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iOS 6: Is it time for Apple to revamp the Home screen?

At Macworld 2007 Steve Jobs pulled the original iPhone from his pocket, held it up high above the stage, and showed off the app launcher-based Home screen... that's pretty much remained the same ever since.

That's not entirely true, of course. Apple quickly added the ability to create WebClip icons for websites, and to re-arrange and delete them. With iOS 2 (iPhone OS 2) they added native apps to that mix. They increased the number of Home pages. They added Spotlight. They added wallpaper. With iOS 4 they layered in the multitasking fast app switcher. They layered in folders. The iPad, and the iPad alone, got landscape Home screen support. With iOS 5 they layered in Notification Center and Siri.

Is it time for something more?

Familiarity is a feature

The new iPad (2012) review

To a casual user -- someone who only makes calls, plays music, takes photographs, and runs the occasional app -- the iPhone today works almost exactly as it did back in 2007. Just like a casual Mac OS X user can ignore the Terminal, iOS users can happily ignore Spotlight, the fast app switcher, folders, Notification Center, and Siri, and still fully use and enjoy their iPhone. They can wait years between hardware upgrades (and sometimes, because of that, software upgrades) and still pick up the latest iPhone and use it exactly as they used the first iPhone.

That may not matter to gadget geeks who change their platform as often as they change their jackets, but to mainstream users, to those for whom technology has traditionally been intimidating and inaccessible, that familiarity is a huge feature.

It's why Apple made the iPad work almost identically to the iPhone and said as much -- hundreds of millions of people already know how to use it.

It's why Home screen interface and experience isn't fashion. If you're bored by the iOS UI or UX, consider how little computer UI and UX has changed much over the last few decades. For all its other advances, for all it's design tweaks, OS X still has icons and folders on a desktop, the same as the classic Mac OS had generations ago. For all of Windows 8's Metro skins and finger-friendliness, it will still ship on beige boxes with full mouse and pointer support at its core.

That being said, mobile is moving at a blisteringly fast pace. While the iPhone and iOS were the startling new in 2007, they're now one of the oldest mobile experiences in the space. Interface and experience aren't fashion, but users are fashion conscious, and phones are subject to fashion trends.

Android has a huge marketshare. Windows Phone is getting a lot of attention, not just from AT&T but from designers. BlackBerry 10 may bring a new level of gesture-based interface to the table (if they can solve the discoverability issues).

These Home screen experiences not only look different to iOS and the traditional app launcher, but they function differently as well.

App launchers and information density

iPod touch 4 gallery

iPhone wasn't the first app launcher style Home screen. Not by a long shot. Long before smartphones, Palm Pilots were based entirely on the icon grid. When smartphones came along, the Treo retained the app launcher. Windows Mobile adopted it as well. Even today, you can find app launcher Home screens on webOS, BlackBerry OS, and Android. Some of them also add other layers, like Cards or widgets, but for the most part app launchers are never far away.

That's because they're familiar, as mentioned above. You see an iconic representation of something you want to do, you tap it, and it opens up. Because they're iconic (or supposed to be), and because human brains are great at pattern recognition, they scale well and can (usually) be picked out even among a large quantities of other icons.

What they lack is information density.

With very few exceptions, all an icon on an app launcher tells you is which app will launch when and if you tap it. They're static images and there's typically no information about the current state of the app, or any relevant data beyond the static image.

In the case of Apple's iOS, Calendar will show you the current date on its icon, and Apple created a badging system to overlay the number of outstanding alerts an app has pending. But that's it. With Notification Center, with a little extra effort, you can pull down snippets of those alerts, and see widgets for Weather and Stocks. However, the level of immediately available, glanceable data remains low.

Even if we consider the status bar, which shows carrier and Wi-Fi, time and battery, location and Bluetooth, none of it is actionable. It can't provide additional information or take you to it. (Although it has added persistent color bands for tethering, voice recording, VoIP or telephone calls, etc. and tapping those will take you to the associated app or Setting.)

