Google, Design and the Age of Flat Unity

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A curious thing is happening in the world of digital design. Skeuomorphism, the art of translating real-world design cues into the virtual sphere (e.g. concepts like the “desktop”, “folders”, and, recently, faux-leather stitching in previous versions of Apple apps for iOS and OS X) has been shunned in favour of a flat, clean, colourful aesthetic that aims to convey a more honest-to-the-cyber-world user experience.

This is a good thing. It means that designers are starting to push new thinking into the highly volatile world of user interface design. Android has been doing the “flat dance” for a while, and Apple has only recently joined the bandwagon with iOS 7, and its decision has indeed catalyzed much of the developer community still holding-back to be swept by the Apple-effect of cascading influence.

Google just announced “Material Design”, a new design language set to rival iOS 7’s flat UI, and which aims to bring more user experience consistency to the highly-fragmented and popular Android OS. Android has long since faced the challenge of scaling with its rapid growth. It is the most popular mobile operating system by far, and its open source nature means that it is susceptible to modifications. Samsung and Amazon, for example, both re-skin the generic Android interface with their own variants. Amazon goes as far as calling their theme an “OS” – Fire OS.

What does this mean for the end-consumer? Well, consumers are more concerned with hardware than software; fancy features like fingerprint scanning and more megapixels are what drive sales, after all. But design fragmentation means that the user experience of a particular app across various Android flavours is unsteady. A user that jumps from one Android phone to another may experience subtle design changes that make for slightly jarred experiences. Apple’s iOS is designed in-house by a tightly-integrated hardware and software team, so the hardware-to-software experience is quite consistent. Android, by contrast, is nurtured by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, but hardware companies like Samsung and Sony implement it as the soul that gives life to their hardware creations – the Galaxy range, the Xperia range, etc. Each manufacturer makes it seem like there are a multitude of operating systems out there that are kind-of linked, when in fact there’s just one powering all their devices: Android.

What Google is doing with Material Design is a huge deal: they’re giving developers a comprehensive design guideline, from the ground-up, to ensure that their app designs, and by extension their user experience, remains consistent across the multitude of Android flavours out there.

Material Design is just another step in this new Age of Flat Unity: utilising flat design elements to rapidly unify disparate experiences. By alluding to real-world experiences through the implementation of physics-based effects (like the Parallax effect in iOS 7) and nature-inspired animated cues (Material Design’s abstraction of natural effects), designers can skip skeuomorphism in favour of an experience more intrinsic of the digital age. Google describes Material Design as:

“a unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion.”

 

Material Design will be rolled-out across Google’s services and platforms (Chrome OS and Android being the major players). The Verge has a good breakdown of everything you need to know about the new design language; check it out by clicking here.

Material joins Microsoft’s Metro Design and Apple’s iOS 7-esque flatness; I’m really interested to try out Material Design-inspired interfaces, and welcome this as a great addition to the Age of Flat Design.

iPhone 5C: Apple’s Second Renaissance

We all knew there would be an iPhone 5C. If the copious amounts of part leaks and even full design photos weren’t enough confirmation, then at least the fact that Apple’s significant challenge in facing-off the onslaught of cheaper, plastic Android models was a defining factor in creating just such a product.

iPhone 5C (or is it spelt “iPhone 5c…?) is, in my opinion, a refreshing take on the mobile phone design that defined this generation’s idea of what a phone should be. It’s fun, vibrant and clearly aimed at a more youthful audience – factors that make it perfectly positioned to attack the Android and Windows Phone (in the guise of the Nokia Lumia range) charge. Its price point still leaves much to be desired – at one point, $199 to be exact – it overlaps with the low-end iPhone 5s model. This ambiguity, and the fact that it actually costs $549 unlocked, means that Apple’s lower-cost phone isn’t actually that cheaper, but it’s certainly the more economical option for those wanting an iPhone but not willing to shell out for the more premium incarnation.

The Apple Renaissance

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One of the turning points in Apple’s history was Steve Jobs’s return, and the creation of the plastic iMac, designed by famed Apple designer Jony Ive.

This design breathed new life into the tired, beige-hued look of computing, and spawned many copies, even transcending the computing industry into other products like staplers and cooking utensils. It was iconic, and extremely successful. And it was made of plastic, a material that often takes a lot of flack for being perceived as “cheap” and environmentally un-friendly.

That early iMac design marked a renaissance for Apple that was closely followed by the iPod and iBook. But soon Apple began to produce its distinct minimalist designs, forgoing plastic for sleek aluminium and glass. Which I, along with many others, have loved ever since. It is classy, stylish and durable – far more so than plastic.

This design language has, however, become quite predictable. That is why I call the introduction of the iPhone 5c a second renaissance for the Cupertino giant. It adds a new take to the iPhone design, and alludes to that earlier time in Apple’s history when things were very uncertain (as they are right now, with the competition catching up and even surpassing them in many ways), and there was a definite need to shake things up. Then, and now, Apple chose to do this through the medium of design and not other strategies. Being a firm believer that through design they could build a rock-solid business strategy, Apple has hinged their hopes of regaining mobile dominance with this very product.

