WWDC 2020

Apple shamelessly lifted a designer's 2014 ideas for iOS 14

How could take Apple so long to implement these ideas? And how could Apple not reach out to this designer?

Way back in 2014, UX and UI designer Joseph Machalani sat down and mocked up widgets for Apple's iOS operating system.

Machalani's (who also goes by Jay) concepts weren't mere napkin sketches or surface-layer, image-only concepts created in Photoshop. Machalani outlined in great detail how the widgets he envisioned would be resizeable, would display key information from apps at a glance, and how their design language could best be matched to Apple's guidelines at the time. Today, six years later, Apple's unveiled widgets that will come to iOS 14. The similarity between Apple's solution and Machalani's suggestion for iOS 8 is staggering.

The overlap didn't escape Machalani, who took to Twitter to post a video congratulating Apple on its work on iOS 14, gently deriding it for taking six whole years to implement his designs, and enthusing about how much he'd "love to tackle the many other UX / UI challenges in [Apple's] products." We reached out to Machalani to get the backstory on how he came to solve Apple's problems years before it did.

A passion project slash experiment

When Machalani blogged about his design ideas, it wasn't long before the media picked up on it. Not only was his concept thoroughly realized and meticulous, but his accompanying stills and video were slick and gave the whole project a professional feel. Soon The Verge and other technology news outlets were covering it, each enthusiastic about what looked like a great way for Apple to bring the functionality of Windows Mobile's Live Tiles and Android's widgets to iOS without undermining the simplicity and cleanliness of the operating system's interface.

To suggest Apple — which watches the news about itself as closely as it guards its IP — didn't see Machalani's work is... improbable. The video he made of his project (below) has nearly 4 million views. One might think the company, then spearheading the smartphone revolution and being lauded for its revolutionary and welcoming approach to portable and personal computing, might reach out to a designer as evidently eager, capable, and innovative as Machalani. But he heard nothing, not just in 2014, but subsequently.

Machalani previously worked on a project he called "Fixing Windows 8." When Microsoft got wind of it, the company flew Machalani to its campus, offed him a job, and even gave him some of its hardware. With Apple, it's been nothing but crickets. Machalani was curious to see if the success of that project "got so popular by chance" or if his "research and design methodology made objective sense" when applied to another operating system project.

"So, I tackled the elephant in the room: iOS. It turned out that this design was loved even more," he tells Input on the afternoon of Monday, June 22, a few hours after Apple's WWDC 2020 keynote where iOS 14 was revealed.

“Six years ago, I thought the homescreen was old and needed that change — better late than never I guess.”

We asked Machalani what he thought when he saw Apple's implementation of widgets on iOS 14. "I just laughed out loud, to be honest," he says.

Machalani's mockups of iOS widgets on Apple's mobile devices circa 2014.Jay Machalani

"I was looking at something just a text alignment away from being my design, but now officially from Apple, like it's a big revolution. Six years ago, I thought the homescreen was old and needed that change — better late than never I guess. It lost the consistency in the Blocks / Widget design, but it looks great!"

Only so many ways to skin a... widget

Machalani's by no means the first designer to make changes to iOS based on what he'd like to see. Earlier this year another designer, Alexander Käßner, created mockups of a sidebar-style menu for iPadOS. Today Apple unveiled something almost identical to Käßner's vision.

Meanwhile, another design enthusiast, Seth Goodell, today posted his concept of scalable widgets that date back to 2012. There may, as they say, in fact, be no new ideas.

Great ideas, especially those that stand on the shoulders of existing ones, don't happen in a vacuum. Sometimes, what seems like duplication or forgery is a legitimate instance of what's variously dubbed "multiple discovery" or "simultaneous invention." Silvanus Thompson and Henri Becquerel, for instance, both stumbled upon radioactivity, independently, in 1896, which is arguably far less likely than multiple designers in the 21st century coming up with ways to improve the long-maligned, icon-based iOS homescreen.

We asked Machalani what he says to those who posit Apple's widget solution is the obvious or inevitable one that would've been reached with or without his mockups?

"Well, they are right that it is the obvious evolution. I just made it even easier to implement with a complete set of instructions, designs, mockups and the research to back the minimal impact on the iOS experience [adding widgets would have]," Machalani says, adding that there was "even a team of jailbreakers trying to make it functional based on my guidelines."

Apple's widgets on an iPhone 11 running iOS 14 in 2020.Apple

Machalani says he'd be delighted to offer his expertise to Apple, whether via email or "under an NDA in a dark room somewhere in Apple's HQ." He's not after money, free iDevices, or fame, but instead says he merely wants "better tech, better tools, better competition, and better UX/UI," though he concedes "getting a 'Hi' from someone at Apple would be nice!"

Not bitter, just busy with other things

While we understand that designers creating their own, unsolicited concepts for Apple products no more entitles them to credit or remuneration than a piece of fan fiction entitles a fan to a claim on the source material, we'd nonetheless be remiss if we didn't ask Apple for comment. We did. We've yet to hear back. So, instead, we asked Machalani whether today's announcements are likely to encourage him to defect from Cupertino's walled garden of aluminum-clad delights.

"I've actually defected from webOS to Windows Phone 8 and now to Android," he says. "The iOS Blocks project was what I wanted to see in the OS if I were to move to an iPhone in 2014. iOS 14 is a big step, it unfortunately took six years and a fear of reaching out to get there."