I blame the floppy disk. For years, it served as the icon for "save," clearly illustrating to the user that your data would be written to that flat square thing with the hole in it--a digital representation of hardware, guiding you to your intended goal. Clicking that icon would block the UI with an hourglass cursor, and reward you with the familiar grinding song of a floppy drive.
And then in 1998, Apple introduced the iMac--with no floppy drive. Though some computer makers continued shipping floppy drives for more than a decade, most of the industry quickly followed in Apple's footsteps, abandoning those square disks. But bizarrely, the icon persisted.
The modern term for using digital graphical representations of real-world, physical items is skeuomorphism, and recently, skeumorphism's been taking a lot of heat. Apple's Calendar app, with its rich leather and beautiful stitching, might be heavy-handed, but it also looks a lot like an old-timey paper desk calendar. And there's the rub.
There are two reasons to take a physical approach to digital design. The first is obvious: to make things pretty and stylish and to allow the designer to show off their incredible Photoshop skills. It's this aspect of skeumorphism that seems to rile some folks up. The second, more altruistic motivation behind the design philosophy is to create something that the user is immediately familiar with. That familiarity is comforting, and can help humanize an otherwise confusing, cold piece of technology--something Apple has always been good at.
Before the iPhone, smartphones were bulky, simplistic, and overwhelmingly digital. Apple's approach to the problem was to first connect with the human holding the device, then present you with neat things you could do with it. Advertisements for the iPhone and iPad never discuss features; they show human beings using the devices to enrich their lives.
In the more than five years since Steve Jobs gave us our first look at the iPhone, many third-party developers have opted for designs that mimic Apple's approach. Apple smartly built its developer tools to favor standard UI elements, giving the company an early edge in the then-burgeoning app wars by raising the bar for the average app's visual design. The highlight lines, shadows, and gradients of iOS weren't just pretty, they made the iPhone's software feel like a real thing for the user to touch. And for a device driven exclusively by touch, this was a very important relationship to establish.
When people started downloading apps from the App Store, they found interfaces that seemed familiar. As long as everything looked and worked like an iPhone app, there was nothing new to learn. When Apple moved toward the physical look, much of the third-party developer community followed suit.
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