Ctrl: The Smartphone Revolution Is Not Over

A couple of weeks ago in this very column I claimed that Apple—and other major phone manufacturers too—were creatively bankrupt. I boldly proclaimed that phones had peaked, and that we’ve got nothing else new to add.

I might have been a little wrong.  

Two days after my article came out, Apple’s latest operating system iOS 13 was officially released. With it came one of the all-time greatest smartphone features: dark mode.

I know what you’re thinking. This one little feature is enough for me to flip-flop on my position that we should just give up on improving smartphones? Well, yes actually. It’s not that I’m completely reversing my opinion. No, dark mode has prompted me to make one slight adjustment.

The hardware revolution is indeed over. I don’t care how fancy Apple’s bionic chip gets, no one needs their smartphone to have the computing power of a rocketship. I still fully believe that we’ve maxed out when it comes to physical improvements, aside from marginal increases in the screen-to-chassis ratio. Software, on the other hand, is a whole different story.

I’m shocked my usually critical self somehow reached the conclusion that smartphone companies had the user experience totally figured out. It was seriously unimaginative of me to claim there’s no more room for improvements, because dark mode illustrates just how much room there really is.

If you still don’t know what dark mode is, here’s the basic idea: what if you could use your phone in dim lighting without getting blinded by the aggressively white interface of every single system app? Well, you can with dark mode, which essentially flips black and white colors, making app backgrounds nearly black and the usually-black text white.

Dark mode is a great example of how questioning basic assumptions of user interface design can lead to massive improvements at the cost of very little change. Why is it that the default color of any screen is blindingly white? Even as I write this article my monitor is visually assaulting me for daring to have both the nearly entirely white Google Docs and Wikipedia websites open simultaneously. 

Thankfully, dark mode is becoming more and more prevalent in basically every piece of software—be it on computer or mobile. What I can’t understand is why this shift took so long to happen? The only answer I can come up with is that we’re unimaginative about the potential user interfaces of our devices.

Are we sure we really got it so right from the start? Of course, user interface has been evolving and improving at each step. Looking at screenshots of the initial launch of iOS compared to iOS13 can quickly confirm this. This comparison also reveals, however, the unmistakable architecture of iOS which remains the same to this day. The same is true for Android. Each update simply takes an incremental step forward, but never questions the underlying assumptions of how smartphones should look.

The smartphone hardware revolution may be over, but it’s time for the software revolution to ramp up. Dark mode is simply the first shot fired. It’s time to completely upend how we interact with our phones,because there’s still plenty of room for improvement.