Widgets and cards and tiles, oh my

There's no consistent Android interface, but stock Google, Sense, TouchWiz, "Blur", and other manufacturer implementations typically offer some variety of widgeting system. With them, you can have social statues, search boxes, clocks, news feeds, and a huge amount of glanceable data available right on the Home screen. They typically take up more space, however, might use slightly more battery and bandwidth as they keep up-to-date, and add an element of chaos to the layout. However, the amount of time they can save makes for an excellent tradeoff. (If that type of data is important to you -- some users simply don't find a use for widgets on computers or smartphones.)

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webOS takes a different approach, shrinking entire apps down into "Cards" that stay live-ish on the Home screen, and thanks to more recent updates, can be stacked together. Flipping through Cards doesn't give you an iconic view or a widget-ized extract, but a look at the entire app, in its current state, with its current data. BlackBerry's Tablet OS essentially aped this approach as well. The only drawback is that sometimes some apps aren't as identifiable by their actual screen as they are by their icon (long white list views just look like long white list views). So, it might take a moment to find the exact Card you want, but probably not longer than finding and launching an app.

Both Android and webOS have easily accessible app launchers as well. Both also typically provide more information in the status bar, including the ability to tap into icons to activate drop down menus or initiate other functions.

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Windows Phone 7 took an even more radical approach. They threw away the Windows Mobile app launcher and replaced it with a tile-based Home screen. Squares or rectangles represent categories of functionality, and can show a small amount of live content -- a picture, an avatar, a number, an icon, etc. It's not always great, however, since at times they take up the space of a widget while not showing much more data than an icon. (They're not as informationally dense as they could be, at least not yet.) And because they update, they're not as visually persistent, which means they lose the advantage of pattern recognition.

BlackBerry 10, which will only be released later this year, seems to be taking a hybrid approach. In the little they've demonstrated so far, they've shown something akin to a set of four cards, one per corner. Sliding panels also allow access to notifications, messages, and more. (Somewhat like Twitter for iPad. There's likely a lot more to it as well, and we'll hopefully see it as time goes on.

Siri

iPhone 4S siri hero

Siri is and isn't a Home screen. It isn't the traditional implementation of a Home screen -- something you can sit in and navigate around. It demands immediate interaction. But Siri can be used to access data and apps without having to move through the traditional Home screen. Rather than unlock, look for an icon, and launch, with Siri hold down a Home button, wait for a double tone, and speak.

Siri can by no means replace the traditional iOS Home Screen, but it can and does sit in parallel to the traditional iOS Home screen, and can replace its use in a few very specific ways. Yet it's clear Apple put significant work into Siri, not just into the server-side voice and context parsing engine, but the interface as well. Siri got a lot of the widgets that the traditional iOS Home screen hasn't. Depending on what you ask, all manner of clock and alarm and to-do and information snippets pop up. All incredibly well thought out and incredibly well rendered.

Getting a Reminder into iOS using the traditional Home screen, icons, buttons, and gestures is a chore. Getting a Reminder into iOS with Siri is remarkably fast. (Granted, when Siri works.)

Siri is still in beta, it's still not fully baked, Apple hasn't implemented it on the iPod touch or iPad. So, while Siri is no doubt part of the future, how much of the future is still to be determined.

iOS 6 and the Home screen

There's not a lot of low-hanging fruit left in iOS. Over the years, Apple has slowly but steadily added in most of the features that most of the people thought were missing in the original iOS (iPhone OS) -- apps, copy and paste, multitasking, notifications. There's a lot of ways to improve the existing functionality, but not a lot of functionality that's still missing. So on what tent poles will Apple hang its iOS 6 keynote this year?

Sure, Apple's bought 3 map visualization companies (but no map tiles), so a new Maps App could be one. I'd still sincerely love a Files.app repository, now iCloud enabled. Georgia still wants her Theme Store, where users can choose between a small amount of Apple designed iOS skins. But over the years, as iOS has matured, the amount of features truly "missing" has reduced considerably.

That leaves improving existing functionality. And that brings us neatly back to the question asked in this article's title.

Is it time for Apple to revamp the iOS Home screen?

