Apple's iOS: In desperate need of a facelift

Apple's iOS: In desperate need of a facelift

Summary: The home screen on Apple's mobile devices is getting a bit long in the tooth. The problem is there's no easy way to modernize it.


Apple's iOS home screens are looking a bit dated. This occurred to me as I put down my iPhone and picked up the iPad mini. The home screen is certainly clean and functions well, but it looks much the same as it has for years. It desperately needs some pizzazz to modernize the interface. The problem is, I'm not sure Apple can easily do that.

iOS sameness
iPad; iPad mini; iPhone
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The iOS interface with screens full of icons is not bad, it's just not very compelling anymore. This is apparent when you compare it to other mobile interfaces. Whether you look at an Android device, Windows Phone, or even a BlackBerry 10, you realize the iOS home screen is pretty blah in comparison.

The interface full of icons was fine back when iOS first launched as it improved on interfaces that preceded it. That's no longer the case.

The mobile home screen has evolved to offer pertinent information to the user at a glance. On Android, this information comes by way of widgets, on Windows Phones it is the live tiles that lets the user know what's happening in his/her world.

With iOS, you get none of that useful information at a glance; you have to run an app. Then you only get the information or updates from that one app. If you want other information, you have to return to the screen full of static icons and run something else.

The interface full of icons was fine back when iOS first launched, as it improved on interfaces that preceded it. That's no longer the case.

That's readily apparent when I bounce between Android and iOS. When I'm using the iPhone or the iPad, the screens full of icons seem OK, but are not compelling. Then I pick up my Android phone or the Nexus 7 tablet, and I realize the home screen user experience (UX) is much better. I get information I want about the people and things I care about, just by glancing at the home screen.

Nexus 7
Android tablet
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

I'm not a UX design expert, so I'm not sure what Apple can do to update the iOS home screen. The only experience I have designing a UI is in building my Android home screens using all the widgets at my disposal. That's not really designing a UI, but it is building my personal UX on each Android device I use.

The problem I see facing Apple with a redesign is the control it exhibits over the iOS system. There are no third-party widgets that can be used by the user or by Apple. Apple is going to have to build any control, or widget, from scratch and determine how it's going to be implemented.

Such design modernization will be radical in the simple iOS home screen environment. What makes Android and Windows Phone home screens so personal is how each user can assemble the widgets, or building blocks, into just the layout and functionality they desire. There is nothing currently in the iOS tool box that can approach this system used by the competition. That whole multi-tasking thing may get in the way, too.

The days of wowing consumers with hardware are winding down for Apple as the competition has caught up or passed it. The innovations we are seeing in the smartphone and tablet space are now coming largely from software. And several screens full of icons no longer can be considered to be innovative, no matter what Apple thinks.

Don't misunderstand me; I like my iPhone, iPad, and iPad mini. I just want them to offer me a better UX on the home screen. When I look at my Note 2 or Nexus 7 home screen, it's common to see an update that makes me smile. When I look at the iPhone or iPad I just see icons. That's nothing to smile about.

Topics: Mobility, Android, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Tablets

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  • You're confusing boring...

    ...with intuitive elegant simplicity.

    It easily guides non-geeks (aka 99.9% of the human population) through what has been up to now a confusing, off putting and inelegant job: dealing with a computer.

    Do you also feel that the PUSH and PULL signs on doors are getting a bit long in the tooth? They've been around forever.

    Geeks, at some point you're simply going to have to accept that your whining and clamouring for the next new thing just isn't important to Apple. They're just interested in building powerful yet simple to use products for the rest of Planet Earth.
    • Well said Englishmole!

      I work in the R&D department of a FTSE100 software company in the UK, so I guess I'd qualify as a "geek", yet having used Android, Windows Phone and iOS handsets, in my humble opinion Apple's implementation absolutely nails it. There's a lot to be said for simplicity.

      I don't understand the clamour for Apple to do something "radical".

      Live Tiles on Windows Phone are really nice. I can understand why some people might like widgets on Android (though personally I think Android looks a mess).

      Yet, after looking at your lovely tiles/widgets on the home screen, what's the first thing that 99.9% of people do? Click an icon to take them into an app.

