I would be remiss if I didn’t take some note of the blockbuster iPhone introduction this past week. Many people have already grown tired of this subject (and I love Darren Barefoot’s hilarious take on iphatigue.com), but now that this much-hyped device is out in the market (at least in the US), there might be some interesting things to take note of, as they relate to ‘the big picture’ of Apple’s use of User Interface on mobile devices.
Before the iPod, Apple’s first take on a hand-held device, was the Newton. The Newton was far more innovative in some ways, at least in terms of a user interface , approach to the data (with a unique ‘data soup’) and how a user might interact with it. Here’s a Getting Started video for the Newton someone posted on YouTube:
The Newton was about written communications, but the user interface was also far more oriented toward a give-and-take interaction with the user. For instance, you’d write ‘Lunch with Matt at 1PM on Friday’ in the calendar, and the Newton would do it’s best to try and figure out what you meant, putting a calendar entry ‘Lunch with Matt’ in the 1 PM time slot in your calendar. If you highlight someone’s name in a bit of recognized text, and then chose ‘FAX’ from the menu, the device would go to your FAX address book, do its best to locate the most likely person you were faxing to (by the first match from a find, in this case) and fill in the FAX number in send box. These best guesses were not always successful, and in some ways, reflected in microcosm some of the worst failures about the Newton. By raising expectations about how much pseudo-intelligence there was in such a device, people were all the more angry or amused when it fell on it’s flat glass face. I had a Newton, and although I was no fanatic about it, I always felt that it was falling just short of some truly amazing feats of computer-human interaction.
Fast-forward to last week: Contrast the Newton Video with this more recent iPhone demo:
Where the Newton video is more of a marketing piece that tries to convince you of the device’s worth, the iPhone video is just a voyeuristic view of someone using their iPhone to listen to music, watch a video, create an ad hoc conference call, send a photo in an email, text message someone, listen to voice mail, and use the Internet, etc.
The iPhone does not try to fill in the gaps, except where it knows such synergies can usually work. For instance, in the Google Maps based application, it allows you to dial whatever business you locate on a map (if there is a phone number). Where the Newton provided a somewhat spooky interaction with a ‘magic pad’ where the device would try and perform complex tasks based on cryptic messages from you, the iPhone puts it’s processing cycles into simpler, more physical tasks , such as how to move pages around to simulate the physics of the real world, how to flip the screen automatically when the device is put on its side and how to display lots of colourful icons and other pictures on a gorgeous screen.
The Newton was ascetic and hermetic, the iPhone is gorgeous, and perhaps even a little garish. Is the iPhone a step forward in UI Design? The Newton tried to do far more with less, but clearly the market did not want that. The iPhone is far more about ‘theatre’, which is why the voyeuristic demo works so well. It is also about applying what has been learned in the desktop and iPod world (setting wallpaper, creating an email, choosing and playing a piece of music) and applying those to a new form factor.
Although it’s arguable that the iPhone is less about really revolutionary thinking about UIs (like the Newton perhaps was), I think we may be ready for some of those. For instance, something as simple as voice recognition of certain commands should be doable on the next version of the iPhone, and synthesized voice from it wouldn’t be bad, either. This has already been done on the desktop, and since the iPhone is supposedly using the same OS, Apple (or other key third party developers) should be able to port some of these technologies to this new hardware fairly easily. I want to be able to say to my iPhone: “Make a conference call between Pam and Matt” and have it call one, notify them of the conference call and then connect the two calls.
Essentially, I want the pretty face of the iPhone with the brains (or better) of the Newton.