From the New York Times… an interesting article reviewing the iPhone’s non-mechanical keyboard. Should be interesting to play with, IF they’ve made enough of them!
As the clearest expression yet of the Apple chief executive’s spartan design aesthetic, the iPhone sports only one mechanical button, to return a user to the home screen. It echoes Steven P. Jobs’s decree two decades ago that a computer mouse should have a single button. (Most computer mice these days have two.) His argument was that one button ensured that it would be impossible to push the wrong button.
The keyboard is built into other phones, those designed for businesspeople as well as those for teenagers. But the lack of a keyboard could be seen as a clever industrial design solution. It has permitted the iPhone to have a 3.5-inch screen. A big screen makes the phone attractive for alternative uses like watching movies and that could open up new revenue streams for Apple and its partner, AT&T.
The downside is that typing is done by pecking on the screen with thumbs or fingers, something hardly anyone outside of Apple has experienced yet. “The tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard is a pretty important aspect of human interaction,” said Bill Moggeridge, a founder of Ideo, an industrial design company in Palo Alto, Calif. “If you take that away you tend to be very insecure.”
Mr. Jobs and other Apple executives argue that the keyboard that pops up onscreen will be a painless compromise. The iPhone’s onscreen keyboard has a dictionary-lookup feature that tries to predict the word being typed, catching errors as they are made.
That, of course, requires users to learn the new system, a task that Apple executives acknowledge may require several days. Last month at an industry conference, Mr. Jobs dismissed doubts about the decision to rely on a virtual keyboard, saying that users only had to learn to trust the keyboard, “and then you will fly.”
Yet in the days before the phone is scheduled to go on sale at Apple and AT&T stores around the country, designers and marketers of electronic devices centers are having a spirited debate about whether consumers will have the patience to overcome the hurdle that will be required to type without the familiar tactile feedback offered by conventional keyboards.
Apple is making other compromises. The AT&T Edge cellular network transmits data more slowly than those of rivals, but the iPhone will still be equipped with Wi-Fi for Web access. The phone will not accept memory cards.
The keyboard, however, is the biggest worry. At worst, customers will return the products. Currently AT&T gives customers 30 days to return handsets, but it is not clear whether it will maintain that policy for the iPhone. Any significant number of returns of the iPhone could conceivably undermine what until now has been a remarkable promotional blitzkrieg that culminates in the phone’s release June 29.
“There has never been a massively successful consumer device based solely on a touch screen,” warned Sky Dayton, chief executive of Helio, a cellular network service that has recently introduced an innovative handset that integrates Google maps with a G.P.S. system and another feature that physically locates friends using Helio phones.
Palm was successful, he noted, despite requiring the Palm Pilot’s users to enter text with a stylus using its own writing system called Graffiti. But the company eventually retreated and put a mechanical keyboard on its Treo smartphones.
“Texting” is central to an entire generation of people, Mr. Dayton argued, and Apple is taking a risk in not making that a central design feature. “There is a generation of users who are always online and who don’t communicate the way their parents did,” he said. “They’re e-mailing; they’re texting; they’re I.M.-ing.”
To be sure, Apple has had its share of product design hits and misses both under Mr. Jobs’s command and while he was in exile from the computer maker from 1985 to 1997. The Apple III was a well-designed computer, but was undermined by shoddy manufacturing. Several years later, the Lisa, the first commercial PC with a graphical user interface, and an infamously poorly designed “Twiggy” floppy disk drive, generated excitement but failed commercially. More recently, the Apple Cube, which was perhaps Mr. Jobs’s most daring design statement, drew critical praise and few sales.
But the comparison that could haunt the iPhone most comes from the specter of a former Apple chief executive, John Sculley, and his Newton. Billed as the original “personal digital assistant,” the Newton relied on a stylus for entering text. When users fumbled with its character recognition system, the machine went from hype to humiliation.
Although a small team of dedicated Apple engineers ultimately improved the technology, it was too late to save the Newton as a product.
Few industrial designers believe that the iPhone will suffer the Newton’s fate. Indeed, many leading designers argue that even before the iPhone has reached the market, it has changed consumer electronics industry standards irrevocably. Dispensing with a physical keyboard has given software an increased importance over hardware in product design, said Mark Rolston, senior vice president at Frog Design, an industrial design consulting firm.
A result, he said, has been a richer conversation between Frog’s designers and customers because the software presents a much wider range of options for features. “This is great for us because the carriers weren’t listening,” Mr. Rolston said. “They were slightly adjusting the soft-keys.”
Overnight that has changed and that has resulted in significant new business for design companies like Frog. “We’re being engaged by many more customers with more aggressive ideas about what to do,” he said.
Mr. Rolston believes that Mr. Jobs will get away with his gamble. “They took a risk and it’s a bold step for the industry,” he said. “This is a worthwhile risk.”
Indeed, the handful of users outside Apple who have been able to play with the hand-held device report that the quirky company has made an important step forward in the art of controlling computer systems. It may teach a new generation of technology users to use their fingers rather than a mouse — a four-decade-old technology — as a pointing and command device.
Apple’s multitouch technology — which permits control gestures with one or more fingers or thumbs — and which is now also being explored by a variety of other companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others, is a much more direct way to interact with a computer. Software designers have injected virtual “physics” into the user’s experience. For example, sliding a finger along the screen in a directory will cause the index to slide as if it were a piece of paper on a flat surface.
Mr. Jobs’s new phone may resonate with a new kind of mobile user, said Donald A. Norman, a product designer who is co-director of the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
“Apple says, ‘We’re not selling to the person who lives on his BlackBerry, we’re selling to the person who listens to music and surfs the Web,’ ” he said.
And even Mr. Jobs’s competitors are rooting for him to win.
“When I first saw iPhone I was very excited,” said Benjamin Bederson, co-founder and vice president for client technologies at ZenZui, a Seattle-based mobile phone software company, which is commercializing technologies that were developed at Microsoft’s research labs. “It will raise the expectations. I think that consumers have had the central assumption that cellphone experiences are terrible and there’s nothing you can do about it.”