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Direct Manipulation

The iPhone didn't bring touch screens, gestures or a great internet experience to phones. The iPhone brought the idea of "direct manipulation".

Most mobile phone platforms are list and menu driven. Items are presented in a list and then you're offered a menu (yet another list) of actions you can perform on these items. This is confusing because the action may be performed on any of the following:
  • The selected item
  • The list as a whole
  • The application itself
  • ...act as navigation, leaving the menu or the list or the application
  • ...or it might add a new item to the list
There is no real way of knowing what is going to happen when most labels are under 20 characters with little explanation. To put this in context, if you select a contact on one of the latest builds of S60, you get TWENTY-NINE different menu items. Some of these include "Print". When's the last time you printed from your phone? Hell, when was the first time you printed from a phone? Yeah.

When people ask me if I like my iPhone, I always say "What it does, it does very well." Apple took a different approach. You won't see long menus offering actions you may never need and you won't even see some key applications like MMS and video recording. Instead, you have direct access to the content. Think of this in three applications:
  • Google Maps: You drag the map to scroll around, pinch and expand to zoom out and in, click on pushpins to start up driving directions. You also don't get a huge menu of things to do for each item, just a small list of actions at the bottom of the detail pane.
  • Safari: Double tap an area to zoom into it, double tap the same area to zoom out, the URL bar hides once a page is loaded, only a small toolbar is exposed at the bottom
  • iPod: No file management, just different ways of looking at your media collection, use of CoverFlow to see all albums
You can do "less" in comparison to S60, but you can do just about anything you'd really want to do:
  • Call
  • Email
  • View their homepage
  • Open Maps to their address
  • Text Message
  • Edit details
  • Add to favorites
It's more natural to click on an email address than to have to focus on a contact name, hit a softkey, scroll through a menu and then click "Email".

Another reason why the interface feels so natural is the speed. Unless I'm doing something silly like running Safari with 5 tabs and trying to get directions at the same time, the interface is snappy. Every application is fast when running. The only slowdowns I ever see are switching applications, which is almost to be expected on a mobile phone.

Navigation is still not as smooth as I'd like. You have the Abort button (AKA Home) and most applications have "Back" buttons built into their upper tool bars. This doesn't feel natural, so improvements can be made there. I have a few ideas, but nothing for public consumption yet.