The past year has seen the mobile world go through considerable evolution in terms of technological development in the realms of both hardware and software, with the launch of the next iteration of Apple’s iPhone yet again, proving the catalyst for setting the technosphere abuzz with talk of smartphone innovation.
However, contrary to popular belief, the Cupertino-based tech giant isn’t the agenda-setting trailblazer it’s often made out to be, and although the launch of its iconic iPhone 5 and iOS 6 mobile platform may well have grabbed the column inches, Apple rivals Google and Microsoft have also been hard at work pushing boundaries of their own with the development and dissemination of Android Jelly Bean and Windows Phone 8 respectively.
Regardless of where your smartphone loyalties lie, a mobile platform’s user interface will more than likely have played a part in your choice of OS – after all, the UI is effectively the ‘front of house’ element of the software with which mobile device owners will have the most interaction. As such, aesthetics, ease of use and the breadth of functionality offered will be high on the checklist of those looking to upgrade or make the switch to a new OS, possibly even occupying a higher position than the range of devices offered or the level of integration with other products.
Apple’s approach to design is perhaps the most important factor in its success and has undoubtedly played a part in garnering an almost cult-like following for the brand. Unsurprisingly then, the minimalist simplicity evident in the Cupertino company’s products continues with iOS 6 and the now familiar, plush icon-based interface makes a return. However, there has been a few subtle changes – the status bar now has the ability to adapt its hue according to the current open app, and a selection of core functions have had minor facelifts (the dial pad in particular exhibiting a new sheen).
Perhaps most notably though is the tweaks made to the actual layout of the main app menu – the 4 rows of 16 icons set-up as seen on the iPhone 4S and earlier iOS devices has increased to 5 rows of 20 icons on the iPhone 5 owing to the increase in screen size to 4-inches and the resolution being upped to 1136 x 640.
Whilst this is a boon to those who like to have their most-used apps in situ on the main screen without the need to resort to folders, it does mean some older apps fail to accommodate the extra pixels, resulting in “letterboxing” with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. iOS 6’ virtual keyboard appears in this format too (as opposed to being situated at the base of the screen), meaning that typing within optimised and non-optimised apps requires a shift in technique when flitting between them.
The Universal Search function deployed via a swift swipe to the left of the main homescreen is a welcome addition, but overall, it’s definitely a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ for Apple.
Android Jelly Bean
Android’s strength as an operating system has always been the seemingly limitless opportunities it offers for customisation, something that has undoubtedly contributed to its current standing as most popular mobile platform (recent figures from Google claim that 1.3 million Android devices are activated each day). Jelly Bean is no different in this respect and at its most basic, provides a solid foundation onto which users and device manufacturers alike can build, adding third party apps and launchers, customising with the myriad of widgets available, and personalising with live wallpapers, app folders and the like.
Of course, your experience of any iteration of Android depends on the device you use it on and the extent of the alterations made by the manufacturer of said handset or tablet, but the basic elements of the UI remain constant. Ice Cream Sandwich brought improvements in the form of a data usage monitor, a reconfiguration of nav keys – the task switcher and the ability to close down running apps by swiping thumbnails off the side of the screen being of particular note – as well as a redesigned app tray and clearer app menu layout featuring a permanent link to Google Play and the widgets screen. Jelly Bean doesn’t go overboard by way of new features, but there has been a few modifications in terms of design and base-level functionality.
Comparing installations of Jelly Bean to ICS, some subtle differences can be found. A slight change in the Android colour pallet sees the blue accented headers and frames decrease in number, and new unlock options allow users to swipe down or right to wake the handset from its sleep state, or swipe left to open the camera app. Swiping up to unlock launches Google Now, the Android creator’s new personalised information service (more on this in part 2 of this series), and the notifications bar at the top of the screen is now infinitely more user-friendly thanks to an increase in size to the notifications themselves, making them easier to read.
Perhaps the most notable additions however are the way in which users can interact with the aforementioned notifications, and the increased freedom afforded when it comes to homescreen personalisation. A two-fingered drag on a notification now collapses it to a single row, whereas doing the reverse expands it. In the case of Calendar notifications, users can act upon the information from within the notification, setting an alarm to snooze or instigating an email to invited guests, and missed calls are easily returned by tapping a callback button.
