skeuomorphic software, invisible hardware

A number of articles in the last few months have argued against the increasingly common use of skeuomorphisms in UI design. A recent one, that is also a good summary of the argument, is can we please move past Apple’s silly, faux-real UIs? by Tom Hobbs. A key point these arguments make is that software shouldn’t necessarily try to imitate the physical object(s) it is replacing, since we are both encumbering software with constraints it doesn’t naturally have, and we’re missing the opportunity to really leverage the malleability of software interfaces to create entirely new things.

In the case of Apple, though, I think there may be a reason beyond those usually associated with the use of skeuomorphic design, one rooted in a view of their products as a deeply integrated combination of hardware and software.

Before going into it in more detail, I actually agree with the general case against overuse of skeuomorphisms – I think that we have not done enough as an industry to explore new ways of creating, presenting, and manipulating information. There’s definite value in retaining well-known characteristics for UIs for common tasks, but the problem is when we simply substitute the task of designing a UI with copying its real-world equivalent. We haven’t scratched the surface of what is possible with highly portable, instant-on, location-aware, context-aware, always-connected high resolution touch-based (or not) hardware, and just copying what came before us is unnecessarily restrictive.

The case of Apple is slightly different, however. They don’t just produce software, they design and produce the whole package. Arguably, a lot of the success of iOS devices hinges precisely on the high level of integration between hardware and software.

So the question is, if we consider the whole package, not just the software, does that change the reasoning behind Apple’s consistent move towards skeuomorphic UIs? I think it does.

Consider the hardware side of the equation. With every new generation of hardware, whether iPhone, iPad, Mac, or even displays, Apple moves closer and closer to the notion of “invisible hardware”. In recent product introductions they’ve frequently touted how, for example, the iPad or the Retina macbook to some degree fade into the background: it’s just you, and your content. This materializes in many ways, from the introduction of Retina displays to the consistent move towards removing extraneous elements from displays (no product names, no logos – just the bezel and the display).

I’ve written about this before when I discussed the end of the mechanical age. Apple has been for years moving towards devices that disappear from view even as you’re holding them in your hand, making them simpler (externally), even monolithic in their appearance, just slabs of aluminum and glass. Couple this with a skeuomorphic design approach for the software and what you get is a view of the world where single-purpose objects fade away for those that can essentially morph into the object you need at any one time.

In other words: I think Apple’s overall design direction, implicitly or explicitly, is that of replacing the object rather than just the function.

Today, this can be done with invisible hardware and skeuomorphic software. In the future, barring the zombie apocalypse or some such :-) we could have devices based on nanomachines that in fact physically morph to take on the characteristics of whatever you need to use.

As I said before, I think that we should be exploring new user interfaces and letting go of the shackles of UIs created decades or even centuries ago to find new and better ways of interfacing with the vast ocean of data that permeates reality. Apple’s approach in the meantime, however, (regardless of my personal preference) strikes me as a valid direction that is not at all run-of-the-mill overuse of skeuomorphisms, but something deeper: a slow but steady replacement of inert physical objects with ones that are a malleable –and seamless– analog UI replacement, with a digital heartbeat connected to the datastream at their core.