Along with the iPhone 5, Apple has unveiled the final version of iOS 6, which, for better or worse, looks exactly like iOS 1. Apple may have buried 200 new features in the latest rendition of its smartphone and tablet platform, but the operating system badly needs a visual and functional overhaul.
The basic user experience of iOS 6 is identical to every version of iOS before it. The home screen has little icons arranged in a grid. You can rearrange the icons, but not control them fully. You can have one home screen or many. The home button always takes you back to the main home screen. The fonts, the icons, the colors, and all the other design elements that go into the user interface have been tweaked over the years, but not changed in any dramatic fashion or function. Users have almost no control over them.
Don't misunderstand me. The new features in iOS 6 are great. What's not to like about synced browser tabs, email VIPs, PassBook for tickets, FaceTime over cellular, better Siri, and deep Facebook integration? All good stuff, though all also catch-up features compared to Android.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which Google unveiled in June, makes a number of visual and function changes when compared to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Android 4.0 itself made dramatic changes when compared to Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Google has offered continual improvements of its operating system not only in terms of features, but in terms of home screen control and customization. Google does this to keep things fresh. Android 1.0 (released in 2008) looks ancient when held side-by-side with Android 4.1.
[ iPhone 5 delights on a device level, but has plenty of rivals to worry about. See Apple iPhone 5: Opportunities And Threats. ]
Windows Phone 8, due out later this year, will also offer a bit of a visual change when compared to Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows Phone 7. It offers a wider selection of Live Tile sizes, and lets users customize the home screen more fully. WP8 may not be a drastic redesign, but it goes a long way to improving the usefulness of home screen behavior and how users will interact with their devices. Compare Windows Phone 8 to any version of Windows Mobile (which Microsoft ceased developing in 2010), and Microsoft's efforts to modernize its OS are apparent.
BlackBerry 10, when it is released early next year, will be a completely new operating system. Everything about it will be different from the previous versions of BlackBerry OS. BlackBerry 7 was released just one year ago. BlackBerry 7 and BlackBerry 10 are wholly different.
The original iPhone, along with iOS 1, was released in June 2007. Here we are more than five years later and iOS appears mostly unchanged when compared to the original.
One might argue that you don't mess with success. The iPhone, after all, has been a huge success for Apple. The iPhone ecosystem generates more revenue for Apple than all of Microsoft's products combined do for Microsoft. It's a massive business, and with 400 million iOS devices out in the market, Apple clearly knows how to make a product that people are willing to buy.
What's worrisome is that Apple may get stuck in a design rut. Just look at OS X. It's been available for more than 10 years and looks almost the same as when it first debuted. Can iOS really remain (essentially) unchanged for that long? I don't think so. Google is innovating quickly. Microsoft and its OEMs are stepping up their game, too. In a few months, we'll have a clearer picture on how far RIM aims to take its redesign.
iOS 6 may be the best and most powerful version of iOS yet, but it still runs the risk of being boring.