released in 2010 was one of the first major, notable exceptions. It was made to look like a Las Vegas gaming table complete with green, burgundy, and yellow felt with polished wood trim.

Linen

With iOS 4, Apple introduced the linen texture as a metaphor for background or behind-the-scenes content, and aggressively expanded it in iOS 5 and OS X Lion. It was used in setup screens, for the fast app switcher dock, for folders, for Notification Center (breaking the background motif), and Siri. It wasn't used in the same way as felt, as a skin over UIKit, but as a way of visually differentiating an alternate level of functionality.

When you saw linen, you knew you weren't in an app any more.

(We originally developed the iMore app using the default UIKit, until Nickelfish's Justin Marcucci suggested a linen based interface would be more modern.)

Wood

Alongside iOS 4, Apple released iBooks, which unlike the iTunes Store and App Store, needed to be downloaded separately. While it used the default interface for the store component, the built-in reader used a wooden shelf motif for the list view.

iOS 5's Newsstand featured a similar, fold-out version of that look. In 2012, the iTunes U reboot went with the same interface as well, only darker.

Leather

2011's Find my Friends, which like iBooks wasn't included in the core OS but required a separate download from the app store. It took the stitched leather look, which Apple had already used in the iPad and iOS X Lion's calendar and address book, to it's fullest extreme.

Reminders, also introduced in iOS 5 in 2011, also wore leather, albeit less like comfy couch and more like an action-oriented jacket.

Silver

When Apple released the iPad in 2010 with iOS 3.2, they announced they'd re-written many of the core apps from scratch, including the above-mentioned leather-bound book looks. More than that, however, they dropped pinstripes from the get go. Instead, they went with a more subtle, more silver looks for the default apps.

Apple's 2012 WWDC app brought this look to the iPhone as well, but with an even more subtle effect.

iOS 6

Apple has worked relentlessly over the years to make the iPhone and iPad all about the screen. Casing has been minimized, bands have been flattened, buttons have been moved behind the curves.

At the same time they've made apps more visually dynamic, using many of the aforementioned skeuomorphic designs. That's for two reasons:

  1. To make apps appear friendlier to people for whom technology initially feels inaccessible.
  2. To make otherwise boring, data-driven apps more visually interesting.

As much as the mockups above were fun to render, Apple treats the default interface chrome more like casing than like content. The Settings app doesn't need to be made more accessible or more visually interesting -- it would distract rather than add to its experience.

There's a common cliché associated with Apple design -- 10:3:1. From a handful of concepts, one production version emerges. It's probably no coincidence the WWDC app, and the leaks of the redesigned Maps app look like evolutions of the default interface first introduced with the iPad.

And personally, I think the iPhone would look great with a fresh coat of silver.

Update 1: Since I started working on this late last night (photos don't shop themselves!), both iDownloadBlog's Christian Zibreg and 9to5Mac's Mark Gurman have also reported hearing about interface refreshes to Apple's core iOS apps. WWDC should be fun.

Update 2: Here's a variant on silver, inspired by Michael Steeber, with a darker background for better contrast.

Additional resources

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 17 comments. Add yours.

Kirstie Lemkau says:

I have to say that for the past few of hours i have been hooked by the amazing articles on this blog. Keep up the great work.

SockRolid says:

I really like the look and feel of Reminders. (No, not necessarily its functionality, which isn't up to par compared to the Mountain Lion version...) It has kind of a black ground-glass look that I really dig.
Maybe this year's iOS look will be "silk." Like linen but finer and shinier.

Rene Ritchie says:

Added a Reminders variant, just for you Sock!

natefish says:

I'm with Sock. I think the black leather is the most professional-looking variant. Thanks for adding that one, Rene, and thank you for all the interesting articles on iOS 6.

taylorz_412 says:

Man, really great stuff your doing Rene, keep up the good work ,i and many others appreciate the time and effort you put into every post on the site

Radu Tanasescu says:

Rene, Palm, Microsoft and everyone reinvented their mobile OSs when the iPhone came out, to say that everybody innovated while Apple stood still is a bit of an over statement.
And it was only Palm that actually did something new and improved. The rest were and still are crap, as Steve would say.
About changing stuff... what's all the fuss about? I've used Palm OS for years and it never bothered me. The iPhone made it look pale and webOS made it look even worst so that's when a change was due. Unless the next big thing comes along, somehow making smartphones even better, why change anything?
If it works, don't fix it. And IOS really works for me. (in the absence of webOS)

DARK_BLU says:

WebOS is open source now, right? Would Apple even need to have to pay to license any of the good in it to use in IOS? It's not like there are any WebOS devices or apps for them available anyway. So Apple should considering using some of WebOS innovations, perhaps. We shall see.

natefish says:

Great point. I loved my Pre. If only, if only...

iDonev says:

Apple should also keep in mind the hardware which carries the content
Example: Having a silver/gray color scheme on a white iPhone will look somehow dirty and off-putting. To me at least.

Jentino says:

Speaking of coating paint, Apple should use a surface blasting with minimum standard of Sa 2,5 to get a solid adhesion. This is a metafore.

leathernuts#WP says:

I'm good with the current. It's clean. 2nd choice would be the reminders scheme. My bro has his jailbroke with all kinds of colors and icon sizes etc. and everytime I see his iPhone it looks like its a kids toy. I known its all preference in the end.

GlennRuss says:

Ease of use is the main thing with Apple. I do not really see them changing things a lot. With Palm, third party launchers were very popular, and icon maker. You could really tailor the device to your personality. Make it your own. That is what I miss from WEB OS. With the iPhone, and iPad, all you can do is nice home screen walpapers, and a custom lock screen, but you cannot change the icons at all.

RobotGrrl says:

Is there really much of a point of a fresh coat of paint if the texture feels the same (glass)? I could see it happening with some behind the scenes texture mapping, so on the next gen devices w/iOS 6 you could sense the different materials. The same glass texture is getting really old, time for some innovation with haptics! ^_^

lewiscohen1 says:

It would be amazing if they did this, but they would need to release some sort of Theme Store in conjunction with it, and then moderate that like they do the App Store. Otherwise people will get all up in arms about how they want more themes. But the shown Settings>Appearance menu is the best way to implement this. Far better than Winterboard.

Lee says:

I cant wait for the new iPhone I just hope it breaks as easily as the old one. I own a iPhone repair company and make my living because how fragile they are http://www.i-Rite.com

Nir says:

Thank you for this fascinating article.