Upward Mobility

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

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

She is byno means alone. For many, the cell phone is mostly a tool for texting.Daniel Gloyd of Gist Design, who was formerly a manager of userinterface design for Samsung’s L.A. Design Lab, confirms this.“Use of SMS has increased around 160 percent from lastyear—that, in spite of a 100 percent increase in the cost ofsending those messages,” he says. “Looking at the majordevelopments in cell phone user interfaces over the past few years, yousee the emphasis on text messaging. There are dozens of alphabet keypadlayouts, form factors, and input technologies, all aimed at gettingusers to text more easily, more quickly, and more often.” Speakingas a parent, that’s not good news. But speaking as an interfacedesigner whose business is getting more mobile product inquiries, it iscertainly very good to know.

Where does all that texting leave theiPhone? The obvious answer lies in all the rich applications it nowoffers. We’re not talking about simple contact information storageor crude WAP (wireless application protocol) browserinterfaces—we’re talking about doing things that once wereavailable only on your desktop computer. Gloyd himself notes that one ofthe most important new developments for cell phones is “openinterfaces that allow third-party developers to provide applications andcontent.” The iPhone’s SDK (software development kit) andits new App Store has many developers excited; they are building a largenumber of successful mobile applications that weren’t possibleeven just last year. And with the introduction of Google’sAndroid, an operating system that gives designers the tools to makeprograms for mobile devices, more possibilities will open up in themarket for designers of all types of technology products.

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

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

However, while Google has often been given credit for the robusttechnology under the hood, this time around the company has been gettinga lot of deserved criticism for Android’s inconsistent interfaceand behaviors, especially when compared with the standards set by theiPhone. As with all things Google and open source, it may take a fewiterations to make something that’s truly ready for themasses.

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