iPhone - It's the user interface

I finally got around to buying an iPhone 3G about a month ago. I thought about
writing a review but didn’t because there is not exactly a shortage of iPhone
reviews out there. However, I do feel that one of the central lessons of the
iPhone’s success has not been learnt by Apple’s competitors.

When the iPhone was first launched there were people queuing up to announce
that it would be a flop because:

  • it was over priced
  • it didn’t have 3G
  • it didn’t have GPS
  • other phones had better cameras
  • etc

Basically you could sum most of the arguments up as “my
Nokia/Motorola/Blackberry does all this and more and was cheaper.” The now
obvious rejoinder is “yes, but you don’t use most of those features because
the user interface sucks.”

Many other people have pointed out the problems with comparing lists of
features. The most important feature “a user interface that does not suck”
never appears on iPhone detractors lists of features.

Once it became obvious that the iPhone was a success you might naively have
thought that other manufacturers would pick up on this but they didn’t really.
Instead we got a spate of phones with touch sensitive screens such as the
Blackberry Storm and the Samsung Tocco. I’ve never used a Blackberry Storm so
I won’t say any more except that I’ve yet to read a positive review of it.
Anyway, you can see the thought process going on chez Samsung et al
“multitouch screen equals success; therefore we must build a multitouch

Now I would like to contend that a multitouch screen is not necessarily
essential. Imagine for a moment that Apple had not gifted the iPhone with a
multitouch screen. It might be very little like the iPhone we know but, and
here’s the important point : would Apple have thought any less about the user
experience? No, of course not. I think it’s possible to conceive of Apple
producing a great phone without multitouch because they would focus just as
hard on producing a “user interface that does not suck.” That is the lesson
that other phone manufacturers should have learned instead they were
distracted by the shiny new technology.

On Friday, I had the chance to use a Samsung Tocco when the husband of one of
my colleagues asked me how to turn of the annoying key sound. Now, a key click
does not sound like a bad idea - lots of devices have this, including the
iPhone. Now imagine a key sound [2] that is:

  • an annoying jingle,
  • long in duration (I didn’t time it but it seemed like a second at least),
  • LOUD,
  • accompanied by aggressive use of the phone’s vibrator,
  • not obviously disabled.
  • happens every time you touch a key on the phone.

Does this sound like a good user experience to you? Does it seem like a
sensible default. The poor guy was so desperate that he would put the phone
into silent mode when he wanted to do something because it was the only way
he’d found to get rid of the key sound. Now, we did manage to sort this out
but only after googling. You see there are phone settings that are easily
accessible but they don’t give you the option of turning of the key sound -
instead there is an unlabelled button next to each phone profile which
contains more settings and once you’ve pressed that button, and selected the
right sub-menu you can turn the volume down and make the phone usable.

Now, while I was messing about with the Tocco trying to turn off the key sound
I necessarily got to see a bit of it’s user interface. The Tocco has both a
keypad and a touch screen and they’ve copied some of the iPhone’s user
interface gestures such as the “flick to scroll.” However, rather than
learning the real lesson of the iPhone’s success they’ve just attached these
new features to the existing krappy interface and stirred some dumb defaults
(ie truly obnoxious key sound) into the mix to produce truly awesome levels of

Based on my experience with the Tocco I would say that Apple’s biggest concern
with the iPhone should be not shooting itself in the foot and sorting out the
lunacy that is the app store approvals process.

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