Some Shameless iPhone Gushing

by on July 19, 2008 · 16 comments

After resisting the iPhone siren song for a year, I’ve finally surrendered and joined the 3G bandwagon. Getting a functional iPhone required three store visits and a combined 4 hours of waiting, but I think it was worth it. I’ll warn you in advance that this is going to be a bit of unabashed Apple-fanboyism.

As a long-time Mac user, I was expecting to like the iPhone quite a bit, but I’ve still been pleasantly surprised by the user interface. Apple’s UI engineers pay attention to detail to a degree that no other technology company can match. Most technology products—especially relatively new ones— tend to have a significant number of rough edges: places where the engineers got the feature working so it could be added to the marketing checklist, but clearly didn’t put in a ton of effort beyond that point. In contrast, consider the following random anecdotes:

  • One of the best-implemented features is the iPhone-native Google Maps app. Apple created a special application that presents Google maps in a way that’s speedier and better integrated than it would be if people just went to the Google Maps website in Safari. To change certain configuration options, you click an icon in the lower-right that activates a “lifted page” effect, where the map you’re looking at appears to be lifted up and folded partly over, revealing configuration controls underneath. That’s a clever touch all by itself, but what really impressed me was that it renders the underside of the “upturned page” to show a faint image of the “underside” of the map you were looking at, as if the map were slightly translucent and you were seeing “through” it. Totally useless, yes, but I think thousands of little details like this combine to make the UI “feel” more natural.
  • My previous phone, the Motorola Razr, had an absolutely horrid set of buttons for switching from ringing to vibrating. They protruded from the outside of the case in a way that I would sometimes accidentally bump them while the phone was in my pocket. Even worse, pressing the buttons made noise even if I was trying to switch from “ringer” to “vibrate.” The thing also had way too many options, including two different ringer settings and several different vibrate settings, requiring half a dozen button pushes to switch between noisy and silent. In contrast, the iPhone has a switch that changes between ringer and vibrate. It doesn’t make noise when I’m using it and it’s not going to randomly make noises if I bump it while it’s in my pocket.
  • I’m impressed at the way Apple has extended the NeXT-derived, iPod-popularized “column view” metaphor for the iPhone UI. PDAs have always seemed to struggle with a replacement for the window metaphor. For a long time, WinCE tried to simply pretend it was a full-fledge desktop PC, complete with a title bar, close box, scroll bars, and a task bar. The early Palm OS’s economized on screen space by leaving a lot of that stuff out, but the result was that it was often a mystery how to navigate from one window to another. Apple has dealt with this problem by replacing the window metaphor with a “sliding” metaphor in which whatever you were looking at before slides off to the left, and the new “window” slides in from the right. In this case, it’s always crystal-clear where the last thing you looked at is: it’s either to the left or the right, and you get there by clicking the appropriate arrow.
  • Closely related is the much-discussed and much-demoed “flicking” metaphor that replaces the traditional scroll bar in iPhone apps. The scroll bar seems utterly natural to anyone who uses a modern computer, so it’s hard to forget that the scroll bar was designed around the limitations of the traditional desktop computer with its large screen and a mouse with high precision but an extremely limited “vocabulary.” Once again, a lot of mobile GUIs seemed to be trying desperately to shoehorn a desktop metaphor into a computing environment where it didn’t fit. Scroll bars work terribly on small touch-screen devices because screens are small and fingers are fat. What fingers do have, though, is a much richer vocabulary of gestures than can be managed with a mouse, and Apple figured out how to make a touchscreen that takes advantage of that. One can communicate a desired scrolling speed with different-intensity flicks much more easily and precisely than clicking or dragging a tiny arrow or tab.
  • All of which is to say, the iPhone is the first full-featured portable device I’ve used that feels like it was designed as a portable device, rather than a miniature desktop computer (or, in the case of my RAZR, like a miniature DOS PC from the early 80s). I think the iPhone may be remembered in 20 years the same way the original Mac is remembered today: as introducing UI metaphors that fundamentally re-shaped out people interact with computers. Apple didn’t capture the PC market in the ’80s, and I think it’s far from clear it will capture a majority of the cell phone market in the coming years, but I suspect that many of the visual metaphors and design principles Apple is pioneering with the iPhone will be heavily imitated by virtually every phone maker within a decade, just as almost every computer had mouse-driven interfaces with windows and icons by the mid-1990s.

    When I called T-Mobile to initiate the transfer of my phone number, the sales rep tried to convince me to stay by pointing out (without me even mentioning the iPhone) that they had “touch-screen phones” available. This is obviously a sign that the iPhone has the rest of the cell phone industry running scared. But I went into a T-Mobile to try a few of those “touch-screen phones” out last week and see how they compared with the iPhone. They were touch-screen phones in precisely the same way that Windows 1.0 was a “mouse computer.” Yes, they had touch screens, and yes you could perform some basic operations with them, but they were not, like the iPhone, phones that were designed around a touch-screen interface. Hopefully, Apple’s example will convince the rest of the cell phone industry that a touch-screen portable device is its own kind of thing, requiring its own, distinct set of design principles. You can’t just take a mobile OS you designed a decade ago, graft a touch-screen interface on top of it, and call the result a “touch-screen phone.”

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