Mountain Lion and the Simplification of OS X

“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.”
— Steve Jobs

Software’s natural vector is towards complexity.

When thinking of how an application can be improved we love to ask what could and should be added. Rarely do we ask what is present that, once removed, will make the software better.

A smart man once said, “Sometimes a design decision is what you don’t put in, as opposed to what you put in.”

With the iPhone OS Apple got a clean start to build something insanely great and incredibly simple. And that’s exactly what they did. What Jeff Atwood points out regarding the iPad is true also of iOS:

Once you strip away all the needless complexities, isn’t a tablet the simplest form of a computer there can be? [...] it sidesteps all the accumulated cruft and hacks the PC ecosystem has accreted over the last 30 years.

This is what Apple got to do with iOS. When Apple was designing the operating system that would run on the iPhone they had no rules, no traditions, no boundaries.

Anything that wasn’t ready for the iPhone OS didn’t have to be included (two premier examples: copy and paste and 3rd-party apps) because Apple had no responsibility to support any of the hacks, cruft, or dated workflows which their Mac OS had accumulated over the years.

Apple took their brand new device with its brand new input method and brand new operating system and they started over. And, for better or worse, Apple ended up writing the rules that all the world would play by for what we know now is the beginning of the Post-PC Era.

Over the past 5 years, Apple’s software and hardware have re-defined the mobile and tablet industries. Google, Samsung, RIM, Amazon, HP, and others have all tried to follow suit. But to date their offerings have been sub par; good enough at best.

When you’re competing with Apple, good enough is not good enough. Because even to Apple, good enough isn’t good enough. If you use only the resources, time, and knowledge currently at your disposal you’ll never break through into a superior product.

Good enough is the byproduct of doing the best you can do based only on the resources and knowledge currently available to you.

Throughout Apple’s recently-released recruitment video, they spend a lot of time talking about the company’s internal commitment to excellence and innovation.

About 1:25 into the video we meet Gary who says, “There is no such thing as good enough. It just has to be the best.”

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the leadership attitude of Steve Jobs and internal attitude of Apple knows this to be true.

But the story in this video that stood out to me the most was an actual example of what it means for there to be no such thing as “good enough” at Apple. John, who was on the iPad 2 Product Design Team, tells the story of the magnets on the Smart Cover:

When we started the design of the iPad 2 we knew from the very beginning that the cover was going to be an important part of the story. The challenge was: How do you attach the cover?

Our implementation of magnets was a really challenging engineering task. One of the engineers on the team actually became an expert in doing computer simulations on magnetic field.

It was a tremendous amount of work by a large number of people who, through the course of this product, have become genuine experts in new areas because they had to figure out how to make this product.

This story of the iPad 2 magnets could be extrapolated out to convey the same story about OS X. To develop iOS, Apple had to become genuine experts in the area of very powerful, very simple software. Now they are taking that new knowledge of all they’ve learned and they are applying it to OS X.

iOS is both the learning ground and the excuse for the simplification of OS X.

To build iOS, Apple needed its years of experience making OS X. And now, to refine OS X, Apple needs its newfound expertise from iOS to bring power and simplicity back to the Mac.

As complex software evolves, usually it turns into less than the sum of its parts due to its increasingly complex nature. Not often does it become more usable and more user friendly over time. That a piece of software — let alone an entire operating system — can progress and add functionality while staying simple is nothing short of a design miracle.

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