Here, bright square and rectangular panels match a crisp, two-dimensional aesthetic, with an emphasis on clarity and clean blocks of colour. It’s a deliberately “flat” look, embracing the pinpoint resolutions of modern screens rather than softer-edged illusions of weight and depth – and it was heralded by some on its release as “incredibly innovative”.
The only problem is that many users don't especially seem to enjoy it – a backlash that has led to embarrassing recent reports of Microsoft preparing to restore some aspects of its older operating systems.
If Apple heads down this path, it will be seeking its own distinctive evolution of Ive’s design philosophy – a philosophy explicitly indebted to the great German designer Dieter Rams and his dictums, the most famous of which states that “good design is as little design as possible.”
Some change is likely to be welcomed. But – as Microsoft's experience shows – any reinvention of a widely-used standard breeds a particular gamut of hazards, especially within the open and potentially unanchored spaces of an electronic medium.
All digital design is to some extent a game of metaphor and illusion. Yet, increasingly, some of the objects being gestured towards are vanishing from users’ remembered experience. Will the youngest generation of iPad users ever physically have handled analogue dials, desktop calendars or yellowed paper notepads? Will many of them, soon, even have turned the pages of a physical book?
These hollowed out metaphors haunt digital design – together with the fear that imitation and repetition risk shackling the present to an increasingly irrelevant past. Successful simplicity, as Ive and Rams have each shown, is about capturing the essence of an experience via the painstaking elimination of anything redundant. How far, though, are skeuomorphism's visual echoes and references themselves essential?
Design can never go entirely without mimicry; not least because, if you’re not speaking some kind of common visual language, you cannot make yourself understood. Ive's greatest triumphs at Apple pay explicit tribute to Rams's work at Braun in the 1960s – and it seems unlikely that someone with such a deep sensitivity to its history will abandon onscreen dialogue with the manufactured world.
This dialogue is likely to be as much with Apple itself as its antecedents – and to draw deeply on its own aesthetic of industrial design. In the end, though, skeuomorphism is not about wood and leather any more than “flat” design is about colours or rectangles. Each aims at an experience that is its own justification – and that, if the experience should somehow fall short, cannot be saved by all the justifications in the world. As Ive himself put it in a 2012 interview, “we don't really talk about design, we talk about developing ideas and making products.” Once you have a sufficiently complete understanding of what you wish to achieve, the rest is detail.