Flawed genius

Until quite recently Apple didn’t want to talk to me about the iPhone, which I thought a bit strange – you currently have in your hands the UK’s most-read specialist smartphone column, and you’d expect Apple to want its product featured here. I kept asking but all I’d get back is “you’re on the list”, for about six months. I think I understand why though: the original iPhone may have been quite radical and special, but it certainly wasn’t a business phone and so I’d almost certainly not have recommended it to readers of this column.

Flawed genius

With the release of the new iPhone 3G everything changed. It has proper enterprise-level features and so – surprise, surprise – Apple now does want to talk to me and has even provided me with a 16GB iPhone 3G on long-term loan. The truth is that I’m not really a stranger to iPhone at all because I’ve owned both an “official” UK and a jail-broken (hacked and unlocked) overseas device for some time now. The reason they’ve received scant mention in previous columns is indeed that they weren’t really business-class devices. So does the new 3G variant with the 2.0 operating system change that?

Let’s go back to basics. One of the main things that makes the iPhone so special is its touchscreen user interface. It’s as if its designers completely threw away the rulebook of operating system and application interface design and started again from scratch. This was easier because of an advantage that an Apple phone has over, say, a Windows Mobile device – all the components are designed in-house so the hardware, firmware, operating system, user interface and applications teams can work together, helping and supporting each other. Compare this to, say, HTC’s Touch Pro where Microsoft specified the basic hardware requirements for Windows Mobile, HTC built the device, Microsoft provided the operating system, then HTC added its own drivers and user interface layer, while many of the applications come from Microsoft.

Apple didn’t have to play such “developer ping-pong” with the iPhone, and as a result it has a brilliant user interface, with hardware and software working in close harmony. I’m sure that many of you will have played with an iPhone by now, but for those who haven’t, the phone is mainly controlled from the screen using static prods, finger wipes and moves, from a single “home” button, and by orientation sensors. iPhone overthrows so many existing interface rules that using one can be a bit disconcerting at first. Where’s the application close button? (There isn’t one.) Where are the menus? (There aren’t any.) How do you right-click? (You don’t need to.)

It takes about 30 seconds to clear these mental hurdles and after that it all becomes superbly intuitive. I suspect most iPhone users won’t have even looked at the manual as there’s really no need. The key word is “simplicity” and the iPhone interface provides it in spades.

For a consumer device I think this level of simplicity is almost perfect, but I’m not so convinced it’s totally appropriate for a wannabe enterprise phone. My fear is that such simplicity is going to be something of a hindrance in the world of business applications. Take cut-and-paste for example, or rather don’t take cut-and-paste because the iPhone simply doesn’t have this facility, not even the new 3G version. It seems incredible that a business smartphone could be launched without the ability to cut, paste and copy text and images, but think about it for a moment – in a menu-less and right-click-less interface how could cut-and-paste be implemented? You can bet that if it had been easy, Apple would have provided it from day one. In going down this simplified user-interface route I fear the company might have backed itself into a corner. I’ve no doubt Apple’s engineers will solve the cut-and-paste issue eventually, but it will be interesting to see whether they’re able to do so in a manner as elegant as the rest of the phone.

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