89: Does Apple need a branded design language?

Picomac is back! I never intended to stay away from it forever, and there's just way too much good stuff from WWDC 2017 to talk about.

Rumors swirled before the WWDC keynote about whether Apple would bring major design changes to iOS 11. The answer is that Apple took the middle path: there's nothing like the major shift from iOS 6 to 7, nor will this year's iOS look exactly like last year's. There's also a clear direction of change. Nearly every new piece of interface is taking its cues from the 2016 edition of the iOS Music app. The theme of iOS's design is quickly moving to unify around the theme of bold header typography, rounded cards, and gentle translucency effects.

The App Store has gotten the Apple Music treatment in iOS 11.

The App Store has gotten the Apple Music treatment in iOS 11.

But those are the terms we have to talk about it in: directions, themes, specific interface elements. Apple hasn't decided to craft a brand around its software design or give it a name. (Though perhaps that's for the best, given the dubious names that came out of this keynote.) As of earlier this spring, Apple is the only major operating system provider who doesn't have a branded design language. Google has been refining its Material Design since 2014, and Microsoft unveiled the Fluent Design System with Windows 10 in May. Beyond providing a quick way to describe these interfaces, they offer connotations, just like a good brand should. "Material" indicates touch and a tactile experience; "Fluent" shares a root with "fluid" and "fluency", getting at both smoothness and ease of use.

So the question is: does Apple need a branded design language to go up against Google and Microsoft? Need is a strong word, of course; iOS's interface can certainly match and surpass its competitors without a catchy name. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, design isn't what it's called; it's how it works. And what would Apple call what we can only call "the Apple Music look" or "iOS 11's design"?

The closest they've come to coining an interface term recently is "vibrancy" (and it's confusing evil twin, "dark vibrancy"). In truth, this effect is a major part of the Mac and iOS aesthetic, so Vibrant Design would be an apt name; it also fits with the splashy color and heavy font choices that are in favor now.

Another option would be to go abstract. A "California" design language would evoke the phrase "Designed by Apple in California" present on all their hardware and packaging. It would also offer more flexibility than a descriptive name. After all, interface design evolves at a rapid pace and is subject to trends in fashion. Today's fresh and vibrant design could easily be as passé as skeuomorphism and linen in a few years. A rebrand would always be possible, but that takes extra effort. So perhaps the best approach is for Apple to push its interface design along as they see fit…and to let the rest of us worry about what to call it.

88: Genesis of the Touch Bar

Since the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was announced a couple weeks ago, there's been plenty of speculation on why exactly it exists and what role it will serve in the Mac lineup of the future. The same kind of questions arose when the Force Touch trackpad was added to the MacBook Pro a couple years ago. There, the answer to "why this?" seemed fairly simple: as a non-moving part it eliminated internal space and made better use of its ever-increasing surface area, since an equal amount of force registers a click on any part of the trackpad.

The answer for the Touch Bar isn't so obviously pragmatic. It doesn't save space, as it occupies the exact same area as its predecessor function keys; the low end model that retains those keys reflects that exactly. And since the machines still aren't even in the hands of reviewers, the jury is still out as to whether the touch interface features will make the Mac more of a joy to use. Nobody knows if the Touch Bar will be liberated from the MacBook enclosure and put in standalone input devices, like when the Force Touch trackpad became the Magic Trackpad 2. (And unlike the Magic Trackpad, given the components involved, it seems nearly certain that a standalone Magic Keyboard 2 with Touch Bar will not be a $0 build-to-order option with the iMac of the future.)

Nevertheless, I think that Touch Bar technology will spread to all Macs, even if it comes at a cost to consumers. The reason is the problem that I believe served as the entire genesis of the Touch Bar technology: someone inside Apple looked at the glyphs on their function row keys and said "why do we keep letting these become obsolete?"

There was once a time when that wasn't a concern; Apple's desktop and laptop keyboards just had plain, numbered function keys. This was even the case when Apple started assigning essential features to them, like when Exposé was introduced in Panther. Its features were originally mapped to the blank F9, F10, and F11 keys, and I learned to use them by feel on my 2003 PowerBook G4. (It was super easy, as the function keys were physically grouped into F1–4, F5–8, and F9–11.) But the next wave of Apple hardware brought dedicated media playback keys in the function row, and they landed on the only glyphless function keys available: F9–11.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Obviously my keys didn't change overnight, but their associated actions did. Software "broke" perfectly good hardware. And other mismatches constantly arose. Hardware keyboards could easily outlive the features printed on them. Until just last year I was still using a keyboard that had a Dashboard key on it (yes, Dashboard is still technically alive, but just barely). And uniformity is impossible, as today's laptop keyboards with backlight controls put them on F5 and F6, while Apple's standalone keyboards — designed to work with any Mac — just offer blank space there. "This keyboard doesn't have backlighting, so, I dunno, have a couple extra buttons." It's inefficient design.

So rather than scrap the function keys as hopelessly broken, Apple is trying to turn a weakness into a strength. The function keys keep changing every couple years, and it's a problem. Instead, make them change every couple seconds and it's a delightful solution. Maybe someday the Touch Bar will vanish into a fully interactive keyboard. After all, the original Mac keyboard had no function row and neither does the iPad Smart Keyboard. iOS goes as far as dropping number keys, hiding them in a separate mode. I can't predict the future of Apple's input devices beyond the Touch Bar, but it seems a safe bet that they'll be capable of changing — quickly.

