Little iPhone UI details — October 12, 2010

Little iPhone UI details

(__Attention conservation notice__: 800 words documenting the near-perfection of the iPhone user interface. Plus a small suggestion for how they could improve it still more.)

Things the iPhone does that I’ve not seen anyone else do:

* There’s a ‘.com’ button when you’re typing in a field that accepts domain names (like an email-address field, for instance). I only realized recently that you can press and hold the .com button to get .net, .edu, .org, and .us.

* It gets cooler. Add an international keyboard (Settings -> General -> Keyboard -> International Keyboards -> Add New Keyboard…), then go back to an URL field (like in Safari, say). Suppose you added an Arabic keyboard. Now look at what the .com button has: top-level domains for Arabic countries, like .ae. Similar things happen if you add French keyboards, etc.

* Spell-check will not flag words if those words are in your address book. It does better than just not flagging them, actually: if you type a friend’s name in lowercase, it’ll correct the case for you.

* Probably most every iPhone/Touch user has noticed by now that you can go into the Maps application and start typing the name of someone in your contacts for whom you have a physical address; the Maps app will offer you any matching physical addresses.

You’d expect — or at least, *I’d* expect — Google to get this right, too. After all, when you’re signed into your Google account, Google knows about your contacts; it should be easy enough to carry that contact information over into Google Maps. But they don’t.

* This next one is easier to describe by example. I have a friend, Chris Rugen, whom I’ve jokingly put into my iPhone contacts as “Chris Rügen”; my iPhone contacts sync with Google. In the iPhone, if I start typing “rug”, it offers up “Rügen” as a completion — even though the “u” that I typed has no umlaut over it.

I’ve found no other system that does the completion this intelligently. Thunderbird doesn’t. Google itself doesn’t, either: searching within my Gmail contacts for “rugen” doesn’t return the accented contact. In either Thunderbird or Google, I need to start typing Chris’s actual email address — which contains no accent, of course — in order for them to find Chris.

These are all just little things, but that’s *exactly* what makes the iPhone what it is: nearly all the little things are done perfectly. You get a sense of calm when you play with an iPhone (and “play,” by the way, is exactly the right verb), because nothing is out of line with what it should be. Computers have a habit of steadily accumulating frustrations; the iPhone does not.

One thing the iPhone does need to do differently is related to the Archive button in the email client, which only arrived in one of the new iOS releases (I want to say 4.0). If you have a Gmail account, the Archive button will do the same thing on the phone that the Archive button does on Gmail’s website. That’s great. But there’s no Archive operation available for non-Gmail accounts. Worse, the Archive button gets replaced with a delete button for non-Gmail accounts. So if you’re used to archiving messages by tapping the leftmost button, muscle memory alone will often make you delete messages accidentally. This gets especially to be a problem now that iOS 4 does a single combined universal inbox: you don’t know which account a given message is coming from (could be Gmail, could be not), so the very same inbox view can sometimes make that button do archival, sometimes do deletion. It’s a dangerous combination. (Though not too dangerous: you can always retrieve the deleted message from the Trash, if you notice soon enough that you deleted rather than archived.)

What’s odd is that fixing this to work with all account types wouldn’t be that hard, unless I’m missing something. Right now you can configure which folders on your remote server will be used for drafts, sent mail, and deleted messages: go to Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars -> [account name] -> Account Info -> Advanced and look under Mailbox Behaviors. If the folders you’ve specified don’t exist, I believe the iPhone mail client will create them. It would be easy enough to add an ‘Archives Mailbox’ item under there.

I can see a reason why they might not do this. Gmail’s archives folder is called ‘All Mail’ on the server side, so a sensible default name for the archives folder would be ‘All Mail’. But on a non-Gmail account — IMAP, say, or Exchange — maybe that name would be confusing. Maybe on those sorts of accounts, it would be smarter to call the folder ‘Archives’. But then you’ve got an inconsistency between the name of the archives folder on different types of server; that may confuse users.

Unified messaging on the iPhone (or anywhere, really) — September 22, 2010

Unified messaging on the iPhone (or anywhere, really)

Know what would be really handy? To include all your friends’ and acquaintances’ contact info — including Twitter handles, Facebook profiles, phone numbers, email addresses, RSS feeds, [foreign: und so weiter] in some global address book (like the nice Gmail contacts list, which you can sync with a mobile device, and which I sync quite happily with the iPhone), then gather together all those items and make them on the device. Quite often a conversation starts via text message, moves over to email, maybe ends up in a voice chat, turns into a blog post, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if the device could record your voice chats, or at least transcribe them?

Barring that, just being able to search text messages at the same time as you search emails would be a big win. Didn’t BitPim do this?

