When iOS 14 came out, TikTok was full of videos of extreme customization techniques for the iPhone interface, courtesy of custom widgets and icon replacement via shortcuts. Everyone’s aesthetics are different, and you might have found those tweaks crazy, gaudy, or even ugly, but the success of those videos sent a strong signal: people want to customize their devices.
It’s a story as old as time, dating back to the early days of the Mac. And yet modern Apple has been reluctant to let users customize their devices. Yes, you can set your own lock screen and wallpaper, but otherwise things were pretty limited.
But iOS 16’s lock screen, with its customizable fonts, color overlays, and custom widgets, suggests Apple may be entering a new phase. It appears that Apple has taken note of that positive response to iOS 14 and has decided to loosen the reins a bit. The lock screen may just be the beginning of the changes in the works.
Some choice, but not much
Apple officials have said that the editable iPhone lock screen in iOS 16 was inspired by the face editor on the Apple Watch. It’s basically the same interface, with choices within a very limited set of options. There is a limited palette of colors and fonts, just like the Apple Watch is limited to certain faces, colors, and complications. There are a few slots for widgets — with a design directly derived from Apple Watch complications — but it’s hardly free for everyone.
Apple even analyzes your photos and only offers effects it thinks are appropriate for your chosen image. One way to look at this is that Apple manages its effects in a helpful way to save you time; you might also consider that Apple is preventing you from making aesthetic choices that it disagrees with.
It’s interesting to note that Apple has decided to optionally associate lock screens with focus modes. When you change the focus modes, your lock screen and home screen may also change. It seems that Apple is slowly creeping towards the idea of themes† Namely, a system where your iPhone would look dramatically different based on context or even whim.
It’s funny: iOS currently offers light and dark themes, which look completely different. Those themes are not related to your lock screen, home screen, or focus modes. But creating a broader themed system seems like a logical direction, doesn’t it?
When Android 12 introduced the concept of personalization and customization, it did the Android thing and basically let a user do whatever they wanted. Apple will never do that, especially since it knows that complete freedom will lead to a whole host of ugly decisions—think desktop publishing in the 1980s, a world of disastrous font choices and terrible design decisions. Rightly or wrongly, Apple wants to protect its users from their own bad decisions. One way it could do that is by carefully curating some theme options it finds acceptable, perhaps backed up by machine learning-based analytics that doesn’t offer the user choices Apple deems ugly.
Who has a CarPlay car?
Here’s a tangent, but not really. The new CarPlay, shown by Apple at WWDC 2022, will supposedly take over all the interface elements of a car. In Apple’s demo of the new features, the images Apple showed suggested a bunch of different interface themes for a user to switch between — all of which are typically Apple-looking.
Will automakers really want to surrender their car interfaces to Apple’s style? Will they be forced to redesign their cars?
It turns out that customization can both solve and create problems. Let’s assume Apple offers a basic-level automotive operating system to automakers, similar to Google’s Android Automotive. Automakers love Android Automotive because it’s open-source and customizable. Apple will never do that.
But… what if CarPlay has customizable themes? If you’re Volvo, you can add themes to match your business aesthetic or even a model-based design. Perhaps users can choose to switch to their own themes or to themes blessed by Apple. Perhaps Apple and Volvo will put up crash barriers to prevent users from coloring too far outside the lines. It is a possibility.
Apple gets the message
When I look at the lock screen in iOS 16, I see an Apple that’s been told that we want to personalize our devices, but isn’t willing to do what Android did and let everyone else do it.
Instead, it’s going to do it the Apple way. The company seems to be building a series of themes that will allow users to express themselves by choosing from options, sets, and styles rather than making decisions they are likely to regret later.
With luck, Apple’s approach will continue to broaden and expand, and our devices (and even cars?) will become a little more personalized and customized with each passing OS update.