STEVE JOBS was not known for his sense of humour. Thus the reveal in January 2007 of the iPhone came as a bit of a shock. Mr Jobs first detailed how a combination of iPod, internet device and mobile phone into one unit would be ideal. Then he flashed up a slide of an iPod with a rotary telephone dial on its front. Your correspondent, in the audience at the time, erupted into laughter.
Whether this was intentional or not, the joke illustrated the late Apple founder’s fondness for skeuomorphism, the use of simulacra of real-world texture or function within digital user interfaces—stitching on a digital address book, say. Scott Forstall, Apple’s head of mobile-software operations (until he was ousted by the firm’s current boss, Tim Cook, in October) championed skeuomorphic design. The tendency to use various finishes and functionally irrelevant elements increased under his watch. Pages in e-books turn with an elaborate curl effect; the calendar app sports torn edges; on/off buttons require sliding, like a physical switch.
Now that Mr Forstall is gone, some of this penchant for skeuomorphism may be reined in. Jonathan Ive, Apple’s experienced hardware-design supremo who takes over from Mr Forstall, has publicly but politely expressed his disdain for the approach.
User-interface designers initially deployed skeuomorphism to cushion the shock of transition for those working in fields shifting from analogue to digital. In the 1980s your correspondent (an inveterate geek) moved seamlessly from cutting up wax galleys of typeset copy with X-acto knives and pasting them squarely on boards sent off for offset printing to Aldus PageMaker’s near-identical digital steps in desktop publishing. Of course, PageMaker did not require running a text file through a virtual waxing machine or dragging digital blades to cut them up. Instead, the software struck a balance between analogy and functionality. With time, layout software severed more and more metaphorical connections with the past. After all, the analogue lookalikes are not there to prepare users to revert to the old, physical way of doing things; such transitions are typically one-way affairs.
Skeuomorphism can still be lots of fun. The LetterMPress app for the iPad, for example, offers a simulation of creating designs with metal and wood type on a Vandercook galley press. It is particularly delightful because getting your hands on the real-world kit is next to impossible. The program offers a lot of the same joy of creative expression, and its function is remarkably faithful to the original.
But most software does not require such literalism, and are far less respectful of users’ intelligence and adaptability. Apple’s GarageBand, for instance, is a loose homage to the look of a traditional studio audio mixing board, and its digital tools allow amateurs to pick up skills quickly. But it also sports knobs and meters. The knobs or “pots” (short for “potentiometers”) control the left-to-right balance, but twisting a dial with a mouse makes little sense. The meters resemble the bulbs (and later LEDs) in a sound board showing input and output levels, which are useful at a glance, but are so faithful to the original that they leave out improvements. Both are charming at first, and less so on each subsequent use. A site called Skeu It offers many other similar examples.
The fundamental problem is that even old folks like Babbage (at least those who are not vintage tech aficionados) have at best fading memories of the stuff skeuomorphs hark back to. “Digital natives”, as those young enough to have been raised with computers as a constant part of their home and school environments are known, often have no idea whatsoever. A 13-year-old presented with a rotary-dial phone should be able to suss the interface out and place a call, but would hardly carry a picture of it in his head when using a mobile.
The famously terrible Podcasts app from Apple lets a listener scrub through a recording by dragging a slider. That is up to date and useful. But to get to that control, one reveals a screen that has a fancy reel-to-reel tape deck of the sort your correspondent has not seen in practical use since his uncle retired his device in California in the 1970s. The reels move while the podcasts play, but have no functional purpose. Too fey by half, and perplexing to those raised on MP3 players or even CDs.
Mr Ive is prone to finding the sleekest solution to every industrial design problem, producing timeless products that only appear dated when compared with his next iteration. The original iPod was remarkable in its day, but now appears bulky compared with the iPhone 5. (The iPhone 6 will surely make the 5 appear like a rough-hewn block of wood.)
Too much whimsy can be irritating and Apple’s products in the past few years were skewed towards skeuomorphism. A touch of rebalancing away from such contrivances is probably in order. But a bit will enliven drab software. You would hope, therefore, that Mr Ive does not throw the simulated baby out with the digitally enhanced bathwater.