Jelly Bean also allows users to prevent apps from sending notifications at all with a “Show Notifications” option included alongside the “Force Stop” and “Uninstall” tabs within an app’s information window. Widgets are now more malleable too and can be placed almost anywhere on a homescreen, not just within a pre-determined area, and can also be re-sized by long pressing on a widget and dragging on one of the four dots that appear around its perimeter until the desired dimensions are reached.
Windows Phone 8
Whilst Windows Phone is the least popular of the three mobile platforms being considered here, it could be argued that the user interface it employs is the most technologically advanced and aesthetically pleasing. Whereas Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS staunchly adhere to the ‘app icons arranged in a grid’ format, Microsoft’s OS rips up the rulebook as it were, dispensing with the traditional form to bring us Live Tiles - infinitely customisable, visual representations of apps that can be arranged mosaic-like on the homescreen.
On previous iterations of Windows Phone, these tiles, whilst perhaps offering more by way of accessible realtime information than Android’s widgets, have been more rigid in terms of customisation. Yes, it was possible to create Live Tiles for different apps or functions such as Facebook, Twitter, Photo Hub and Email, and see their respective tiles populate with information and notifications as and when certain events occurred, but the depth that to which this functionality extended was limited to a select number of apps. With Windows Phone 8 however, the extent to which these can be customised has increased tenfold.
Live Tiles can now be re-sized into three pre-determined sizes, depending on how much information users wish the tiles to convey. This is particularly useful in the instance of the calendar app – when extended to the largest parameters, a greater level of detail can be seen including event location and invited parties. As a result of the new-found ability to re-size tiles as you see fit, four of the smallest sized tiles can now be fitted across the width of the screen, and eight down the length (without having to scroll that is – an almost infinite amount can be added in total), resulting in a greater wealth of information being displayed via 32 Live Tiles on one specific screen.
The smallest sized tiles seen on WP7 are now considered medium on Windows Phone 8, meaning the even smaller option to which we refer is now available. This is particularly useful for those who like to include a quick access settings or utilities tiles on their homescreen without having it impinge on screen space that could be put to better use in displaying social updates etc. In order to toggle between the three sizes, users must long-press on a tile to invoke the appearance of an arrow icon in the bottom right corner and then tap the arrow to shrink or expand the tile. Microsoft has decreed that third-party developers must support small and medium tile sizes in the apps that they create, but accommodation of the largest size has been left to their discretion.
Windows Phone 8 also brings some small but important changes to the lock screen, again allowing a greater breadth of information to be displayed. Previous iterations allowed users to see limited details about their next calendar appointment, but this has now been extended to include most recent unread emails, text message or missed calls, although unfortunately not all at the same time (one can be swapped out for another).
Notifications that appear across the bottom of the screen have also had the level to which they can be customised extended as users can now choose which types of notifications are received and the order in which they appear from left to right. There’s room for five icons, and support for third-party apps has also been included so the inconvenience of having to manually open an oft-used non-native app to receive updates is negated. The lock screen background can also be configured to display dynamic content from third-party apps, and stretches to include news feeds, stocks and weather, and even the Bing ‘Photo of The Day’.
Having considered the new aspects of functionality brought along by the new iterations of each major mobile OS, there doesn’t seem to be one that considerably outshines the others. Whilst it could be argued that iOS looks to be lagging behind its two main rivals, staunchly sticking to the app icon layout and offering little in the way of interactive widgets and apps supplying realtime information, it could be said that Apple’s refusal to deviate from what has proven to be a winning formula is a valid choice.
Windows Phone 8 certainly looks like it’s blazing a trail when it comes to user experience and interactivity, and the freedom offered by Android’s open-source nature has continued with the latest iteration, but the areas we’ve looked at here are merely a small snapshot of the bigger picture. Check back to the Dialaphone blog tomorrow for Ware Wars II (Part 2) in which we’ll be seeing how the general functionality of each OS stacks up.