Nick Heer: Safari 15 and Chickenshit Minimalism

I am not a fan of the new Safari design. I am not sure I hate it, and I think I get what Apple is trying to do by combining the tab and address bar into a single element and allowing it to inherit the colour of the page. But I do not think it makes sense yet and, worse, I am concerned about some bad design patterns that are emerging.

I have struggled a bit with what to say about WWDC, because there are so many things to say. For Safari especially, it gets complicated.

In one way, it is a design that breaks with the past and moves a bit further away from computer administrative debris (moving it all to the one flank closest to your thumb), and where you don't have to tap the Share button to Find something.

But in another way, it does it by placing nearly everything, including fundamentals like reload (or showing all tabs on iPad), practically in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard".

Like Nick says, it's chickenshit minimalism; but beyond that, it's also something ineffable that I can't name that goes beyond looks for the sake of looks and just borders on the unexplainable. For example: the AirPods Max "handbag/bra" charging case, which look like crap, is made out of military-grade Easystainium and doesn't provide any protection at all, or the unsightly iPhone battery case bumps.

You can counter this with the usual suspects: "great design stretches the tastes", "ideas are fragile", sometimes it's hard to see a flower's full bloom in its first month. These are all valid, but also refer to ideas that have underlying depth and that need to be protected as they are figured out or implemented.

Let's take an example: The iPhone X-era all-screen interaction model was probably worked on for years, but we first saw it after many iterations, when it was buttery smooth, paired with hardware to enable it (iPhone X had a 120 Hz touch substrate to increase responsiveness) and I have never noticed any hiccups with it or slowdowns as devices have slid out of favor.

From day 1, it required learning and was different, but it was obvious, dependable and clearly designed with the user as an active participant and fundamental driver of the interactions. It was different not for the sake of being different, but because it could be better, and it increased fluidity, intent and speed of navigation beyond the rigidity of a button press, letting the user interface merge movement and thought to the point where it really is intuitive, because it plays on the fundamental theme of what your brain does and how your body and your senses work. I am gushing, and I still can't get over how brilliant it is. The UI has been tweaked since, but I would have no problem subsisting indefinitely on the version that shipped out of the box on a launch day iPhone X.

But the three examples I mentioned before either are immutable or affect people right now – one is in beta and will hopefully be changed, but the other shipped, and there was never any saving grace discovered; just the Backstreet Boys defense. It boggles the mind.

It's like a desire to pick a controversial decision and, by sheer force of leaning into it hard enough, somehow make it palatable and right and true, without ever needing to tackle or confront the legitimate criticisms. I brought up the iPhone X example to show that it doesn't flow through everything Apple does, not even every big surprising change, but it sure does damage where it shows up, and it completely undoes any pretentions of having the platforms be well thought-out.

(As a footnote, the iPhone X is a good example of the two things mixing — no one requested the removal of the 3.5 mm jack either, and no one's life is improved by it. There were previous phones with 3.5 mm jacks and higher IP ratings.)

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