FCC Okays iPhone, but UI Hurdles Remain

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A stealth threat to the future of mobile communications is potential limitations imposed by antiquated user interfaces. The bottom line is pretty simple: If smartphone designers don't devise new ways to enable people to do what they want with the phone in more intuitive and less arthritis-inducing ways, most people are less likely to use the features. The result may be a world of advanced devices that people use mainly to just make phone calls.


Several items passed our desk this week that touch on this topic. On the more mundane level, Apple received Federal Communications Commission approval to sell the iPhone. The device, which is slated to go on sale next month, is the highest profile of a generation of devices that rely on innovative user interfaces.


More interesting is this MIT Technology Review piece that profiles Fastap, a system developed by ex-Apple ergonomic designer David Levy. (Actually, just about anything is more interesting than an FCC ruling.) Fastap does away with the current keypad arrangement, usable only by people under the age of 25, in which three or four letters are co-located with numbers on keys. Levy's approach is to alternate discrete number and letter keys throughout the keypad. The letter keys are raised, which enables users to more easily distinguish between them and numbers.


The system squeezes a lot of keys into a small space, and algorithms in the software predict what the user probably was trying to do when he or she accidentally hits two keys at once. The technology has been sold to Telus in Canada and Alltel in the U.S.


The company that will succeed in the future won't necessarily be the one that dreams up the most advanced applications. It will be the one that successfully marries advanced applications to the simplest and most elegant user interfaces. This is pretty complex material, as shown by this interesting and esoteric essay by Bill Higgins. His point is that designers get into trouble when they try to use the interface as a way of making one application look like another. One example Higgins gave (and the only one we understood) concerned Microsoft's Active Desktop. The company, Higgins says, tried to use to make Windows applications look like Web pages when the Internet exploded. The effort was a failure.


Though Higgins doesn't discuss mobility, the danger to which he refers is particularly relevant in this realm. Software companies, and the business customers for whom they write, seek to push increasingly complex applications onto mobile devices. From a design point of view, this isn't a huge problem when the recipient is carrying a laptop. But it's a big deal as smartphones permeate the market.


The challenge will be to create mobile versions of customer relationship management, sales force automation (CRM and SFA) and other complex software packages. Keypads with discrete letters are a good start, but it seems like the big challenges still are ahead.