In the first iChallengers column I warned that I’d point out both the failures AND the successes of other companies and other phones. I’m doing a bit of both this week, as I examine another of the cornerstones of the iPhone success story, and how other companies are making it their own: user interface.
So, what is UI?
The first few of these columns will examine the pillars of the iPhone, the aspects of the phone and system that supports it which make it what it is…all from the point of view of how competitors are doing trying to match it. And make no mistake, everyone wants to cash in on Apple’s success in the phone market. Just as the iTunes app store is head and shoulders above the competition, so is its famed UI – user interface. Bear with me, I know a lot of this is common knowledge, but it bears repeating.
For the purposes of this column I’m lumping together the touchscreen aspect of the iphone with the user interface, since both were designed to create the experience iPhone/Touch users know and love…and so do Apple’s many competitors, whether they admit it or not. The iphone UI was unique when it debuted, in its use of touchscreen and use of multitouch and ‘gestures’. Where other phones had touchscreens with ‘soft buttons’ -areas of the screen you could press to initiate a function, as you would when you click a mouse on a monitor- the iphone allowed users a new way of working, letting them push and pull, expand and contract virtual objects on their phones, using motions similar to ones used to manipulate real objects.
This method of interfacing with a phone cleverly minimized the effort users expend to provide input, and the familiar gestures reduced the learning time needed to squeeze the most out of the phone. And here again, just as with the iTunes app store we talked about last week, imitation has proving the sincerest form of flattery. As in: there’s money to be made walking in iPhone’s developer’s footsteps. Palm and Google have created their current operating system in the era of the iPhone and have incorporated similar UI techniques, Google also has the honor of possessing the first capacitive screen on a non-iPhone device (more on screen differences later) albeit without multi-touch, while the not-yet-selling Pre will have match iPhone for capacitive touchscreen and supposedly also for it’s UI. I’m a big believer in competition spurring innovation and can’t wait to see how Palm does.
What is most interesting are Symbian and Microsoft’s course corrections to jump on the touchscreen/UI bandwagon. More precisely, both Symbian -driven by their majority holder Nokia- and phone manufacturer HTC -for their Microsoft Windows Mobile smartphones- have created relatively successful challengers to the UI of both those platforms. I’m willing to bet that when Windows Mobile 7 premieres we’ll see a lot of HTC’s innovations are incorporated. For my money, the only competitor even close to the iPhone UI is the HTC Touch family, which uses a custom-designed ‘TouchFLO’ interface that sits on top of Windows Mobile. A distant third that deserves mention is the Nokia 5800, aka ‘Xpress Music’, aka ‘Tube’ (Nokia really needs to come up with a better name). Let’s take a look at how these two do imitating the iPhone touchscreen experience.
While Symbian’s redesigned its OS to be touchscreen capable, it’s not as effective as the iPhone interface. Many native Symbian apps still act like the non-touchscreen apps they were ported from. One example of this is the need to double-tap.
Say you want to select a contact: you have to tap once to select, and again to open that contact. This two-step process likely results from tweaking their OS from the days you needed two hardware interfaces to reach a contact: the D-pad to scroll to a particular contact and a button to click to enter that contact. The end result is that double-taps slows you down, a lot, and detract from the illusion you are manipulating a real object.
HTC’s touchFLO 3D is it’s 2nd touchscreen implementation. To me it seems more successful that the symbian take, with bigger icons and a nice animations in many screens (kind of like cover flow in iTunes) but the touchFLO 3D UI is not consistent-or even present- in every application. Whether you think it’s a strength or a weakness of Windows Mobile, you need to tweak a lot of settings to get the most out of a Microsoft smartphone. And, while you can swipe through many commonly used screens with your finger, aany 3rd party apps you might download, and even some native functions, require you to drop back into the old Windows Mobile interface. That means it’s back to tiny menus that send you digging for a stylus.
The TouchFlO 3D interface is also proprietary: HTC won’t release an API to let 3rd party software enjoy the look and functionality which fractures the experience even more.
Screen differences affecting UI
Currently both Symbian and HTC utilize TFT screens. Thin Film Transistors which register input when you exert enough pressure to make the films touch. This makes a stylus necessary, and a finger inaccurate, where iPhone/Touch capacitive screens use electricity from your finger to register an input with no pressure at all — and that’s the secret sauce behind making a really effective multi-touch capable phone.
To their credit, HTC has really reduced the pressure needed to get the screens to touch, but it’s still no substitute for a capacitive screen. I’ll wager we’ll see capacitive screen tech on the next version of Windows Mobile too. But these iChallengers are catching up. As I mentioned before, the Palm Pre will ship with similar touchscreen and UI to the iPhone, and Symbian is already prototyping capacitive screens, and I doubt Microsoft and their star manufacturer HTC are far behind. Until that jump is made however, the iPhone is the only game in town that offers simple, universal manipulation with just the swipe of a finger.
Though I’m still calling iPhone well in the lead on UI design, this doesn’t mean Apple can rest on their laurels: keep your eyes on Palm, they’re gods in the smartphone world regardless of their detractors, and HTC are proving to be wizards at making Windows handhelds simpler to navigate and more enjoyable to use. And so ends another iChallengers column, examining the phones most likely to sway prospective buyers and upgraders from the iPhone from the screen perspective. I think iPhone users can rest happy in their purchase, knowing they’ve got the happiest fingers in the industry. Today, at least.