36: Springboard imitations

I'll admit that there are plenty of interesting developments in the Android phone world that I, by and large, just don't pay attention to. Of course, there are also a lot of blatant iPhone wannabes and copying, from both low-rent and high-profile phone makers. The latest bit of fakery that I happened to notice is the home screen of the new Huawei P9.

The uncanny valley is shiny.

The uncanny valley is shiny.

The first-party apps have all had their icons overdesigned in metal tones (to match the hardware casings of the P9 line, which — surprise! — comes in silver, grey, gold, and pink) but otherwise they look like iOS app icons, neatly arranged four across. There's a dock at the bottom, with phone, contacts, messages, and a browser. And every folder neatly arranges a maximum of nine tiny icons inside a dark grey rounded rectangle. It's Springboard, to a T.

The imitation is precise, but should Apple be flattered? Springboard is, after all, the one piece of iOS that has gone almost entirely unchanged since iPhone OS 1.0. It's on the borderline between venerable and outdated. Mimicking what worked for a 3.5-inch phone in 2007 is not guaranteed to be a winning strategy.

Apple has proven that not even they should be slavishly replicating Springboard across every device. The 12.9" iPad Pro turns Springboard from an efficient app navigation interface into a sprawling mess, with gaps between icons so big you can literally drive an original iPhone through them. It's impossible to say whether a platform-wide overhaul is in the works for iOS 10, but it would be shocking if there weren't at least Pro-exclusive changes. It's an interface that's becoming embarrassing, which brings us back to Huawei's Android fork. Is there really no better way to appeal to customers than to offer them an almost-iPhone? That's certainly the way to go for deceptive knockoffs, but the P9 is a flagship product, with innovative hardware including dual cameras, something that the current iPhones lack.

Regardless, skinning a Springboard lookalike on top of Android is the route Huawei has chosen for the P9 and it's EMUI operating system. (They say it stands for "emotional user interface", but I can't help interpreting it as "emulates iPhone".) Huawei has decided to play the copying game, and their success depends on how quickly they can reproduce new designs. That's a game Apple should be happy to play — they always get to go first.