In defense of AT&T — June 22, 2010

In defense of AT&T

People love to bust on AT&T, but I have to say that I have no — zero — complaints about them:

* __Reception__: AT&T’s reception has been better than it ever was when I was on Verizon. I can make calls from inside my girlfriend’s house in New Hampshire, and from inside my parents’ house in Vermont; on Verizon, I always had to step outside in both those places. And AT&T doesn’t even have service in Vermont! Needless to say, their reception in Boston is just fine. I’ve had some problems in the immediate vicinity of my workplace in Kendall Square; I believe that’s because the volume of electronic equipment there is over the top and causes lots of electromagnetic interference. I’ve had some problems with their reception in New York City. (NYC people: has AT&T gotten any better there?)

* __Their online store__: People were bitching and moaning about being unable to buy an iPhone 4 because AT&T’s website got slammed. I had no such problem. I ordered an iPhone from them on the day it became available, and was notified today that it’s shipped. (By the way: is “I’m going to have to wait a few days to order my several-hundred-dollar pocket computer, *and I am pissed*” the definition of “first-world problem”?)

* __Customer service__: Verizon’s customer service was always great, and they always tried to find me the plan that fit my needs. AT&T has done the same. (Bank of America’s customer service is also stellar. I guess I’m supposed to hate BofA too, but I don’t.)

Others may have had worse luck, but I kind of wonder if people just like getting mad at big companies.

iPhone 4 FaceTime/Infinite Jest mashup — June 7, 2010

iPhone 4 FaceTime/Infinite Jest mashup

Apple’s introduction of FaceTime, their videophone protocol in the forthcoming iPhone 4, reminds me of this great passage in David Foster Wallace’s [book: Infinite Jest]:

> (1) It turned out there there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion – it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation – utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes – let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet – and this was the retrospectively marvelous part – even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. During a traiditional call, e.g., as you let’s say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line’s other end’s voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed and focused … even though your own attention was *not*, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.

This is only the beginning of a several-pages-long discussion of why videophones (from the future-retrospective stance) failed. People notice first that they look really gross on camera. Then they get self-conscious, so they wear masks when they’re on their videophones. This makes them terrified to meet people in real life, because those people will discover that they’ve been lied to during their videophone chats. So people stay indoors. There are a few other steps in there that I forget (and Google Books is no help), but the end result is that society eventually makes one big coordinated move to drop its videophones.

(You really need to read [book: Infinite Jest]. It’s one of those books that everyone knows about but few read. You should be one of the few to read it. I reviewed it on Amazon back in 2001.)

By the way: I’ve been considering switching to any of the new Android phones when my AT&T contract expires in August, but the new iPhone seals the deal for Apple.

The iPhone is not on the side of the angels — May 24, 2010

The iPhone is not on the side of the angels

One of the very infuriating things about reading Jon Gruber is his constant “Apple rocks, open-source sucks” mantra. If you didn’t know that constant refrain, it might seem as though he links to “open is for losers” without comment; knowing Gruber, you know that he’s either doing it approvingly, or as a stick in the eye of his non-Apple-fanboy readership. He’s, honestly, a dick like that.

Paul Graham says in the linked piece that “Of course [he would invest in] iPhone. Im talking about what I hope will set us free, not what will generate opportunities.” This is a perfectly sound point, and doesn’t take away from the fact that *the iPhone is an anti-freedom device.* I say this as a happy iPhone owner. Or rather, I say it as a *conflicted* iPhone owner: I realize that by using this device, I am harming the cause of freedom. But it’s also a spectacular piece of consumer technology.

The open-source movement has always treated software as speech: if it’s not free, it doesn’t matter how good it is. If all the books that you could read had to be personally vetted by Barack Obama, you’d never stand for it. Open-source advocates feel the same way about software that needs to pass through a censor first to make sure it doesn’t conflict with what Apple is trying to sell.

That said, I used Linux exclusively for years, and no longer use it as my everyday computing environment; I use a Mac. Macs and iPhones are designed with a level of polish that you don’t appreciate until you suddenly realize that your computing experience has been painless for the first time in decades — that everything works as it should, and that you’re actually giddy at your ability to experiment without fear.

So I’m conflicted. And I’m not going to take the (as it has always seemed to me) lazy way out and say “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I think one is actually obligated to bring one’s life into harmony with one’s principles, so long as one has principles. I’m the first to admit that I suck at doing this. But it’s a conflict, and it’s an *obvious* conflict: I believe in free speech, I believe that regulated speech is not speech worth having, and it’s obvious that Apple peddles regulated speech. Yet they make operating systems that are head and shoulders above everyone else’s, despite the fact that they’ve been *sitting out there*, just *begging* for someone to make a comparable interface. No one has. Surely Apple deserves to be rewarded for making the best product.

When my iPhone contract expires in September or October, I am seriously considering switching to an Android phone of some sort. Maybe an HTC Incredible, maybe a Nexus One, maybe something else. Before I do that, I will probably pick up an Android device purely for development purposes. It may turn out that I love Android devices, and the contradiction in my life melts away. I hope so, because in the meantime it is uncomfortable.