At Apple’s special press event this past September, we witnessed the introduction of several new user interface paradigms, in the form of Apple Watch. Perhaps one of the most interesting was Apple Watch’s entirely new home screen. This is the first departure from the same basic concept of the home screen that Apple demoed in January of 2007 when it debuted the iPhone OS.
Apple clearly thinks that Apple Watch is the future of the company, but is the Apple Watch home screen the future of the iOS home screen? Let’s take a look at how we arrived at where we are today.
To understand why Apple designed the home screen the way they did, you have to remember what iOS was like in 2007. Apple was only shipping devices with 3.5-inch, non-retina displays, and third party apps were still nowhere to be found. With every year that passed, both the devices and the software that ran on them matured, adding new features along the way. In 2010, the iPad was added to the mix, and the home screen simply scaled up to follow. The same year, the retina display was introduced, and the home screen was given the 2x treatment.
In 2012, the iPhone 5 brought a 4-inch display, and the home screen just added another row. The same happened this year with the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 Plus scales up the home screen even more.
Here we are in 2014, and the iOS home screen is essentially the same as it was in 2007. Plenty of arguments have been made that the home screen looks “dated” or needs certain features, but I’m proposing not change for the sake of change, but change that unifies, modernizes, and redefines the home screen as we know it. What would happen if the Apple Watch home screen came to the iPhone?
One Fluid System
Moving the Apple Watch home screen to the iPhone breaks down barriers that have been part of the system since day one. Gone are the concepts of home screen pages and the dock, replaced with one large, fluid grid of apps. The app grid not only looks more modern with its round icons, but it scales perfectly to any size display, all the way from the smallest Apple Watch to the 9.7” iPad, without looking crammed or too spread out at any size.
At the center of Apple Watch’s home screen is the clock, the anchor point for the device. Similarly, at the center of the iPhone’s new home screen would be Spotlight, a central search repository for quick access to applications, web searches, music, contacts, and more. This central point is where you return to every time you exit an app or unlock your device.
You might not find yourself needing to launch apps from Spotlight anymore, however. With the new home screen layout, all of your apps are always close by, no longer stranded pages and pages away from screen one. In fact, with this new layout, you can adjust the content density of the home screen just by pinching in and out, moving the entire seamless honeycomb of apps with you. Pinch out to see a bird’s eye view of all of your apps. Zoom in as close as you want to see app icons and titles up close. This is great for those with poor eyesight. It also eliminates the need for a zoomed home screen option, a feature introduced with iOS 8 on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
Arranging apps as you see fit and moving them into folders is just as easy as before. Pressing and holding down on an app invokes the familiar “wiggle” mode, and you can move apps anywhere you want in the grid, without the frustration of apps flipping back and forth between rows and pages inadvertently when trying to position the app in a folder on the end of a row or page, an annoyance we’ve all experienced.
The organization and navigation of folders is largely unchanged from the current home screen layout, but gains all the benefits of the new app grid. Each folder is still a portal into another grid of apps, but without pages. The icon preview for a folder shows the innermost circle of 7 apps, and tapping on the folder expands it, where you can swipe around to access all of your apps.
As part of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch last month, Apple introduced a new feature called Reachability, designed to make using the new iPhones with one hand easier. Double touch the home button and all of your home screen icons or app content slides down. This feels pretty crude to me, an admission that iOS wasn’t really designed to run on phones of this size. The new home screen layout would solve the problem of home screen reachability entirely. If an app is out of reach, just drag the grid down so you can reach it, and tap. The advantage of a continuous grid like this is that you can swipe in any direction, instead of just left to right like is possible today.
The current layout of the iOS home screen places application priority at the top and bottom of the display. When adding applications to a home screen, they fall into line one by one starting at the top left corner. This top row is now the hardest place to reach on new iPhones. The new home screen layout moves the highest application priority to the center of the display, the most natural area to interact with.
As you can see in the photo above, Reachability on the iPhone 6 Plus moves the top row of icons to roughly the center of the display, in line with the logical center of the new home screen layout. This is perhaps the most compelling part of a redesigned home screen. Designing with multiple display sizes in mind removes the need for awkward workarounds like Reachability.
You might be wondering how developers would tackle the problem of round app icons. Would everyone need to redraw all of their icons? Not quite. I took a sampling of some stock iOS icons above and cropped them to a circle.
The results are pretty conclusive. Icons designed with the iOS 7 icon grid in mind fit almost perfectly when cropped to a circle. It’s only icons with detail close to the edges that run into problems, like Passbook and Reminders. As you’ll notice in the other screenshots across this article, many third-party apps also fit well right out of the gate.
It’s also important to keep in mind the Apple Watch. Any apps designed for the Watch’s UI require round icons. Therefore, it would be in developers best interests to create one icon that would work well across both Apple Watch and iPhone.
With Apple Watch, Apple has created an entirely new, modern home screen that is not only more intuitive, it’s more flexible and adaptive as well. Only time will tell if this design trickles down to the iPhone, but the benefits it brings make it a strong contender for a new face of iOS.