87: Apple's emoji – one font fits all

I've been considering my thoughts on the progress of emoji since Apple released the first iOS 10.2 developer beta several days ago, setting off a flood of new emoji screenshots in my Twitter timeline. I'm glad that I delayed a bit, as this weekend was Emojicon. I follow three(!) people who were in attendance, so my timeline filled with smart thoughts (not just hot takes) about the past, present, and future of emoji.

Of course, there was discussion of the role of platform vendors in shaping style, use, and even meaning of emoji, and Apple is a major player. If that wasn't obvious years ago, it became so this summer when the iOS 10.0 betas kicked off the squirt gun / pistol controversy. The debate then centered on miscommunication — an innocuous symbol on iOS could appear as a violent one on Android, Windows, or the web. It also served as a crash course for many in how emoji actually work.

There's very little magic to emoji (setting aside ZWJs): the Unicode Consortium releases a specification that says what codepoints correspond to what characters. They provide reference descriptions and examples but they don't provide the actual glyphs. That's up to font makers to do for anything specified in Unicode, from the Latin alphabet English uses, to Cyrillic, to Japanese kanji, to emoji. That allows for considerable variation and stylistic choice.

Font design is not unfamiliar territory for Apple — it's one of the things that set the original Mac apart. Even working within the limits of ASCII encoding, there were emoji-like glyphs in Susan Kare's Cairo font that shipped in 1984. Recently, Apple has taken typography seriously by developing the (2014) San Francisco typeface and making it a hallmark of the Mac and iOS experience. I'm sure people complained when it replaced Helvetica on iOS, but nobody complained that it hindered their ability to express themselves.

Changing the system font or default font for iMessages should never prevent someone from sending a message today that they would have in the past. But some emoji have gained lives beyond their Unicode specifications. Here in Michigan, PART ALTERNATION MARK 〽️ looks enough like a yellow block capital M that it's become a stand-in for the University of Michigan's logo. Infamously, the cleft in the peach emoji has made enough people think it looks like a butt that 99% of its use does not represent fruit.

This is where Apple's emoji design can have weird ramifications. The change from a revolver that fires lethal bullets to a squirt gun that fires only water is a deliberate, possibly political change. But erasing an entire class of emoji use just by making a piece of fruit more photorealstic is something that might not have crossed the mind of an Apple designer. It seems like it's time to open up choice of emoji to users, especially when differences in emoji design are just a font away.

Unfortunately, Apple has largely locked down the ability to choose fonts on iOS. The iWork apps only offer a handful, unless you rely on third party apps like AnyFont to shoehorn new typefaces into iOS. Even in Notes, which has gained lots of rich text capabilities, the font has to be chosen on an application-wide basis. But such an option could be opened up for Messages, ensuring that "legacy" emoji meanings could be preserved by those who want them. This isn't antithetical to Apple's vision for Messages, considering that it's opened up third-party sticker pack creation to anyone with Xcode and a folder full of images.

If emoji don't fit people's needs, perhaps they will turn to stickers, but that would be a loss; the power of emoji is in their universality — their shared cultural currency wouldn't have the same value if iOS and Android had never adopted them. Users recognize the value of emoji, and they're open to expansive change. (I'm sure I'll send and receive lots of bacon and avocado emojis in the future.) But changes that limit utility are hard enough for people to adapt to when its just pure software. Emoji aren't a language, but they're part of modern communication. I hope Apple and all platform vendors will understand the monopoly power they hold and wield it carefully, so all their users can speak freely. 🍑

86: Picomac, season 2

A lot has happened since August.

August was when I put Picomac on hiatus. Taking one week to travel after a death in my family spread into two, and then a month, and then more. Daily writing and recording was excellent practice but also draining, so it was a welcome respite. But I never intended it to turn into a cancelation — so thanks to all who stayed subscribed to the feed.

Meanwhile, Apple was busy. iOS 10 went from early public beta to GM to final release. The iPhones 7 were announced and went on sale. There are new Watches, weird new TV features, and finally a slot on the MacRumors Buyer's Guide that doesn't say "DON'T BUY".

In my own Apple world, I finally bought a new iPad (a 9.7" Pro replacing a 3rd generation), waffled on ordering a jet black iPhone, and my iMac is celebrating its first birthday. I've more than acclimated to the features of iOS 10; I've come to rely on them daily, even without 3D Touch. There's so much wild and wonderful Apple stuff that I want to talk about, and I've repeatedly found myself back in the dilemma that led to Picomac in the first place: tweets just don't cut it.

So I'm treating this as Picomac, season 2. As a listener and/or reader, you can expect things to pick up largely where they left off. The most noticeable change will be to the schedule: expect multiple updates per week, but not daily. (You may have noticed that the tagline has changed accordingly.) In compensation, I'm also not going to stick to the 500-word hard cap I used to impose on each update. Things will decompress a bit, but still be bite-size.

It feels fitting to make this change on the eve of NaNoWriMo, one of my initial inspirations for Picomac. I should be on pace to hit 100 updates and 50,000 words by the end of 2016. I may not have time to write and record every single day, but there's always something to talk about. So, how about that new Touch Bar…?