Don't mention the Newton. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it

10 January 2007

I can't help thinking that the curse of the Newton lurks behind the Apple iPhone. During his keynote at Macworld, Apple CEO Steve Jobs went out of his way to put down the stylus as a way of getting things done on a handheld machine. That may be because everybody else working in this space is wrong - pudgy fingers are best after all - or Jobs was very keen to ensure that nobody ever turned round to him and asked: "Didn't you have a go at this before?"

If it was the case that the team was forbidden to make any mention of a stylus in the iPhone's development or - the horror - handwriting recognition because of Apple's legacy, then corporate vanity will have played a part in turning a promising, good-looking device into an expensive but dispensable toy. Image was more important than usability - the iPhone's vaunted selling point.

The iPod user interface works with just a couple of buttons - easily replicated on a touchscreen - because you never need to put anything into it. Nothing is more than a couple of clicks and scrolls away. It would be a total pain if I actually wanted to edit a track name or a few contact details.

If I'm typing, I like to be able to see what's actually going to appear. A touch-keyboard designed for fingers is going to consume most of the iPhone's screen, even just using the multipurpose numeric keys of a standard handset. Having most of the screen taken up by a virtual keyboard works for satellite-navigation systems as you only have to enter one or two lines of an address. It isn't going to fly for anything but the shortest text message or email.

As an iPod that can make calls and surf the web a bit, the iPhone design looks good. Very good. It at least cuts the number of bits of hardware you have to tout around. Then again, the 8Gbyte Nano is barely noticeable in a pocket. For the equivalent of £300 plus a lengthy mobile-phone contract, I'd be happier with something that was going to be usable for writing and emailing on the move.

I would certainly be happier if a handheld computer was based on a variant of Apple's OS X than the current offerings out there. For too long, the sales pitch has been on adding more and more features to handhelds at the expense of usability. Not only are the features hard to use, they rarely work as advertised.

I ended up ditching a Palm LifeDrive and replacing it with a Windows Mobile-based HP Ipaq because the Palm software was so, so bad. A web browser that is barely able to handle ordinary websites was just the beginning. Then there was a WiFi implementation so rubbish that the free network at MIT sent the device into a reboot panic. But the real pain was that Palm changed Graffiti, its handwriting system, to make life easier for new users. Anyone who had learned the old system found that not only were those gestures no longer worked but that the new system was slower and less reliable.

It is a testament to Microsoft's doggedness at plugging away at something until it finally begins to work that the Ipaq turns out to be a far better machine and, ironically, has a handwriting mode that works better for Graffiti users than Palm's replacement.

Even so, the Ipaq is hardly convenient to use. Just getting it to connect to a WiFi network initially seemed to involve an incredible number of settings, all in highly obscure places. Then there is the small matter of having to run the setup software under emulation on a Mac - a little reminder of how corporate vanity conspires against computer companies' desires to make money. However, the Ipaq's little foibles have nothing to do with its use of a stylus.

It is possible that the iPhone has types of gesture recognition that goes some way to avoiding the problems of using a big virtual keypad - we just haven't seen them yet - but the user interface is at odds with the positioning. In an ebook reader or an iPod that makes calls, that multi-fingered interface would be a real winner - but those would be much cheaper devices.

In short, don't expect the iPhone to be a runaway best-seller.


"In short, don't expect the iPhone to be a runaway best-seller."



But people with pudgy fingers keep complaining about the text entry. Having said that, I underestimated fashion's role in driving sales. A long way. A long, long way. Lesson learned.