Do you want them too? Do you need them too? If so, how so? Is it as simple as adding a widget layer to the existing multitasking and notification layers? Is it increasing Siri to the point where the app launcher becomes secondary? Or does it require something completely new, something that makes Windows Phone Metro and webOS and the upcoming BlackBerry 10 look old and outdated?

If Apple does make a substantive change to the Home screen, what does that mean for the hundreds of millions of mainstream users who are used to, perhaps dependent upon, the way things work now?

Apple has always been fearless when it comes to driving the future. They obsolete hardware and software often faster than the market itself. Is it time for Apple to apply that fearlessness to the iOS Home screen?

Additional resources

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

83 Comments
  • A major revamp is necessary for Apple to stay current and "with" (not quite 'ahead') of the game. I think they've got some goodies up their sleeve though.
    Think about the iOS integration with Mac OSX. You're on your desktop, and you pinch to get to your Launchpad of apps. I see them integrating this into their mobile iOS as well: a home screen with custom apps/widgets/information/etc and you 'pinch' to get to launchpad - your own drawer of applications. This would be HUGE.
  • That is very similar to what Android has now, except it is touching a specific region, not a universal gesture, to open up the applications launcher.
  • I can definitely see Apple implementing what you mentioned on the iPad due its bigger screen and more immersive experience. On the iPhone, I'm not so sure.
  • Kudos to you for that idea. I'm not a Mac user, so I haven't had the opportunity to see that in action. I think that'd be a fantastic idea that I could totally get on board with.
  • Not sure about this one, but I think the way they have it is simple, and I love simple things, I can't really see a way better layout(I'm not a designer, so there might be space for improvement). The current Home screen "Just Works" - don't we all want this ?
    As a developer, I would love to have some new things to write code for, but time will tell, I just don't want the Home Screen to become a jungle.
    Thx.
  • Yes, it just works. And that is what people want. But android's are at a point now where they "just work" and they include a ton more functionality to their OS. I love my iPhone a lot. But I can't help looking at android phones and playing with them because of how much more you can do with them.
    Apple needs to step up their game and innovate again. I feel like we really haven't seen anything "new" since the iPad 2 was released.
  • I'd agree with Brett. A friend has a real new Android phone, and it is quite interesting to see all it can do out of the box.
    I really love my iPhone, but have finally begun to think seriously about a jailbreak as it would open up so much more functionality. Much of this is really nothing new, the technology has been around for some time, in some cases years, but for some insane reason Apple feels the need to restrain its customers. I think Android has achieved the point where they are getting ahead of Apple in this way.
    And then there's the larger screen size thing...
  • Well, I personally am not a fan of Android's home screen. It is more cluttered that iOS and it takes a few taps to get to a list of all your apps. Some people may like it, but I'm good with how iOS does it.
  • Stop spreading this crap. One tap of the app launcher icon gets your apps and your home screens can be as cluttered or as clean as you want them to be.
  • If implemented well, I wouldn't mind seeing apps have the ability to shrink down to the space of 4 squares instead of 1 icon square as they do now, and displaying a bit of information. I'd ALWAYS want the current 1 square icon to be the default, but for certain apps, it would be nice to have larger options with a bit of info. Maybe a weather app that has the ability to shrink down to a 2x2 square showing weather for the next few hours, or a calendar app shrinking down to a 2x2 square showing upcoming events. For social media and phone apps, this could be especially handy.
  • I see no real reason Apple should change the basic functionality of the UI. That being said I personally wouldn't mind live (animated) wallpaper that would provide some sparkle and possibly gdisplay some basic info like time and weather.
    I would like time and weather to be displayed on the lock screen at all times so I don't have to swipe and tap 3 times then wait for the temp to update.
  • Time is always on the lock screen and had been since 2007
  • Not weather. I would LOVE weather on the lock screen.
