You know, as much as I may rant about Apple’s way of blowing products out of proportion with Marketing in comparison to what they deliver, I must admit Steve Jobs was right in 2007 with one thing he said: “It’ll be hard to remember what a Smartphone was like before the iPhone”. Surely touch screen technology had existed more than a decade before the original iPhone was released, but I do have to commend Apple for figuring out the way it had to co-exist with the user.
See, what made the iPhone such a revolutionary product has a lot to do with how you interact with it. Kinetic scrolling may be something you find on every Smartphone today, but if you try to remember how you had to handle tiny scroll bars with a Stylus before the iPhone existed, you’d remember why it became such a hit. This is what I’d call a Natural User Interface, where you interact with Software as naturally as you’d interact with something that really exists. Software is nothing more than an executed idea. It’s not really something tangible unless you make it become tangible with the way you interact with it. And yeah, I do feel it’s fair we thank Apple for raising the bar in how we handle all Smartphones these days.
So anyways, aside from Kinetic scrolling, another thing the iPhone brought to the market was Multi-Touch. The problem is, I’ve always felt they fell short in how they’ve delivered it since the first generation iPhone. Aside from pinch-zoom gestures and the ability to hold the shift key while you type a word on the virtual keyboard, there really aren’t more “multi-touch” features in the whole iPhone user interface.
I remember the first time I debated whether to buy my first ever MacBook Pro last January. All the sales representative had to do, was show me the Multi-Touch glass track pad and I was sold! One finger selects, two fingers is right button click, three finger swipes scrolls through images or websites, four fingers up clears the desktop, and four fingers down exposes all your open Windows. In a word, I felt it was Genius, so I bought the thing. The irony I felt at that moment was noticing that the single product that got Apple into this whole Multi-Touch game was the most neglected in the department. In my mind, it was only a matter of time before Apple brought the goods to the iPhone.
iOS 4.3 beta has now released multi-touch gestures on the iPhone, though, I still feel things are not right. These new gestures require four fingers for all the multi-touch commands to work. I don’t know about you, but I have bigger than the average hands. Swiping four of my fingers on a 3.5 inch screen will most likely not always work, and will also look kind of stupid to others if you ask me. It was actually until now that it makes sense to me why these features were never implemented in the past. The natural way to interact with a phone is with one hand. You rarely use your other hand, and if the UI requires the use of both hands, then they don’t understand user behavior. What’s interesting though, is how much less work is required to go around the UI with gestures. The question now is, whether the idea flawed or worth it?
In my opinion, I’d love to have it, but would also love it to not be the standard. I honestly feel Palm did a better job in figuring out a Natural User Interface with WebOS. Surely, there’s a large learning curve with all the weird finger gestures you had to remember just to understand the Palm Pre, but once you got those right, you could easily interact with your phone with one hand, and barely any buttons. The same thing happened with HTC, and their Touch Cube interface in the old HTC Touch. I think memorized gestures would be smarter than multi-touch gestures, though again, I wouldn’t mind having both for whenever both my hands are available. What I’d probably start by changing in this whole iOS 4.3 beta multi-touch demo, is the amount of fingers. What happened with two fingers or three? Why do I have to jump from one to four all of a sudden?
Surely, this is just a beta. I don’t see it becoming a reality with the release of iOS 4.3, but I do see it as a trend we’ll see in a very close future. It’ll just depend on their creativity in making this idea, something as natural as they did with Kinetic scrolling a couple of years ago. I feel the iPad 2 launch event that’s just around the corner will be revealing enough to give us an idea of what to expect.