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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.