  • Having a "live" weather widget running puts a real strain on the battery. I have the Android and when I first got it, I put the weather widget on one my home screen, thinking this would come in really handy, but I realized after a week or two that not only was the battery was draining very quickly, but the phone was acting sluggishly. I was ready to return the phone and get the iPhone (which I should've gotten in the first place), but then I started digging around the phone's settings and found a handy tool that shows you which programs were using the most resources and battery power. Lo and behold, the weather widget was way up at the top. So, I shut the thing down and noticed immediately that not only did the battery last much longer, but that the phone itself started speeding along as it should've.. Be careful with those "live" widgets - they're resource and battery hogs.
  • Yes please
  • As a proud user of Android (Galaxy Nexus) and iOS (iPad 2) I can say that it does indeed need a revamp.
    But not just for the heck of doing it.
    As stated in the article, iOS needs to bring more functionality to the table.
    I know that Apple wants to keep things simply, but people aren't quite as dumb as iOS would suggest. Sure, they may not need to see all the files in their device, but they are capable of learning to adjust to new interfaces if done correctly.
    I say this because I've personally set up Android phones for everyone I know that gets one. I ask them what they will use it for and adjust widgets and settings based on their preference.
    Now doing this takes time, but in the end, I don't have them calling me with a lot of questions about their device later.mand once shown, they usually change things later.
    People should have a desire to learn about their devices, not just have something dumped in their lap. For those that do, Apple has given them that.
    And now that they have, it's time for Apple to step up and prepare to re-educate. Introducing new interfaces can be made simple, yet still make you feel like a adult.
    Im sure when Apple does eventually update things, it will be awesome.
    Just hope its sooner than later.
  • i have a Galaxy Nexus and iPad 2, too. And I'm pretty much in your same boat. People ask me for buying advice and setup assistance and tech support questions. And I agree with what you're saying.
  • Totally agree, Thomas. I also have an Android (Galaxy Note). Apple needs to revamp.
  • "I know that Apple wants to keep things simply, but people aren’t quite as dumb as iOS would suggest."
    Well stated.
  • Landscape Home screen support for iPhone. please and thank you.
  • Apple has always been fearless when it comes to driving the future. They obsolete hardware and software often faster than the market itself. Is it time for Apple to apply that fearlessness to the iOS Home screen? Fearless? They are usually the last to adopt something ala 3g then lte. Yes apple needs to revamp the home screen but not just to do it. Let users choose how they want to arrange their icons and not be stuck with the grid layout.
  • Yes,
    steal androids home-screen layout and make it better.. lol
  • I think Apples approach to a new UI is like a woman getting a haircut... If the haircut does not enhance, improve and showcase the persons appearance based on "their" opinion, then it won't happen. Same with Apple. If the iDevice is not bettered in Apple's opinion, the change won't happen. Whats my opinion? The same as Apple's. Make it better then yes otherwise don't touch it! Although my toaster, vacuum and stereo could use a better interface, no?
  • Wouldn't want anything that's going to cause the battery life to suck like on Android. I'd rather be able to use my phone than look at moving wallpapers and pointless widgets. It's not too much trouble to tap on the app to see the weather or the score on a game.
  • NEWS FLASH: Using widgets and live wallpaper on Android is optional, not a requirement.
  • Not sure I agree about the things that drain the battery - Apple's implementation of app switching is dead on for that reason. I have several Android friends who know how to turn things off when they need extended battery life. I also have several friends who don't understand why their phones' batteries are dead by the end of the day. If you implement a feature that negatively affects the battery life - particularly one that doesn't really enhance usability, like animated wallpaper - you will invariably get negative feedback from users who use the feature and are unhappy about battery life.
  • Wow great break down Rene!
    I'd like them to do some sort of hybrid of the live tiles of WP7 and the current iOS home screen.
    Maybe they can give you one "home" screen that has widgets/tiles that show something basic. Then you have the standard spring board. So from left to right swiping you have; search, home, apps, apps, more apps.
    Maybe Apple comes up with something even cooler we can't even think of yet.
  • The UI is fine. But if I had to personally pick some must have changes:
    Auto correct - Holy crap is it bad. Steal Android's.
    The notification drawer is almost pointless. Why? Because there is nothing showing that there are notifications waiting other than the icon badges, which may be on a page you rarely scroll to. This could easily be addressed with a tiny icon next to the time. Dump the tacky red icon badges and throw them all into the notification drawer. It would be a small change, but would greatly improve how we use the device.
