Windows Phone 7 vs Android vs iOS: App Organization
These days, a smart phone platform is of little interest without a vibrant mobile app ecosystem. Users have more choice in specially tailored software than ever before, but not all mobile operating systems manage and display apps in the same way. The way users access their apps, and how the system lists them can say a lot about how the designers intend us to use apps on a particular platform.
We're going to go over how Windows Phone 7, iOS, and Android display installed apps, and talk about what that says about the platforms.
Windows Phone 7
Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 has just launched and the unique UI is creating a stir. Even though the app ecosystem is smaller right now, Microsoft seems to have put some thought into how users will use their apps. Microsoft's commercials make it clear they are going for glanceable information, as opposed to tapping around endlessly in apps. From the home screen design, it looks like Microsoft is banking on people not needing all that many apps at hand constantly.
You can download as many apps as you want, but the home screen interface for Windows Phone 7 makes it clear you are only focusing on certain information. The live tiles here take up a fair bit of space, but can show some contextual information. Using the hub feature, similar content can be grouped together in one hub. For example, the Pictures hub could include content from multiple photo sharing apps in one live tile.
Microsoft is emphasizing actions, not specific apps. Windows Phone 7 doesn't make dozens of apps immediately accessible, instead opting to give users the tools to curate their own glanceable experience on the home screen. Accessing the full app list is accomplished by a swipe, where users can scroll through a full app list. But this list cannot be sorted and it is a 1-wide list, so you're limited to sorting important things in the home screen. The home screen is always going to have a limited amount of content on it. As you add more tiles, the experience is going to be degraded as you have to scroll further and further to see your apps. At a certain point, why not just use the full app list?
Apple's iOS made its name with apps. It was the platform that showed us what a well crafted mobile application could do to improve the experience. As such, the iOS user interface is all about reminding users that they have apps. The entire home screen is just a scrollable list of apps. The message here is that you have apps, and you should probably use them.
Where Windows Phone 7 is trying to get the user to think about actions and similar avenues of though, iOS is just about finding and launching apps. Most users end up with page after page of apps, but it's easy to move them around on the phone, or with the layout editor in iTunes. It is easy to simply put the content that's most important on the first few screens, with apps decreasing in importance as you get further away from the first screen.
With iOS, it feels okay to have a lot of apps you never use, because you can organize them any way you like. It can seem messy even, but if you spend most of your time on screens one and two, what's the difference? It's not like removing unused apps will make the interface easier to use. You'll be looking at a grid of icons either way.
iOS also encourages you to have a lot of apps by making the Spotlight Search so accessible. They committed to an interface that requires a lot of swiping, and when you get up to nine or ten screens, it starts to feel a little ludicrous. Just swiping left from the first screen pulls up the search screen. From here you can have the phone do the hard work of digging through all those (paid) apps. Just the way Apple likes it.
Android is sort of a hybrid of these two systems without really trying to be. The main Android app list is a scrollable list like Windows Phone 7, but the home screen is more like iOS. You have glanceable information in the form of widgets, but your home screen is not your app list like it is on iOS. Depending on the specific Android phone, users have between three and seven screens.
This system pushes users to create their own custom home screen experience. Users can place apps and widgets on these home screen panels however they like. If done well, trips into the full app list should be few and far between. Although, unlike Windows Phone 7, this app list is 4 wide, so you do not need to scroll as much to find something.
Android lets users access content from apps without actually launching them via widgets. The apps just run in the background updating a widget, no user interaction required. You're creating a dashboard, or heads up display, filled with the most important content. Forget messing around with the app list.
Android takes the Google search mantra and applies it to app access in a useful way. On most phones, you can just hit the search button to perform a universal search. The results will contain apps, giving you even less reason to open the app list. You can even make a special app search widget in Android 2.2 that only pulls up your apps. Android is all about keeping you in your custom home screen experience.
This also leads to the feeling that it's okay to have a lot of apps installed. You don't need to go through them all the time, so why worry about it?
Is there a winner?
All these platforms have their own unique way of displaying their installed apps to the user. Windows phone 7 seems to be about simplicity and emphasis on actions as opposed to specific apps. iOS luxuriates in the presence of apps with its scrolling home screen. At the same time it offers organization features that help users get their important content where they want it. Android lets users design a space with the content and apps they want with the help of glanceable widgets.
The winner is not going to be clear cut. It's more about using best practices to manage your apps. Removing apps you don't need can be a good habit to get into. Those times when you do need to dig into the Android or WP7 app list can get pretty hairy if you never remove anything. As for iOS, ten screens of apps can get ungainly no matter how well organized it is. It's maybe more necessary that you clean house on iOS.
There will be some people that can deal with the clutter. Take a look at your computer. Do you have things installed on it that you've never used? Probably, but you most likely don't have them pinned to your taskbar or dock. You are, in all probability, removing programs from time to time as well. It's the same in mobile. Putting apps in the prescribed "easy to reach" places is like using shortcuts on the desktop. You can get by with just organizing, but if you have to go hunting for something, you might find a lot of cruft in the way.
It's probably best to remove things that you don't need. It's not like you can't get them back later. Even platforms that de-emphasize the use of a full app list will eventually require you to wade through the mess you've created. We're talking about mobile devices that have limited storage and battery life. Clearing them off is a good practice, even if the UI doesn't benefit from it all the time.
Is there a mobile operating system that displays apps in the perfect way for you is?