Apple's iOS 7 is either a sweet-looking mobile operating system that will drive iPhone and iPad demand in the future, or an effort that borrows design cues from rival platforms and will confuse people. The only certainty is that technology companies are increasingly putting themselves at risk of consumer blowback by making changes to user interfaces.
Google has stepped up its Android user interface game in recent years. CEO Larry Page often uses words like "smooth" and "beautiful" to talk up new user design features. Android has market share, but wouldn't be called an elegant operating system by many. However, items like Google Now, its personal assistant, show strong design and user experience chops.
With the exception of Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry and Apple had to take a redesign stab for various reasons. The risk of doing nothing was too great. Apple didn't dramatically tweak iOS for 6 years before outlining iOS 7 and it generally showed. Apple also needed something to talk about because its hardware cadence is slower than what Wall Street wants. Apple's unveiling of iOS 7 puts lead design guru Jony Ive's stamp on its mobile software and gives customers something to talk about as they wait for new hardware.
These dueling tech vendors have no choice but to push the design envelope as they try to gain some advantage. The problem: The OS on the mobile front is increasingly about services. Apple has had its cloud struggles. Google has an upper hand with its ad and cloud model. Microsoft has a few winning cloud and services parts. Amazon basically did an Android overhaul with the primary purpose of driving commerce and services. In the end, the OS needs to get you to services — especially via mobile devices — as hardware on the mobile front becomes more of the same.
Given the fact that these mobile interfaces all have to do roughly the same thing, it's no surprise that they are all starting to look similar, if not completely blend together.
What's the challenge? Customers of an established product loath change. That inability to change is why some folks are still using Windows XP. Rest assured that some folks will cry for an iOS classic once iOS 7 leaves beta. Change is uncomfortable — especially when something like the Start button in Windows feels like a comfy old pair of shoes.
In the end, these tech giants are trying to play a game of leap frog and capture customers' collective imagination. Given hardware is commoditized, software and experience are the best options to differentiate. The big hurdle is that these tech players are forcing changes that users may not necessarily want.