Despite shiny new iPhone 6s and iOS 9, one feature hasn't changed since first iPhone

After eight years and countless changes, one feature remains nearly identical today to what it was back in June of 2007: the iPhone launcher. Is this a good thing?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

It's hard to believe the iPhone has been out for more than eight years. It's also hard to believe just how much the world of the PC desktop, music, and -- of course -- phones has changed in those eight years.

The smartphone has been transformative -- and the iPhone led that transformation.

As ZDNet recently showed, much has changed in our iPhones, from an explosion in speed, vastly more pixels on the screen, and a whole lot more storage. Heck, even natively-coded apps didn't exist on the first iPhone.

And yet, through all that time and all that change, there's one feature -- and it's a major one -- that is nearly identical today to what it was back in June of 2007: the iPhone launcher.

Take a look at the image below. The original iPhone is on the left and an iPhone 6s is displayed on the right. Sure there's a lot more space for icons. but the iPhone 6s launcher is as unquestionably recognizable as the original.

The first iPhone compared to an iPhone 6s screen

Android is not like that. First, nearly every manufacturer creates its own launcher. That's why Samsung users are stuck with TouchWiz while Nexus users have the pure Google launcher experience.

Many Android users have replaced the original launchers entirely, along with creating a new look and feel. This is my home screen. I custom designed it with a calendar widget in the center, an array of small white icons that I use constantly around the edge. The eight colorful circular icons are actually folders, and I can even see network strength very easily on my screen.

My carefully-customized Android home screen

While the richness of launcher apps for iOS doesn't really compete with that on Android, there are quite a few replacement launchers available. Sadly, the Home on iOS button can't be customized, but there are enough ways to work around that limitation that iOS launcher apps are still worthwhile.

My biggest complaint about the iOS launcher is how folders are presented. I can't stand the tiny icons displayed in generic folders. I want to be able to customize the folder icons, like I did on my Android phone. I've looked, but haven't found an app that can replace the dynamically-generated iOS folder icon itself.

Image: Apple

Yes, it's possible to avoid the generic tiny folder icons with a replacement launcher, but it's instructive to note that even that icon/folder display has been around for a long time -- since iOS 4 came out in June of 2010.

Consistency vs. flexibility

One of my biggest complaints about iOS compared to Android has been a comparative lack of flexibility. For example, there is nothing like the on-device programming power of Tasker in iOS. Apple doesn't allow it. And while launchers are grudgingly permitted on iOS, you still can't remap the function of the Home button.

There are, however, also benefits to that lack of flexibility. I'm a geek, so I'm comfortable tweaking things down to as low a level as I can get. But many people aren't. And the consistency of the iOS interface makes it much more comfortable and predictable.

Let me give you an example. My wife and I bought our Android-based Samsung Galaxy S4s at the same time. We brought them home, and within a few short days, her phone was completely unrecognizable from my phone.

Whenever I hand her my phone, she's always asking me how to find or do something -- because some of its features are hidden in gestures, completely different screens, app drawers that function totally differently, and so forth.

This makes helping friends more difficult, too. When someone with an Android phone asks for help, it's not immediately clear what launcher is being run or even how to consistently get to settings.

By contrast, the iPhone is spectacularly consistent. You don't really need to know what version of iOS someone is running to help them. You can generally point them in the right direction without needing any insight into how they've customized their phone or even apps they have installed.

An iPhone is an iPhone is an iPhone

This also makes user training far easier. Even if someone hadn't used an iPhone since, say, the iPhone 3, if that person were to pick up an iPhone 6S, usage would be immediately obvious. Sure, there might be some tweaks and features to figure out -- like new share panels or 3D Touch, but those would be additional things to learn, not the foundational basics common to every iPhone and iPad since the earliest days.

Some might say this consistency is boring (and I've been one of them). But it's also fair to recognize that consistency helps create a comfortable user base that understands -- at quite a deep and personal level -- how to use the device.

This is an important lesson Microsoft missed when it created Windows 8 and removed the Windows interface most computer users worldwide had come to be so familiar with. Microsoft still hasn't recovered from that mistake and probably never will -- at least at the OS level.

By contrast, we can pretty well assume that we'll be able to immediately jump in and use the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8, and even the iPhone X. That similarity, that consistency not only brings comfort to the less technically inclined, it reduces the cognitive friction in an environment intended for instant productivity, not intense study.

Will I miss Android's launchers if I move back to the iPhone? You bet. There will no doubt be a rash of profanity when I realize something I could have easily programmed in Tasker is just plain unavailable on the iPhone.

Then again, being able to count on exactly how a device behaves and sharing that exact experience with a few hundred million fellow humans has great value as well.

For privacy and security, change these iOS 9 settings right now

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