      How is this different to iOS? The Notification Centre shows you what you need to know, and provides a direct shortcut to the relevant app.

      There are things Apple could do to improve iOS (OS level notification sync, introduce a "video stream", Guest mode for iPad, extend notification centre to provide access to VPN, Bluetooth, WiFi etc), but for me, the home screen/navigation is already top notch - wonderfully simple and intuitive. New users instinctively understand how to interact with it.

      The old adage springs to mind - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
      • I failed to see how Android has better UI than iOS

        Author is merely stating an opinion that is not exactly valid.
        • Lack of customization and functionality.

          It is a fact that other UIs have more customization and functionality built into their user interfaces. That doesn't mean iOS is bad. Just that other operating systems have built more functionality and customization options into their interface that allow users to tailor the experience better to their needs.

          True that some may prefer one over the other and iOS is still functional, but as your point also suggests, there is no 'one size fits all' for a user interface. With iOS every user is stuck with a grid of icons.

          One of Apples biggest strengths was that it delivered improvements on the user experience, but it seems to be falling behind in that catagory now.
          • Customisability

            Most "normal" people do not want to customise their devices. If you accept this, the rest just follows.

            I was peeking at someone with an Android phone the other day and here is what I noticed:

            - the Android home screen used tiny icons, and fine text. This let it look way more colourful, but also way more busy and very hard to read. The benefit of "have it all at once" are lost, if you have to actually stop whatever else you are doing and focus on the display to read/recognise what it shows.
            - there was constant movement and swipes of the information on the screen. That might be entertaining when you play with your phone, but those devices exist after all to serve you. One usually keeps their phone in the pocket/purse and only takes it out when needed.
            - eventually, they would just start an app -- and inside the app there is no difference what the platform is -- it all boils down to the quality of the app.

            These devices are best used for process control tasks. In none of these tasks, the user is expected to stare at the home screen. If you will be staring at one screen, just start an app and it will display everything in the format and density your task requires. In essence, the home screen is just an launcher app -- nothing to do with the OS.
          • Obviously

            "Most "normal" people do not want to customise their devices."

            It would be silly to allow people to add apps to a device, add icons to those apps, move more frequently used icons to the first page, group icons into folders, etc. Let's hope that no one ever does that.
          • Hi Toddy

            We know you are not one of the normal people. You are special and deserve all the flashing tiles and the ability to arrange them on the screen. That is, you are saved from installing that puzzle app.
          • I'm happy to accept that jab

            If I have to be special to get the ability to install apps and arrange tiles on the screen so that I can be more efficient than "normal" people who have iphones and have no ability to arrange their icons in the manner that best suits them, I'm happy to be special.

            You know what else that makes me? More efficient than you.

            Arm A. Geddon
          • Why is that link for me?

            Send it to danbi, he is the one suggesting that only "special" people would ever want to organize apps on their ipads.
          • Re: arranging icons


            You are apparently abusing my good will. You promised you own an iPhone 4. You also promised you were using it for nearly 3 years (which is strictly speaking, impossible, but do not let facts distract you from bashing Apple). Yet, you do not know that you can arrange icons on an iOS device, group them in folders (submenus) etc?

            Fellow commenter Arm A. Geddon has provided you with some links for self-education. You might wish to try these on your iPhone 4 and your iPad 2, because let's hope you do indeed own them. It is never late to learn something. Making informed statements helps your credibility. :)

            To not waste more posts, thanks Arm A. Geddon for the App Cleaner pointer. I used few such apps in the past, with varying success. Will give this one a try.
          • I was poking fun at you, it's true

            You tried to imply that only "special" people would ever want to organize their app icons and it backfired on you.

            But, for the sake of a bit more fun, could you please provide me with instructions on how I can do this on ios?


            I know how to pin an app, a game, and a website in ios so no need to provide me with instructions on those.

            Now, remember my quote:

            "people who have iphones and have no ability to arrange their icons in the manner that best suits them"

            I want to arrange my icons so that my home screen has an icon that takes me directly to my wife's contact page (allowing me to quickly send her a message).

