The Garishness of Cover Flow

With everything I’ve seen and experienced in iOS 7, controversy be damned, Apple is once again hungry and taking risks. They are showing us, the user, and even developers where the bar is being raised to.

We have come so far in the world of mobile app design in such a short period of time. Apple once pushed the boundaries of human interface design. For quite a number of years following the release of iOS 1.0., third party developers have further pushed those boundaries of what good design can be, fostering innovation and aspiration. When I compare some of the best designed and executed third party music apps, like Rdio, to the system Music app in iOS 6, it’s ponderous that someone at Apple thought this looked great.

Cover Flow is the view that you get in Music when your iOS device is in landscape mode. For those unaware, this three dimensional graphical user interface was designed by Andrew Coulter Enright and developed by indie Mac developer, Jonathan del Strother. Apple later purchased Cover Flow and integrated it into iTunes 7.0 back in September 2006. Within the same year, we got OS X 10.5 Leopard, which brought Cover Flow as an optional view in Finder, and then of course it was adopted in iOS. To give Apple some slack, Cover Flow has been around for quite a number of years, so it’s not like their design team just pushed this out the door.

I have long had a strong distaste for this design. I don’t think it’s particularly useful as a means of navigating the file system, let alone music. Perhaps Cover Flow was geared towards navigating folders that mainly consist of individual document files. For my use case, I tend to organize files into folders and sub folders. Seeing giant folder previews is merely but eye candy to me — it serves zero functional purpose since I can’t peer into the contents of what that folder contains.

Looking at the Music app on iOS, consider a media library with perfect meta data and no missing artwork. Whilst flicking left to right in a horizontal fashion, unless I do it extremely slowly, I always found it as a non-intuitive way of casually browsing my music library. It’s not quite the same experience as just flicking through a CD collection in the real world. If you were to do that, you would be looking at a much larger and legible physical object that is easier to identify. As for the superfluous visual flair, the way the albums are reflected as if they were on a mirrored surface looks corny by modern standards. Truth be told, it was pretty corny looking back when it was introduced in iTunes as well, though I concede there was nothing quite like that UI predating it (that I’m aware of). One of the first things I remember doing after installing Leopard was making sure Finder defaulted to either list or three column view. It’s arguable whether or not Cover Flow was useful to most people on OS X, however it’s undeniable that it was radically different from its list or icon view predecessors.

Today we are still living with Cover Flow on iOS 6’s Music app. I’m extremely happy that Apple has done away with it in iOS 7 (oddly enough, I hear it’s still available in Finder on OS X 10.9 Mavericks). What we have now is a view that focuses on beautiful artwork, yet the garishness of the reflective surface has been banished to the depths of hades. I definitely like what I see so far.