Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sins of iMission: What Apple omitted from the iPhone

If you've observed the outpouring of joy and wonder--and cash--with which adoring Apple fans have greeted each new iteration of the iPhone, and if you've formed the general impression that the iPhone is the "smartphone" that does everything, think again. iphoneDig a little deeper into the online chatter and you find out, as buyers like me have done, that Apple omitted some serious "basic" features from all the iPhones so far produced.

Topping the "Sins of iMission" is a feature that's almost synonymous with Apple. That's right I'm talking about cut-and-paste. You heard right, there's no way to...select, copy, move, or reuse text on the iPhone, a phone from the company that pioneered the computer clipboard and the incredibly useful X/C/V commands. Just think about the implications for productivity and ease-of-use.

Suppose you're on the road when you get a call, on your iPhone,  from your wife. She tells you she's been diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a condition you've never heard of before. She spells it out while you type it into a note on your phone. When you hang up you want to research this condition. You have to re-type hemochromatosis into Google because you can't copy from the Notes app. And you have to retype hemochromatosis into the emails you want to send to friends and family. You have to retype hemochromatosis when you create a new contact record for the Hemochromatosis Foundation. And if you want to copy and paste into email that definition of hemochromatosis you found on the Hemochromatosis Foundation website, well you're **** out of luck.

Clearly the iPhone was launched with a major chunk of legacy functonality missing from its operating system. For example, back in 2002, the Palm Treo 180 smartphone was able to cut and paste between notes, email, browser, SMS, and phone list. The Treo 650 that came out in 2004 did all that plus shoot pictures and video, play MP3s, and transfer files via Bluetooth.

By now you can probably hear the chorus of angry replies from Apple-entranced iPhone lovers: "It's available in 3.0!" And they are right. You can perform cut-n-paste on your iPhone if you install the 3.0 version of the iPhone firmware. The only drawback: 3.0 is not available yet, and probably won't arrive until July 2009, two full years after the iPhone first went on sale [May 24 update: July 17 tipped for release date.]

So why did Apple make such a major omission when it launched the iPhone? I'm guessing that engineers were having technical difficulty implementing cut-and-paste within the constraints of the iPhone's menu-free, keystroke-free, gesture-based interface. While this interface looks very sexy in commercials it poses serious practical challenges when implemented in a small form factor.

I think Apple has gambled--successfully so far based on sales numbers--on the sexiness of the interface overshadowing the practical drawbacks and glaring omissions. The iPhone is still selling like hot cakes. I can see why. I bought an iPhone last month and I really like it, as an all round gadget, but not yet a serious phone or text input device.

When I found out that Apple had left off important bits of basic smartphone functionality I almost returned it in favor of the soon-to-be-released Palm Pre. What stopped me? Two things: a. Apple announced 3.0 and b. the Palm Pre will only be available on Sprint (until 2010 at least, or so I hear).

So, I am an iPhone user. That doesn't mean I can't offer some constructive criticisms. For example, in terms of UI design, copy-and-paste depends upon three things: selection,  command, indication. You need:

  1. A way to select what you want to copy

  2. A way to issue the copy (or cut) command, and

  3. A way to indicate the place where you want to paste.


Now, just so we're clear, the most successful user interface in the history of machine input so far is the QWERTY keyboard, closely followed by point and click. The iPhone has a keyboard, but it is only available in certain situations and when it is available it takes up precious touch screen real estate. (That's why the folks at Palm, as well as the designers of the Blackberry, put a QWERTY keyboard below the screen. On the Treo it's a touch screen with stylus point accuracy and the Palm Pre has a slide out keyboard in addition to its big touch screen.)

The iPhone currently lacks both the ability to issue keystroke commands and also the ability to point out an area of the screen with the usual point-click-drag action to which we have become accustomed after all these years of working with a mouse on Macs and PCs. One has to assume that Apple couldn't figure out how to get around this problem within the limitations of its capacitive touch screen and gesture system. (Either that or some arrogant ahistorical idiot in Cupertino arbitrarily figured people didn't really need cut-and-paste.)

I guess I can understand the desire to do away with a stylus, but throwing out cut-n-paste with the stylus was a bit extreme. I happily used the touch screen on the Treo without a stylus, using a fingernail instead. As the iPhone currently exists, typing by touch is more like a game than a practical text input system (the predictive feature is particularly entertaining--if you make a mistake while typing a word you can make a bet with yourself that the intended word will be correctly corrected, and thus continue typing, or play it safe and start over).

When you want to edit a document, for example change the order of paragraphs, the iPhone is stumped. Between the Treo's menu of commands and my fingernail, along with the physical click of the QWERTY keys as my thumbs made contact, I could do some serious typing and editing on the Treo.

And speaking of making contact, suppose you need to call Sue. You haven't spoken to her for a while. On a typical cell phone you can finding a contact by typing part of their name, or by some other method of searching your contact list. But not with an iPhone, you don't. You get to play finger games, scrolling through your entire list of contacts until you find Sue.

Suppose her full name is Suzy Quixote. That's going to be a lot of scrolling, even when you use the "general area of alphabet" shortcut. The process is certainly a lot less precise than pressing two keys, S and Q, which is how you find Sue on a Treo. Oh, and if Sue works for a company and you can remember the company name but not her name you could have trouble finding her (the scroll list tends to exclude company names if you have a name listed for the company).

Here's another scenario: You get a call from someone who is not yet in your contact list. When you hang up you want to create a new contact. Most smart phones make that a simple click. Not the iPhone.

So, it looks like an interesting Summer ahead. The Palm Pre should debut in June, the iPhone 3.0 upgrade in July. I'm really hoping Apple gets it right with 3.0. And they will need to get it right if Palm matches the diversity of apps that you can get for the iPhone.

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