Designed in California, with an Assist from Redmond

Will borrowing ideas from Microsoft help Apple destroy the smartphone competition?

Apple iOS 7
New Apple iOS 7 features are displayed on screen during Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2013 in San Francisco, California June 10, 2013.

Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

Near the beginning and the end of the keynote address at Apple’s developer conference on Monday, the company showed off a couple of slick corporate branding videos. This isn’t unusual for Apple; every new product comes with a fancy marketing campaign. But to me, these videos seemed to telegraph a new, larger vision for the firm, as ambitious an effort at rebranding as any we’ve seen from the company since the old Think Different campaign.

Set to text, the videos read a bit like dime store pop-business philosophy, but on screen, they’re a powerful distillation of how Apple thinks about itself. Here’s the company’s new TV spot:

“Designing something requires focus,” says the on-screen text in a longer, similarly themed Web video. “The first thing we ask is, what do we want people to feel? Delight. Surprise. Love. Connection. Then we craft around our intention. It takes time. There are a thousand nos for every yes. We simplify. We perfect. We start over. Until everything we touch enhances each life it touches. Only then do we sign our work: Designed by Apple in California.”

I’m sorry for bombarding you with ad copy, but these clips tell us something important about how Apple solves problems. The company’s heart is in design—when it hits a bump in the road, its instinct is to rejigger how its products look.

This instinct forms the back story for iOS 7, the new mobile operating system that Apple unveiled on Monday. The iPhone, the firm’s biggest and most profitable product, has hit a bump in the road. Its growth has slowed, its market share is slipping to Android, and the big features it has introduced over the last few years (Siri, Maps) have been embarrassingly half-baked. There’s also a bigger issue dogging all smartphones, not just the iPhone—they’re not that exciting anymore. Everyone has a phone and they all do pretty much the same things. Gone are the days when Apple could outshine rivals with better hardware—a better display or camera, a faster processor, better battery life. Now all new phones are super fast, they’ve got great displays, their cameras are jaw-dropping, while battery life is—and is destined to remain—just so-so. This is why smartphone screens have gotten so big. With no other way to innovate, companies are just adding extra inches.

iOS 7—which is available only to Apple developers now, and will make it to your phone this fall—represents a typically Apple-y attempt to solve its smartphone woes. Like the ad says, they started over. They refined, perfected, simplified. They ended up with an operating system that looks very different from today’s iOS but isn’t jarring, one that’s pretty without being flashy. It’s quite nice, if not completely groundbreaking—iOS 7 borrows many ideas from other companies’ touchscreen designs, especially Microsoft. What’s more, Apple’s new design is only a first step in reinvigorating the iPhone’s prospects. To really fight back against Android, Apple will have to do more than just change its aesthetic. It will also have to alter its business strategy. More than anything else, it needs to make a cheaper iPhone, one that potentially cuts down its massive profit margins. To see whether Apple does that—and if it can do so without hurting sales of its flagship phone—we’ve still got to wait a few months.

In the meantime, if you want to sum up iOS 7 in a word, it would be flat. Last year, CEO Tim Cook fired Scott Forstall, Apple’s former iOS head, and appointed Jonathan Ive, the company’s hardware design chief, to oversee all design at the firm. Everyone has expected Ive to clean up iOS’s rampant ornamentation—the faux textures like stitched leather and green felt, or the buttons with deep shadows that made them look three dimensional—which design snobs had long ridiculed.

That’s exactly what Ive has done. If you scan through the gallery of iOS clips that Apple posted on its site, you’ll notice there are no drop-shadows on the buttons and icons—they’re all simple, 2D lines and colors. In the Messages app, your text now appears in bubbles that don’t have a cartoonish inner shadow. In Notes, there’s no longer a yellow legal-paper background. In the Calculator app, every button is spare, dimensionless, just color and text. These may sound like small tweaks, but they combine to make iOS look elegant and grown-up. The design now feels like it belongs on a touchscreen, and it no longer relies on real-world metaphors for meaning. More than that, it looks modern. The old iOS looked like an Applebee’s; the new one looks like an Apple Store.

Though I was never offended by iOS’s ornamentation, I do prefer the new spare look. But I don’t want to overpraise Apple. For one thing, this flattening is not an original idea. Apple’s rivals have been flattening their operating systems, too, with Microsoft leading the way. A year and a half ago, I called Windows Phone the best designed mobile OS on the market. In many ways, iOS 7’s new design brings it up to par with Windows. In some places iOS 7’s design is a straight rip-off of things that have come before. When switching between open apps, for instance, you now see flip-through cards showing you screenshots of each app. That’s pretty much the same interface that’s in Windows Phone, which in turn borrowed heavily from Palm’s webOS. (“Designed by Apple in California, with an assist from Redmond.”)

OS design isn’t everything. If it was, I’d have a Windows Phone, and so would you. Apple makes the best-looking phones, and now it has a mobile operating system to match its hardware. As I’ve argued before, the iPhone’s customers never had any real problem with iOS, and I don’t believe the folks choosing Android are doing so because they can’t stand Apple’s too-cutesy interface. Indeed, despite Android’s greater market share, usage stats show that iPhone owners are much more addicted to their devices than Android users, and the iPhone’s customer satisfaction ratings demolish Android’s.

So why are people buying Androids instead of iPhones? Because Android phones are cheap. In the developing world, where most phones are sold off contract, you can get an Android device for less than $100. Meanwhile, the cheapest iPhone—the old iPhone 4—goes for $400. There have long been rumors that Apple will make a cheaper iPhone to tap this market. But it will be a tricky thing—Apple has to make a phone that’s good enough to be called an iPhone, cheap enough to attract Android buyers, but isn’t so good that folks who would otherwise buy the regular iPhone decide to go downmarket. How can it do all that? We’re almost certain to find out this year. One thing I’m sure of: The effort will have to involve more than just great design.