Bringing iOS to the Desktop: Why You Should Get Excited

When Steve Jobs gave a preview of the new version of OS X, he talked at length about the idea of bringing what they’d learned through iOS “Back to the Mac”. Unsurprisingly, sweating the details of one of the best mobile interfaces in the industry has given Apple a great deal of insight and experience that can be applied to OS X.

This concept excites some people, and disturbs others. Although I love my iPad, do I want the same experience on the desktop? Or is this platform still better suited for more intricate, complex interface design?

Although iPhoto ’11 started to hint at how this transition may play out, it still felt very much like a traditional desktop app. I couldn’t really see how bringing iOS interface elements and functionality to the desktop would lead to an overall better experience.

Until this week.

Having spent two days using the Reeder for Mac beta, I’m completely blown away by how well—when executed to perfection—this amalgamation of iOS and OS X can work.

Show Me

If you are yet to take Reeder for Mac for a spin, here’s a quick one-minute screencast showing the interface in action:

This is the Future

When opening Reeder for the first time, you’ll feel like you’ve just launched an iPad app on your Mac. The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the use of iOS interface controls for swapping between different view modes. Everything animates with a fluidity rarely found on desktop apps, and Reeder just oozes a style that’s hard to pin down.

By way of a quick overview, Reeder is a desktop client for Google Reader. It’s been available on the iPhone and iPad for some time, and definitely holds the title of “best Google Reader” client in my book. The care and attention to detail invested into Reeder are unparalleled elsewhere.

My Favourite Software Feature of 2010

It’s late in the year, but this fantastic feature of Reeder for Mac immediately takes the top spot:

When you’re reading an article in text mode, Reeder pre-loads the original web page completely behind the scenes. If you decide you want to see the original version, click the article headline, and the original web page slides in with absolutely no loading time. This is insanely clever, and it makes the application feel lightning quick.

Edit, Cut, Refine

The process of cutting something down to the bare essentials is an art. Whether that’s in writing, photography, video, or software design—it makes no difference. The beauty of the iPad is that it forces the developer to consider the bare minimum that the user needs to be exposed to.

Screen space is at a minimum, and there’s no convenient Menu Bar into which every miscellaneous setting and option can be recklessly thrown. Each element, control, and piece of information needs to justify an existence in the application interface.

This is the way that software design should be, and it’s this process of refining and editing that makes many of my favourite iPad applications such a joy to use. So often on the desktop I find myself not using 75% of an app’s functionality, but still being burdened by these unnecessary menu icons, preferences and buttons. This hardly ever happens on the iPad, and I use almost every app to its full potential.

Just for a moment, let’s take a look at this difference personified. This is the screen that loads when I fire up Reeder for Mac:

The Reeder Interface at Launch

The Reeder Interface at Launch

Simple, understated, and with very little visual “commentary”. Yet I’m confident that I know what everything does, and how everything will respond when I click it.

Here’s how a competing app, NetNewsWire, looks:

NetNewsWire at Launch

NetNewsWire at Launch

Although these two apps have almost identical functionality (with the exception of not being able to managing your feeds in Reeder), there’s no comparison in terms of interface complexity. In Reeder, I’m shown only what I need to see at any given time. In NetNewsWire, I’m shown everything, all the time.

Seth explains perfectly why this is such a huge problem:

Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn’t free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit…

…More is not always better. In fact, more is almost never better.

No Need for Gestures

One of the main stumbling blocks with porting iOS application to the desktop is the difference in user interaction. Actions such as swiping and pinching often simply can’t be replicated on the desktop, at least not with any enjoyment (if you’ve ever tried the iPhone Simulator app, you’ll know why).

This is one of the reasons why I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever see iPhone or iPad applications reside in the OS X Dashboard. They aren’t designed for the desktop, and would be wholly unpleasant to use.

But Reeder manages to solve this problem in an interesting way, while retaining the feel you’ve come to love on iOS. Click up and down your feed categories on the left, and you’ll see the item list swipe left and right, just as if you were swiping on the iPad.

Click the headline of an item you’re reading, and the feed listing will smoothly hide itself to accommodate additional room for the in-app browser.

No actual “gestures” required—everything works perfectly with a single mouse click—but you still feel as through you’re swiping your way around an iOS interface.

Colour Me Impressed

Despite my initial skepticism over whether iOS could really come “Back to the Mac” in any meaningful way, Reeder’s interface and functionality has put me firmly back in my place. I’m happy to accept that this is certainly the way forward, and I can’t wait to see what Apple has in store for OS X Lion. Just the thought of a re-worked Mail app using Reeder’s interface styling makes me smile…

The constraints enforced by this new paradigm of interface design will persuade developers to take a more refined and carefully planned approach to software development. When this happens, everyone wins.

If this is the future of Mac software, 2011 can’t come fast enough.