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The Dastardly Benefits of iOS Homogenization

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 9, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Google's Android offers up more cool homescreens and customizations than Apple's iOS. In iOS, you get to jiggle your stack of icons around on the iPhone or iPad homescreen and swap out the background photo.

The Dastardly Benefits of iOS Homogenization

Woohoo. I can hardly contain my excitement.

There are no live tiles, like Windows Phone. There are no fancy weather images, no retro themes, no widgets -- no creativity, really.

At the same time, anyone in my family and friends network can call me up and ask me questions about how to do something with their iPhone or iPad, and usually I can walk them through it. If I'm sitting next to them, I can show them. But hand me an Android phone, and I have to spend some time figuring it out, what I'm looking at, how it behaves, and then make sure I show them the simplest series of steps to get from A to B.

Not that most iPhone owners need help very often.

And therein lies the problem.

iPhone and iPad owners get such a powerful boost of productivity by having a set of simple-to-use tools. My argument is that they can get to know their iPhones better than other smartphone users (on average, of course).

Consequently, we get the proof in the near-constant flow of reports that say how iOS dominates mobile Web browsing usage, shopping usage, app buying usage, etc. All that comes despite an influx of Android-based tablets and a gazillion Android phones.

The latest report came in the form of a research note released by Piper Jaffray's longtime Apple analyst Gene Munster, who said that not only is iOS the leading platform in the U.S., but that its "users are generally more engaged with their mobile devices."

Another noted Apple watcher, John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame, made a point recently on an Android vs. iOS Branch.com topic that despite the distasteful notion, iPhone customers might be better customers than your average Android customer. Not better people, not smarter people, but perhaps just more likely to be engaged as a customer who gets the most out of their chosen phone or tablet.

I think there's more to it than that. I think there's been a tendency for Apple fans -- especially the older ones -- to have made a very conscious choice about what they were buying.

These customers have been engaged in mobile browsing habits for years. Many Android users are newer, fresher to in-the-hand browsing, buying, researching and playing. The Apple App Store ecosystem, along with iTunes, is just so much larger and stable -- if not staid -- than everything else. That also plays a role.

This is all rah-rah Apple stuff here. Cheerleaders unite. So what? There's a piece, though, that I don't like about the iOS's larger share of utilization: Our lack of customization.

By design we have a very finely limited set of options. Very few tools. They work, though. I can build a house with a hammer and a hand saw. I know how to do that, and I can build a lot of great designs. But sometimes, I'd prefer a nail gun and a compound miter saw. I'm not a professional home builder, but dammit, I know how to use a nail gun without shooting myself in the foot.

To get pro-grade customization options on my iPhone 5, however, I have to jailbreak it and climb down into that rabbit hole.

Think Different? Yeah, Right

So in 2013, I'm finding myself at odds with Apple over its lack of customization, particularly when it comes to iOS.

I grew up on Apple. I was an Apple fan when it wasn't even cool to be an Apple fan. I thought different, just like the famous "Think Different" advertising campaign encouraged. I aligned myself with a laid-back "Mac" instead of the uptight "PC" TV ads. By the way, that Mac could do so many things easily.

But now, my iPhone 5 is pretty much like every other iPhone 5. Sure, I can set a photo or wallpaper-ish graphic as my lockscreen and my homescreen, but that's about it. Sure, I can choose from half a billion apps to place on the homescreen and dock, but it's still just a bunch of app icons acting and looking like a stack of app icons.

There's very little personality here.

Maybe the secret to Apple's success is getting everyone to think the same.

Before Apple fans get all angry and upset at the blasphemy, do some Web searches on "cool android home screens" or even "windows phone home screens." It starts getting really bad when you dive into sites like Lifehacker, which has a section on featured Android home screens. Some of them are simply cool, some are super-useful, and some are both. Some require modifications, but not all.

And what about iPhone home screens? Lifehacker has an article for iOS users, too -- but by the third paragraph, Lifehacker admits that all the customizations it features in the article can only happen with a jailbroken iPhone.


But some of those home screen images caught your attention, did they not?

Benefits to Limited Option Homogenized Usage Patterns?

The problem with this customization argument is that by reducing our choices, by limiting our options, does Apple actually create a world where it wins everywhere else? Better mobile browsing usage? More mobile buying? Deeper, stronger loyalty?

Doesn't that fly in the face of reason? If I could customize my homescreen appearance, loading up on apps and widgets and notifications in ways that give me all the great stuff I want most, wouldn't that make me more loyal? More happy?

You would think so. Yet what if Apple researched all this? What if it's not just a compelling need to control the environment -- to make it easier for Geniuses to cut through the clutter and fix problems? To teach? To let a guy help Grandma figure out how to take photos and send texts -- all done during a landline conversation without even touching her iPhone to tell her how?

What if the principle of lack of control makes us more creative, or more likely to engage with other parts of our apps? More likely to use the browser than some guy who was sold a smartphone by a cellular service agent and bought it because the price was right? What if the fanciness acts as a barrier to touch, to exploration, to actually use day-to-day?

Back to the house building idea: If I only have a limited number of tools I can use to build a house, I'm going to get extraordinarily good using a hammer and a handsaw. Most days, my iPhone 5 feels like a finely crafted and well-balanced hammer. And that's cool. For a while.

Eventually, though, most every home builder drops the hammer and resorts to power tools.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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