Culture, Technology — June 14, 2012 8:21 am

The Tetris Evolution: Rebuild iOS

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I’d like to direct your attention to Tetris.

Specifically, this preposterously long article about the game’s evolutions for and to the hottest platform in gaming: the mobile touchscreen.

Tetris has always been a game about physically manipulating digital objects–that is, about getting them to line up just so.  Turns out, the “just so” of that crucial moment before the piece locks into place on the pile is a gameplay mechanic that is extremely difficult to replicate without physical buttons.  If you want things to behave precisely, you need precise controls.

Touch, in a lot of ways, was born as the anti-precise.  “THAT!” the brain thinks obtusely, and our first reaction is to touch whatever “that” is.  Gets youngsters in trouble when it’s an electrical socket, but in the instant-gratification ephemera of the Internet, it’s extremely satisfying.  This was the central insight of the iPhone and iPad: people will deal with a slightly clunkier interface if the upshot is a more human experience.

The iPhone really invented touch as we know it today (just ask Apple’s patent attorneys).  The keyboards, the finger instead of the stylus, the pinch-to-zoom–all of these ideas and many, many more were brought into combination with one another for the first time in Apple’s first attempt at the smartphone.  In some cases the technology might have existed before, but the polish certainly didn’t.

More importantly, the ambition didn’t either.  The iPhone’s arrival telegraphed audacity bordering on the hubristic.  It threw the physical keyboard and the stylus out with the bathwater, just as Apple famously and unceremoniously dumped the floppy disk on the original iMac.  And it worked, quite brilliantly, because of that human factor.

Ambition, in fact, is the defining characteristic of Apple hardware over the last decade, and the key to its success.  The aluminum unibody MacBook Pro is aped to the point of being indistinguishable from its imitators. The MacBook Air created a category of laptop in much the same way the iPad made the tablet a viable form factor after a couple of decades of failure and the iPod revolutionized the music player.  Steve Jobs and Jony Ive seem to have had a Daft Punk remix on repeat and made it their mantra: slimmer, lighter, faster, newer.  By applying those ideals to their ideas about products once deemed “impossible” or “old news,” Jony got knighted and Steve became a legend.

Which is why Apple’s evident lack of ambition in its bedrock mobile software is staggering and disheartening.  iOS 6 was announced this week, and while it has some new features, it is most certainly not a Big New Thing.

Pic via GIZMODO

In fact, a new release of iOS never has been a Big New Thing.  iOS 6 is, by and large, the same set of ideas we saw in the first version of the operating system, with features added incrementally.  iOS has not undergone a fundamental redesign since it came onto the market.

And that represents a pretty big problem, even if Apple’s bottom line doesn’t show it.  Two things inevitably happen when you invent something.  First and most delightful, and probably most damaging, is self-satisfaction.  Created in God’s image as we are, our natural reaction to having made something is to stand back, see that it is Good, and rest for a day.

That leads to the second, more troubling thing that happens when you invent something: someone else tinkers with it, and often on that day you took to rest.  Notable in the mobile operating system space for tinkering have been Palm’s now-dead webOS and its card interface, Microsoft’s clean and unified design language in its Windows Phone, and Google’s Android, the slapped-together wunderkind that earned favor and market share through its open-source attitude.

Something funny happened to Android six months ago, though.  Matias Duarte, a Google employee for a year or so after a stint with Palm, unveiled a new version of Android.  Called Ice Cream Sandwich (Google names its Android versions after desserts), it was Android re-envisioned, rethought and rebuilt.  It looks better and more unified.  It runs more smoothly, with fewer redundant parts.  They even gave it its own typeface designed specifically for ease of reading on mobile devices.  Put simply, Android Ice Cream Sandwich works better than its predecessors because after years of making smartphones, Matias and Google thought long and hard about what works in smartphone software–and critically, about what doesn’t.

Apple has shown no such introspection with respect to iOS.  The company known for trimming the fat from its devices has allowed it to congeal in its software, from ugly menus and typography to the relic “magnifying glass” method of inserting text, all inherited from version 1.0.  Apple waited until this release–their sixth major version!–to take the ludicrously late step of integrating Facebook systemwide.

Don’t get me wrong. iOS is by no means bad–it’s noticeably smoother than Ice Cream Sandwich, and it provides a perfectly serviceable way of navigating from app to app. Apple’s customers (myself included–I’m an Android phone guy with an iPad) are clearly not so displeased as to be taking their business elsewhere, if they’re displeased at all.  And Apple has incentives to keep doing what it’s been doing: there is the issue of consistency in brand identity to consider, and fixing what isn’t broke might very well alienate their customer base.

It’s just that sticking to what isn’t broke is not what got Apple to where it is today.  Envelope-pushing, it’s-never-good-enough-until-it’s-perfect ambition brought the company from also-ran to biggest company in the world.  iOS may not be broken, but it is pretty boring.  Self-satisfaction and a stubborn refusal to accept ideas from the tinkerers have turned iOS, a thriving ecosystem, into an aging operating system.

Which brings me back to everyone’s favorite aging video game: Tetris.  Tetris will always be based on the primal satisfaction of a brick thudding perfectly into place, of defying entropy with wit and mechanical precision.  That’s the game.

But we’re no longer playing video games on 5-buttoned plastic rectangles.  The touchscreen revolution is here, thanks in large part to Apple.  Tetris knows it, and has decided to get with the times.  Let’s hope Apple does so too, and soon.

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