    Does anyone else feel the system sounds are stuck in 1998? Every time I hear that goofy old lock or woooooosh email sent sound I think how silly they are to be on this sleek and fancy modern device.
    Access to the system files, or even just space for use stored files, would be great. I still feel like I have to jump back on my PC to do something through iTunes far too often.
    This got way too long.
  • I have yet to have a problem with the AutoCorrect... what's so bad about it? The people I DO see struggling with it are often spelling their intended words SO badly, AC can't even guess at what they mean.
  • Don't know about him, but for me, when chatting with friends, autocorrect worked ok. When sending business related texts and emails, with numerous acronyms and obscure company names, it's flat out terrible.
  • Don't like the sounds then change them. They gave u that control so use it. Except for lock screen sound unchangeable
  • Re: "...to those for whom technology has traditionally been intimidating and inaccessible, the familiarity of experience is a huge feature."
    Apple has worked relentlessly to reduce the tension between those two words: "technology" and "experience." In iOS, finally, there's almost nothing between you and your apps / music / videos / information. iOS gets out of the way as quickly as possible. No wasted motion. No useless clutter.
    Apple shouldn't do anything to increase the visual and functional complexity of the basic home screen. In many Apple apps, and in iOS itself, there is the basic default mode plus an advanced mode that "power users" can access. For example, the Notification Center window shade. It's there if you want it, but not there if you don't.
    Simple really is better. For every so-called "power user" there are 100 casual users who just don't care about trying to out-geek each other. Do the math.
  • ...and nothing would force those casual users to use widgets, just like they are not forced to use notification center.
  • The "math" tells me it is more like a thousand to one.
  • I think it's time for a homescreen refresh, yes. Something.
    As far as Siri - I'm so sick of hearing about that crap. And I definitely don't want any updates that will be Siri-driven, with regards to overall functionality and Home screen usability. That would basically eliminate all devices except for the 4s.
    I'm not expecting anything drastic or revolutionary... more along the lines of their pet "evolutionary" tagline. Miniscule UI changes, and more "inspirations" from the jailbreak community. With Apple's dedicated fanbase, the next iPhone should be guaranteed the top spot among individual phones, from a sales perspective. For me, if it looks like a bit of tweaking the same ol' same ol' - even though that's not automatically a bad thing or step backward - I'm not even going to entertain the thought of picking one up. Especially if there aren't some key functionality holes being plugged.
  • If it not revamp the iOS. The WOW factor is gone and Windows Phone will decimate the platform... Another battle lost. Again. Just like with the desktops OS. It seems Apple will never learn.
  • Good article! Yes, I'd like a bit more please. Pages of apps in folders scrolling like the home screen. #1 desire, even if nothing else changes. Weather icon updates with local condition and temp. Live icons for other applications, though unlikely because this means keeping the app in the background. Lock screen widgets for weather and stocks. Allow the notification widgets to be displayed transparently over the home screen like the time and date are now. API for notification widgets so non-Apple devs can make widgets.
  • Forgot the other very important one I'd like to see:
    - Dedicated icons for settings. I'd like to see a landscape view of the settings app that is just toggle icons, but would be happy to have the ability to save icons to the home screen that show the current state of the settings, e.g., the icon shows WiFi and either OFF or ON.
  • Just jailbreak and have it right now! All you ask for and more is already available to you via jailbreak through Cydia.
    Come in. The water's warm!
  • Yes a refresh is necessary. I've only had my 4s for 6 months and I'm already sick of it. It takes too long to get to essential settings like wifi or Bluetooth I want to be able to have that control on my phone no matter what app I have open, where I'm at in my app pages or what I'm doing. Make it happen apple. And some animated backgrounds would be nice too. Also add the option to disconnect from a wifi network without having to forget it or turn off wifi. That's very annoying
  • On off widget for 3G Bluetooth etc would be good
  • thats why you get an android phone :)
  • I just need multiple email signature support. How the hell Apple hasn't added this feature in, especially with the enterprise insurection they have, I have no idea. How the heck can Apple argue that one signature is enough for both personal emails and corporate emails, especially if you have more tha