iOS and Android: Physical Logic and Cyber-land

Alex Payne helps me understand what really differentiates the ideas behind iOS and Android:

Everything from Android’s name to its styling speaks to an aesthetic that’s technical and a touch retro-futuristic. After years on iOS, parts of Android look and feel cool, but the slightly anxiety-inducing cool of science fiction. The skeuomorphic approach that’s now been abandoned in iOS 7 may have been goofy, but it was the logical extreme of Apple’s clear intent that the iOS experience should blend seamlessly into the real world. Android exists primarily in digital space; iOS is largely an extension of the physical.

This might be the best explanation I’ve seen of the differences in the design logic between iOS and Android (and I suppose Apple and Google generally).

Google’s aesthetic is one that is removed from the real world, it says, welcome to Cyber-land, human! This isn’t a bad thing per se, not at all. At its best, it’s liberated from legacy ideas of computing that are tied to old hardware and outdated metaphors, allowing for much more radical takes on UI. The sliding in and out of entire screens of content and icons, the widgets that float and intermingle with applications, the near-ubiquity of additional menus and lists from almost any place in or outside of any app (like Optimus Prime’s trailer that mysteriously disappears into subspace when Optimus is in robot mode, and then reappears when he’s a truck — where’d it come from? Cyber-land!). It’s the kind of thing that leads almost inevitably to something like Google Now, the ethereal, semi-omniscient “force” that anticipates your needs without you having done anything to prompt it. (See more about my less than stellar experience with Google Now here.) With the Moto X, you don’t even press anything to summon the spirit within, you just start talking. I can find this aesthetic alienating, at times, even as I’m in awe.

As Payne says, Apple is more an extension of the physical world. But that doesn’t mean “skeuomorphic,” or forced to adhere to real-world metaphors, though this can can often be the result, and often laughably. It does mean, however, that what you interact with works within a logic that makes sense from a physical, corporeal perspective. Though iOS 7 has nearly eliminated its reliance on representations of physical objects in terms of things like buttons and backgrounds, the screens and menus still behave as though they live within their own physical reality: Control Center (the prime reason to upgrade) swipes up from the bottom, and its translucency reminds you that it is one layer, almost onion-skin thin, over the main content. Notification Center similarly layers over everything, but opaquely, almost like you’re “closing the lid” on the device, and now can only see crucial updates and alerts. In the task-switcher, you don’t kill an app by finding an X or other off-switch button, you actually flick the app away. You physically remove it. And unlike with Google Now, Siri must be called with a button. And rather than portray itself as a soulless computer voice, like the Enterprise computer, Siri is kind of like the pixie who lives in your phone.

This helps me to understand why I intuited that accusations of Apple copying Android (or Windows “Metro”) were wrongheaded. Yes, much of iOS’s overall bloated puffiness is gone with version 7, but it remains firmly entrenched in physical metaphor. The change is that the metaphor is no longer tied to banal objects, but to more basic ideas of physics and perspective. Android is largely untethered to any unifying concept, which both liberates it and brings unnecessary chaos.

They are both strong, dynamic foundations for powerful operating systems, and neither is prima facia superior or definitive. Now, at least, I understand them a little better.

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