The app launcher as home screen dates all the way back to the Newton, but how much further should it go?
There’s a lot to recommend the iPhone-style Home screen. It’s understandable to almost everyone, it’s simple and predictable to use, and static icons are highly memorable and locatable. If the home screen is meant as a gateway to apps, and not a destination in and of itself, the app launcher is its most highly distilled form. As mobile devices get more powerful and more connected, however, does simplicity come at the cost of functionality? Should gateways start to offer some hospitality all their own?
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of widgets on home screens. Having to run back to the home screen to find glanceable data is a semi-convenience at best. Widgets in pull-down space are accessible from everywhere, including inside other apps. They’re a real convenience.
Likewise animated tiles. One of the key strengths of app launchers is that the icons are incredibly recognizable and memorable, reducing cognitive load and speeding up acquisition. If a title changes what it shows, flips around, and otherwise moves through states, it makes it tough to recognize and almost impossible to remember. And the benefits of the additional visual information are once again mitigated by having to run back to the home screen to make use of it.
iOS 9, shown off at WWDC 2015 and now in developer preview, keeps the same app launcher home screen metaphor as the original iPhone, and the Newton, still without widgets (they’re in Today View), still without Tiles (they’re not welcome). But it introduces something semi-new. The Spotlight screen, last seen in iOS 5, makes its return but in a newer, more contextually relevant, more informationally dense and diverse way.
Now, in addition to the simple search field, you have voice search, recent and timely (based on behavioral predictions) contacts, recent and timely apps, nearby points of interest, and current news stories. Each section allows you to “Show More” as well.
It’s home screen adjacent, not a home screen replacement, at least not yet. It also suffers from some of the same problems as tiles — any form of dynamism hurts habituation. But it does show another interesting direction not just for app launching, but activity launching. (Activity which Apple began syncing last year with handoff.
There will always need to be a way to launch an arbitrary app at an arbitrary time, because we humans are capricious creatures. There could well be ways, however, including Spotlight and including Siri, to make a home screen that doesn’t wipe out the highly distilled, highly accessible nature of the current home screen, but provides all the functionality of the future.
If your iPhone learns that you always check Twitter first thing in the morning, could you swipe right into that? If you almost always check Facebook or Instagram next, could it offer up those apps for you, as options, without your having to go back to the home screen to launch them? If it knows you’ve played Fallout the last five times you’ve unlocked your iPhone, could that be there and waiting? Behavior and time, location and proximity, are all cues that are already being explored. At WWDC, during the Intelligence segment, how many times did Apple senior vice president of software, Craig Federighi, have to go to the home screen? Not even to learn more about tasty, tasty poutine…
In essence, could the app launcher remain as an introductory — and learning for human and machine both — layer for those brand new to computing, but could additional layers be built that make it so power users almost never have to go back there?
iOS 9 is already on its way, but soon the teams at Apple will turn more of their attention to iOS 10. If Apple asked you, even this early, what you wanted to see for the home screen, what would you tell them?