Apps shatter the very idea of aesthetic coherence, turning computers into weird samplers that betray the smooth, slick exteriors of the iDevices that contain them. It’s no accident that these gadgets also refuse the multitasking and deep integration of traditional graphical computer operating systems. Multitasking may have been omitted from early app-focused devices like the iPhone for reasons of limited hardware resources, but it’s evolved to become anathema to the app aesthetic.
Instead, apps are meant to be isolated from one another. To use a term I coined last year when the iOS 4’s rudimentary multitasking feature was released, apps latertask, they don’t multitask: “Rather than putting apps away entirely, they remain close by but inactive, like a dogeared book on the desk rather than a closed book on the shelf.” Apps are like tic-tacs, always sweet, always there, but usually there for no reason.
The app is a mixed blessing for computer aesthetics, just like music sampling is for music. On the one hand, we get many variations of the same thing that can surprise us when refashioned in different permutations. But on the other hand, we get fewer coherent, complete takes on things. And there’s a risk that deep meaning slowly seeps out of every unit as each does less and less.