            I want to be able to arrange my icons so that when I'm going somewhere, I can arrange the icon for that address on the home screen for quick retrieval

            I want to be able to arrange my icons on the home screen so that my favorites playlist is available there with 1 tap.

            I want to be able to arrange my icons on the home screen so that if there is a note that I need to be able to see (so I don't forget to pick up the milk, for example) I can arrange an icon with the text of my note on the home screen. It would be even better if I could make that icon bigger than the others so that it catches my eye more easily.

            Remember the quote:

            "people who have iphones and have no ability to arrange their icons in the manner that best suits them"

            Every single one of these is a very useful ability and in fact, I use some combination of these every single day. Since you and Arm are so keen to provide links to ios functionality, please provide the links to how these extremely useful time saving icon arranging options can be performed on ios.


            Uh oh.
          • links

            You are mistaking me for someone else. I provide no links. It is my belief that it is insulting to assume special people like you Toddy, cannot use Bing to search Internet. Or even go directly to the vendor's web site ( and learn.

            But, someone might provide you with links.

            One thing I noticed is you need quick access to your music player. It's right there at the bottom right of every iPhone screen. Labeled "Music". I can't imagine more direct access to your playlist.

            For some of the functionality you seek, you can use the iOS Notifications (where widgets live in current iOS).

            Anyway, I see no point in "helping" you, because you use Windows Phone and none of the instructions how to do something on an iPhone applies there.

            By the way, if you conclude that I refuse to help you, so be it.

            PS: I am in quite different time zone than you.
          • Then let me help you

            "Anyway, I see no point in "helping" you, because you use Windows Phone and none of the instructions how to do something on an iPhone applies there."

            You can't pin playlists, contacts, notes, weather for more than 1 location, etc. in ios. You can in WP8. There are no instructions on how to do that on the iphone. If you choose to try and prove me wrong, you will have to provide links. If you choose to not try and prove me wrong, dear ZDNet readers will be left with no choice but to believe that I'm right. It truly is your choice.

            "you can use the iOS Notifications"

            That is very different functionality. The notification center is a reactive idea. I can react to contacts that have messaged me. It offers the user no ability to be proactive. I'm not suggesting the notification center is a bad thing. It isn't which is why apple stole it from Android. All I'm saying is that it offers a completely different kind of functionality not at all related to pinning frequently used information and functionality. The ONLY exception I seem to remember is that weather could be "pinned" there? Forgive me, as you pointed out earlier, it has been many months since I've used my iphone. I don't believe 3rd party programs had the ability to add widgets to the notification center, only apple could.

            "I can't imagine more direct access to your playlist."

            Really? You can't imagine how 1 tap in WP8 is more direct than:
            1. tap to open music
            2. tap to switch to artists / albums / playlists
            3. scroll to find the item you wanted to play
            4. tap on the item

            Uh huh. WP8 UX is better than iphone's UX, thanks in part to Live Tiles.
          • Your welcome!!

            Another app I like is Onyx. It's a multifunction utility. This link is for the Mountain Lion version.

            Arm A. Geddon
          • Really?

            You're gloating because you're "more efficient" on a phone? Does that mean you can send 10 tweets a minute instead of five? Post four bits of trivia to Facebook instead of only three?

            Type two emails at once? Send thousands of media-rich texts a day to your global network of adoring fans and slaves for the afterlife?

            I suppose you can copy and paste from a web page to a text message or to an email minus a button press and a couple of clicks. Okay, it's a game changer. The economy is saved. Joy before the angels of God. Selah!
          • Off topic.

            Glad you liked my "same as it ever was" response yesterday danbi. When you mentioned ridding apps you don't want, I thought about AppCleaner. It's an app I wouldn't go without on my Macs. Here's the link:


            Arm A. Geddon
          • You can't even arange the icons on an iPhone?

            Really? Wow I had no idea. It really is dated, and that may be understating it a tad. Even Windows 3.2 could arrange icon. So even an Amiga phone would be more advanced than iOS I suppose.


            Arm A. Geddon
          • ALSO WORKS FOR IPAD.

            Arm A. Geddon