Wednesday, 31 October 2012


The departure of Scott Forstall from Apple, and the expansion of Jonathan Ive's interface design remit from hardware to software, is being interpreted as the defeat of skeuomorphism, which is the tendency to retain redundant functional features as ornamentation, something that is particularly prevalent in the area of the "human computer interface". Examples are making a contacts application look like a Rolodex, or having an animated "note" crumple itself when you delete it. The fundamental argument in favour of skeuomorphism is that it makes it easy for new users to get to grips with an application as they will be familiar with the functionality. The chief argument against is that this limits the ability of the application to take full advantage of new technology.

The boundary of the skeuomorphic is hazy as it blends into the semiotic, the use of signs and symbols that imply functionality rather than replicate it, such as the use of a wastebasket icon for the recycle bin on a computer desktop. This in turn blends into metaphors that both cue and govern our expectations, thus "desktop", "recycle", "page", "scroll" etc. A variant form of skeuomorphism is where the retained feature is still functional, rather than wholly ornamental, but it has become sub-optimal due to the change in the underlying technology and its use.

Perhaps the most significant example of this in recent years was the use of the 12-button keypad on digital phones. Digital switches and software dialers meant that a keypad was not strictly necessary in offices with PBXs. The continued use of keypads in the workplace reflected the limitations of home phones, and thus user familiarity. This functional preference migrated to mobile phones, but the growth in texting meant that the 12-button keypad became increasingly clumsy, hence the development of predictive texting and Blackberry's preference for a qwerty keypad. The arrival of the touch-screen spelled the end for the 12-button keypad on mobiles. It will linger on in home phones, but as these are gradually replaced by mobiles and broadband devices, it will become as consciously antique as rotary dialers.

As Antonio Gramsci said is a slightly different context: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear". I always thought the Blackberry "fat boy" keyboard was an unhealthy sign, and not just because of its popularity among corporate low-life.

There's a general air of "morbid symptoms" in technology at the moment, from Apple's comically-inept Maps application to criticism of the hybrid state of Windows 8, with the Windows 7 interface available under the cover (this echoes similar observations about Windows 95's retention of the MS-DOS core, which did it no harm). Perhaps the most interesting is the buzz around the Live Tiles feature of Windows Phone 8, which would allow dynamic information on a smartphone lock-screen, such as social media feeds, not a current capability of the iPhone. When patent infringement claims start appearing, it's usually a sign that you're onto a winner. The defenestrations at Apple may indicate a determination to accelerate a response to Windows 8 and it's multi-front assault via PCs, tablets and smartphones.

In retrospect, the revolutionary impact of the iPhone touchscreen was perhaps an example of lingering skeuomorphism, in that it radically changed the functionality but kept the paradigm of a passive interface that you prodded into action. Dynamic, autonomous data now seems like the obvious evolution for a two-way communication device.


  1. Funny how these topics seem to arrive from multiple places at the same time. A friend recently re-pointed me to this TED talk -

    Leads to the question - can you be radical and skeuomorphic at the same time?

  2. Radical and skeuomorphic at the same time? I'm thinking light sabres.