Upward Mobility


My 17-year-old daughter,
Alexa, is a typical tech-savvy teenager: When I walk into the living
room after a long day at the studio, I’ll find her sitting on the
couch with the television on, usually playing a TiVo’d episode of
Gossip Girl, with her iBook open, Facebook loaded into a browser,
and AIM running with multiple chat windows up—all while
she’s texting her friends on her Samsung phone.

This past
summer, I thought it was about time I joined the revolution and got
myself an iPhone 3G. I offered Alexa the option of upgrading her
Samsung, thinking she would jump at the chance. But as soon as I
mentioned it, the first thing out of her mouth was, “I don’t
like the iPhone.” I was more than a little shocked. I thought I
had done everything right as a parent with an obvious Apple bias: I had
bought her an iBook, got her up and running with iTunes and an iPod. And
yet now she blasphemes! But she had a simple reason for being
anti-iPhone: she doesn’t like the touch keypad. She’s one of
those thumbers who can fly across a mobile phone’s keys, typing
out truncated thoughts that make complete sense to her and her friends.
The iPhone’s on-screen keyboard would cramp her style.

She is by
no means alone. For many, the cell phone is mostly a tool for texting.
Daniel Gloyd of Gist Design, who was formerly a manager of user
interface design for Samsung’s L.A. Design Lab, confirms this.
“Use of SMS has increased around 160 percent from last
year—that, in spite of a 100 percent increase in the cost of
sending those messages,” he says. “Looking at the major
developments in cell phone user interfaces over the past few years, you
see the emphasis on text messaging. There are dozens of alphabet keypad
layouts, form factors, and input technologies, all aimed at getting
users to text more easily, more quickly, and more often.” Speaking
as a parent, that’s not good news. But speaking as an interface
designer whose business is getting more mobile product inquiries, it is
certainly very good to know.

Where does all that texting leave the
iPhone? The obvious answer lies in all the rich applications it now
offers. We’re not talking about simple contact information storage
or crude WAP (wireless application protocol) browser
interfaces—we’re talking about doing things that once were
available only on your desktop computer. Gloyd himself notes that one of
the most important new developments for cell phones is “open
interfaces that allow third-party developers to provide applications and
content.” The iPhone’s SDK (software development kit) and
its new App Store has many developers excited; they are building a large
number of successful mobile applications that weren’t possible
even just last year. And with the introduction of Google’s
Android, an operating system that gives designers the tools to make
programs for mobile devices, more possibilities will open up in the
market for designers of all types of technology products.

Meanwhile,
the latest iPhone App Store offers hundreds of free and pay products
that break new ground for mobile applications, from a variety of simple
apps that turn your iPhone into a flashlight for emergency use, to my
favorite recent discovery, iDrums, which gives me full control to turn
my iPhone into a modern beat box. Using nothing but my fingers, I can
add and adjust beats, control repetition, volume, and voice, miking and
combining tracks that are professional grade. All of these new iPhone
applications, even the bad ones, make good use of the phone’s
vibrant color display and touch interface, while the really good
apps take full advantage of GPS location services or iPhone’s
on-board accelerometer (the feature that switches the display’s
orientation from vertical to horizontal as you turn the phone). Even the
games are better: Once you play Labyrinth on an iPhone, you’ll
wonder how you ever tolerated all those basic games of Snake on your
cell. Gloyd makes a salient point here: “When applications look
complicated, the mind-set of the user is immediately less tolerant, less
flexible, and less forgiving. However, when the product interface looks
simple and beautiful, or if it delights the user unexpectedly,
complexity is tolerated and users are more likely to recover from errors
and see tasks through to completion.” The majority of the
iPhone’s applications can be counted on to look great and delight
in unexpected ways.

While the iPhone has upped the ante on the quality
of what should be expected by customers using mobile applications,
it’s unfortunate that Apple is notoriously closed-minded about
what gets built, and how, for its products. One of the largest pain
points for mobile tech in recent years has been the discrepancy in
features and functionality across mobile-phone operating systems. It may
be up to Google to open the floodgates with Android. Out of the box,
Android promises to break open the mobile market to developers wanting
to build applications for a broader set of cell phones by taking an
open-source approach to mobile platforms. Given the number of developers
writing various pieces of shared code, it appears Android will certainly
make it easier for developers to write applications in the long run.

However, while Google has often been given credit for the robust
technology under the hood, this time around the company has been getting
a lot of deserved criticism for Android’s inconsistent interface
and behaviors, especially when compared with the standards set by the
iPhone. As with all things Google and open source, it may take a few
iterations to make something that’s truly ready for the
masses.

Still, make no mistake: Advances in mobile technology are now
at the stage where everything changes. It happened with personal
computing in the mid-1980s, desktop publishing in the early 1990s, the
internet and browsers in the late ’90s, and digital photography in
the early part of the new century. Now, it’s mobile tech’s
turn. Whether you’re using your phone to mix drums or to text your
friends about what Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair did last
night, the fun has only just begun.

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