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The Practicality of Art in Software

I’ve been following with great interest this series of articles by John Gruber (and Matt Birchler’s related story) about the chasm between iOS and Android apps. I have some thoughts since expanding my app knowledge beyond iOS and iPadOS is one of my goals for 2023.

About a month ago, during my holiday break, I purchased a Google Pixel 7 as a way to re-familiarize myself with Android.1 To say that I found the ecosystem worse than I remembered would be an understatement. It’s not just about the fact that – as Gruber and Birchler noted – most Android apps suck compared to their iOS counterparts; it’s that the entire OS lacks cohesiveness.

Google has been focusing on visual customization and Google Assistant-based improvements over the past few years, which I think is a reasonable strategy. And, objectively speaking, I do appreciate the greater freedom Android grants power users who care about aspects such as split-screen multitasking, total control over default apps, or theming. But the whole experience feels fragmented, and as a result crude, when it comes to using your phone with apps in everyday life. The general baseline of quality for design and expected system features is simply higher on iOS.

This is why every year in my annual iOS reviews I make a big deal about the latest design changes and developer APIs coming to iOS: the rising tide of Apple’s developer and design tools raises all boats on the iOS platform. When you’re using an iPhone months later with the new OS on it, everything feels consistent at a base level and then developers and designers can infuse their craftsmanship in the apps they make. By lacking that baseline and the developer craftsmanship, using apps on Android feels like installing free apps from GitHub repos. Sometimes they get the job done, and at some point they will receive updates, and good for you if you just want to use that kind of software. But personally, those apps don’t make me happy I spent $1000 on a phone. Visually and functionally, they are subpar.

I have a feeling that most critics of Gruber’s latest story on art in software will focus on this part, which is, in fact, my favorite takeaway from the piece:

Art is the operative word. Either you know that software can be art, and often should be, or you think what I’m talking about here is akin to astrology. One thing I learned long ago is that people who prioritize design, UI, and UX in the software they prefer can empathize with and understand the choices made by people who prioritize other factors (e.g. raw feature count, or the ability to tinker with their software at the system level, or software being free-of-charge). But it doesn’t work the other way: most people who prioritize other things can’t fathom why anyone cares deeply about design/UI/UX because they don’t perceive it. Thus they chalk up iOS and native Mac-app enthusiasm to being hypnotized by marketing, Pied Piper style.

As part of my platform explorations lately (you may have noticed I recently wrote about Apple’s apps for Windows), I’ve been thinking about this a lot: where do you draw the line when it comes to the artistic value of a piece of software versus the practicality of having to use software because you need to get your job done?

If your job depends on it, can you use something that isn’t necessarily well-designed – that doesn’t ”make your heart sing” – but that makes you more efficient and, ultimately, pay the bills? In simpler terms: what happens if you prefer the Apple ecosystem for UI and UX but you’re feeling hamstrung by it at the same time?

This has, of course, been on my mind lately because of iPadOS 16. I fundamentally dislike Stage Manager, and every time I sit down at my desk with my beautiful Studio Display and elegant Magic Trackpad and Keyboard accessories, I feel conflicted about an operating system that looks great, feels nice – much, much nicer than Windows 11 – but doesn’t work the way I want.

This is where, I believe, the conversation around art applied to software gets murkier. Historically (and I’m going to oversimplify here, but bear with me – this is a blog), the debate surrounding the role of “art” in society has been largely split between those who only perceive the aesthetic value of an artistic creation and those who believe a piece of art should also contain social, political, and economical commentary to push our species forward. You can go to the Louvre and just enjoy the Mona Lisa for what it is, or you can listen to American Idiot and find meaning in the lyrics. You can play Call of Duty and just have a good time, or understand how Celeste isn’t just about climbing a mountain.

In bringing this back to software, it’s evident that – again, historically – Apple doesn’t believe in art as a veneer to make something “look good”. Art – whereby “art” we refer to the human care behind the design of software – is intrinsically tied to the technology that powers the computer. It’s the intersection of technology and liberal arts: skew toward one side more than the other, and you risk of losing the balance many of us like about Apple. Art in Apple’s software isn’t some secret ingredient that can just be added at the end of the process, like a spice: great design is the process itself. Case in point: the Dynamic Island.

There is no doubt in my mind that the essence of iPadOS – how menus appear, lists scroll, buttons are tapped, heck, even what a pointer should look like – has been designed with more taste, thought, and care than anything in Windows 11. There is no checklist that can quantify when an interface “feels” nice. The iPadOS UI, particularly in tablet mode, feels nicer than any other tablet I’ve tried to date.

The problem is that an iPad, at least for people like me, isn’t supposed to be a companion to work that happens somewhere else. It is the work. And ultimately, I think it’s fair to demand efficiency from a machine that is supposed to make you productive. I feel this every time Stage Manager doesn’t let me place windows where I want on an external display; every time I can’t place more than four windows in a workspace; every time I can’t record podcasts like I can on a Mac; every time a website doesn’t work quite right like it does on a desktop; I feel it, over a decade into the iPad’s existence, when developers like Rogue Amoeba or Raycast can’t bring their software to iPadOS.

We can’t talk about art in software in a vacuum. As a computer maker or app developer, you have to strike that balance between the aspirational and the practical, the artistic and the functional – the kind of balance that, by and large, Apple is achieving on the Mac. Unfortunately, when it comes to iPadOS, I feel like Apple has been prioritizing the artistic aspect over the functional, and it’s not clear when that will be rectified.

So, you see, I’m struggling with this. Over the past year I’ve realized that the computer for me is a convertible: a tablet that can transform. The more I explore other platforms, the more I believe that iPadOS looks and feels nicer, but it’s also getting in the way of me being able to get my work done. Maybe this has been true for a while and Stage Manager was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. You can’t separate art from the technology, but, at the end of the day, there’s also work to be done. Pragmatism kicks in. I’m conflicted, and I keep going back to this question:

What’s worse? Being begrudgingly productive or happily inefficient?

  1. The last time I used an Android phone, I believe it was a Nexus 5↩︎

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