As a second renaissance, the iPhone 5c represents a completely new framework of thinking at Apple: one that began with the flatter design of iOS 7 and which continues with the reintroduction of steel-reenforced polycarbonate iPhones that are colourful and in stark contrast to the more elegant and subtle iPhone 5S. The 5c now panders to new audiences, tries to hold on to audiences that are growing up, and adds a sense of fun to the product line in the same way that the iPod mini reinvigorated its product family. Apple’s new design language is going to be interesting to follow as it slowly unfolds across both its software and hardware, under the watchful eye of Sir Jony Ive.

Just this week Apple moved ahead the process of getting the iPhone sold with China Mobile, the world’s largest phone carrier with over 700 million subscribers. And ardent followers of Apple news will know that the iPhone 5c has been in many ways designed to target such countries as China and India, the largest battlegrounds of Android dominance. If Apple can successfully infiltrate these fields with the iPhone 5c, then it will be proof indeed that mindful product design and meticulous attention and care to how a product is engineered and manufactured are indeed the ingredients to a winning product.

South Africa and Apple’s Plastic iPhone

Plastic iPhone concept by MacRumours
Renderings of what the iPhone 5C might look like (source: http://www.macrumors.com)

Rumours have it that September 10th is the date for Apple to reveal their next iteration of the iPhone, dubbed the “iPhone 5S”. It logically follows the current 5, and is meant to be an incremental improvement – i.e., nothing drastic in its exterior design.

But there’s another rumour, backed by copious part leaks and design drawings: talk of a cheaper iPhone, an iPhone made of plastic and not Apple’s signature glass and unibody aluminium. A phone they’re calling the iPhone 5C.

The “c” is ambiguous (as was the case with the “S” suffix). Some say it could stand for “cheap”, others, that it’s “colours”, an indication that this phone will be available in various colour options, the first iPhone to break away from the traditional black or white options.

This “lesser” of the two iPhones compels me to think of its implications in markets not yet transfixed by Apple’s mobile lure. The iPhone has, since its introduction, been considered a premium device. Its detailed construction, use of expensive materials and manufacturing processes, and the fact that it has the 1 Infinite Loop fruit printed on its back, makes it a device that dictates a hefty price tag. But with the plethora of cheaper, plastic Androids flooding the market, it seems like business sense for Apple to develop a product to get them back into the game and make themselves relevant in a mobile-centric world where these plastic droids are increasingly becoming a viable and economical alternative to the Apple way of things.

As they did with the iPod, this venture into the cheaper alternative model for their flagship product could be a great way for Apple to reinvigorate the iPhone’s image. However, it’s a risky move: it threatens to potentially disrupt the iPhone’s brand as one of quality craftsmanship and style. Let’s face it: plastic has the reputation of being a “cheap” material.

The rumours place this iPhone 5C (or whatever it’ll be called) as a replacement for the iPhone 5 when the iPhone 5S launches. Part leaks suggest that it will share many of the internals with the current iPhone 5, but will sport the new plastic shell. It’ll also be slightly bigger in form factor, but will retain the new screen size of the iPhone 5.

For the South African market, the possibility of this new phone becomes rather interesting. I won’t go as far as to say that it will be the exceptionally cheap iPhone we’ve all wanted (the fact that it’s an Apple product means that it will still be marked-up significantly, especially with our wonderful local distributers who love to take advantage of this country’s fledgling tech market). But it will certainly prove a strong competitor to Samsung, who’ve been making waves here recently with a strong marketing presence.

When BlackBerry launched in South Africa, it took the market by storm because it provided an economical way of staying connected. However, customers in South Africa are starting to awaken to the fact that BlackBerry is in a precarious state, and that their devices are struggling to keep up with  Android and iOS offerings. This faltering brand opens up the opportunity for Apple to get into the country’s mobile sphere and truly create a lasting image, and not just the superficial one it currently holds in the tiniest of market shares. What we really need, then, is for our networks to offer good data deals: it’s a big thing to ask of our marvellously overpriced operators, but combine a lower-cost iPhone with a solid data bundle, and I think Apple has the chance to make itself a stronger brand here, perhaps even as ubiquitous as BlackBerry managed.

The iPhone 5C may not be “what Steve would’ve done”, but then again, Tim Cook has explicitly stated that the culture at Apple post-Jobs is not “What Would Steve Jobs Do”, but rather, how can they make the best products possible. Apple needs to cash in on significantly growing markets in order to make themselves relevant and to keep in a game that the Androids are already winning; South Africa represents a strong playing field for them to do so. Our smartphone market is growing daily, and couple that with a more technologically aware society, we’re one of the perfect mobile hotspots for these tech giants to invest in.

Whatever may transpire come September 10th, I’m looking forward to Apple’s latest round of products, and will definitely be charting Apple’s inroads into our country continuously.